Actor Ryan Lee discusses his role of Carey in Super 8, working with J.J. Abrams, his secretive auditions, and much more.
14-year-old actor Ryan Lee has only been acting professionally for five years, although he is likely to get a big career push in the coming weeks. While he appeared in a number of short films, and the full-length feature Shorts, he stars as Carey in the highly-anticipated J.J. Abrams adventure Super 8, which arrives in theaters nationwide on June 10. Ryan Lee plays Carey in Super 8, one of a group of friends who make home movies with their Super 8 camera, when they capture a horrific train crash who ultimately leads to mysterious events unfolding in their sleepy town.
I recently had the chance to speak with Ryan Lee over the phone for this summer adventure. Here's what he had to say.
I know J.J. is very secretive about his projects. I was curious what you were actually told about this project when you were going in for this?
Ryan Lee: At first, it wasn't even Super 8. It was called Darlings, I think. If you've ever heard of Little Darlings, I was like, 'Wait, what part am I going to be?' So, what happened was, the first script was about me and this other girl fighting about math homework, which has nothing to do with Super 8, but he could get a feel for us. Once I started getting called back, I think it was the third callback I went to, J.J. was there. We knew it wasn't going to be Little Darlings, but we still didn't really know. We had to sign all these confidentiality agreements that I had to send back home to my family. It was really secretive and really a cool feeling. Once I got the part, it was maybe six months after the first audition about me and this girl fighting over math homework, that J.J. told me I had the part, and that it was Super 8. I was trying to keep calm, but once I got to the hotel, it just unleashed.
That's cool he had a whole separate story to audition with. Was it an actual whole script?
Ryan Lee: Oh, no. It was just a couple of pages. Just to see how we could get all of our emotions out, and what we could do. J.J. has always been one of my favorite directors. I didn't know he was even going to be there. That's how secretive he is. One of my friends was in the room and she said, "Oh, J.J. is late.' I said, 'Who is J.J.?' Her mouth dropped and I said J.J. Abrams?' I played it off cool, but it was like a minute before my audition. I think that's the only audition I've ever been nervous for in my life. I don't get nervous for auditions, but that one was nerve-wracking. After that audition though, you almost felt like you were best friends with him. He was very inviting and very cool.
You get to play the comic relief, the funny kid and a pyromaniac. That sounds like the perfect role for a kid your age.
Ryan Lee: (Laughs) Yeah. It's like every kid's dream to blow things up, and then to do it in a movie in front of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. It was kind of a dream come true.
As yourself, are you considered the funny guy in your group of friends?
Ryan Lee: Yeah, yeah. I'm really like my character. I love to blow stuff up with fireworks, but I'm not quite as crazy as he is. I don't go full-out like that, but on the 4th of July, yeah. I love to make people laugh and just go with the flow. I'm a lot like my character, but not in all ways.
Super 8 is set in 1979, before you were born. Was it fun to step into this time frame?
Ryan Lee: Yeah. You always hear stories about the 70s. The first time I got on set, the set dresser and costume people were just amazing. I literally put the clothes on and I felt like I was instantly there. I think it was a really cool time, because things were a lot simpler, you know? I kind of wish I could experience it more.
Did J.J. tell you a lot of stories about growing up in that time period, and making his own Super 8 movies?
Ryan Lee: Yeah. He didn't tell us much about the 70s, but he told us a lot about some of the Super 8 movies he did. I wouldn't quote me on this one, but I think he said one of them was a superhero and he got these electric powers or something. It was funny.
When you got the role, did you have a lot of time to get together with the other cast members like Elle (Fanning) and Joel (Courtney)? Did you have time to hang out and get a rhythm together?
Ryan Lee: Yeah. Throughout the audition process, we would be there for six hours a day, and we probably went back like five or six times. Elle was there the last time, Joel was there the last time, everybody was there and we got to get together and know each other. Riley (Griffiths) and I were talking the other day and we said, 'You guys are literally like my best friends. Even though we haven't known each other for very long, we actually have.' I mean, I haven't spent 63 days with one of my friends in Texas, you know. I spent every single day with them and we know everything about each other. It's pretty cool.
With the movies that your characters shoot, it sounds like that could be some cool bonus material for the DVD.
Ryan Lee: That's an awesome idea.
Can you talk about working with J.J. as a director, and what really sets him apart from others you have worked with?
Ryan Lee: He never yells. That's like an art. How do you work with six kids every day and not yell at them and strangle them? He's so funny. He's amazing at what he does and, at times, you would look at the script and just go, 'You have to trust J.J., you have to trust him.' Like I said, 'How are they going to pull this train crash off?' When I saw it, I was jumping out of my chair, and our hearts were racing. That's just the kind of director he is. He's really hands-on, he never gets mad, and he always cracks jokes. He's just like one of the kids. He would never let us get over-worked, because he knows that once we get over-worked, we'll just do worse and worse. He'll start making jokes and make us laugh, then once we're smiling, we'll get the next take done. It's amazing how he worked with us.
Is there a favorite memory from the set that will always stick with you, or a favorite scene that you shot?
Ryan Lee: Yeah, I have a couple of them. One was I had my birthday on set, and it was a really late night and they still made time for me. He said, 'Everybody stop, we have something more important to do.' Everyone started singing Happy Birthday and this huge cake came rolling down (Laughs). It was really cool. One of my favorite scenes was we were running away from the train crash and getting into a car. We had a driver in the car who was supposed to be Elle. We were going like 60 miles per hour in reverse and then 120 in forward. I've never gone that fast and it was really fun. Another one, where we all rehearsed because all of the actors are in it, is this diner scene. The six of us are sitting at this table and we're all talking back and forth, making fun of each other in a friendly way. It was really good writing and good acting at the same time. I really loved it.
After working on a project like this with J.J. and hearing all his stories, does that inspire maybe a filmmaking side in you that you may want to try in the future?
Ryan Lee: Yeah. It was really fun to watch him do that. When I grow up I either want to be an actor or a director. I would just love to learn his ways.
You have another movie coming out called The Legend of Hell's Gate: An American Conspiracy. Is there anything you can say about that, or the character you play in that?
Ryan Lee: Yeah, yeah. I had a small part in that, but it's a really, really cool movie. It's about Possum Kingdom Lake, how Hell's Gate got it's name, basically. I play a kid who stumbles upon a tracker, who is trying to track these criminals down. He's like seven feet tall.
I also talked to director Chris Fisher recently and I believe you're in his new movie Meeting Evil. It has a really cool cast as well.
Ryan Lee: Yeah. I played a part where I got to put a gun to Samuel L. Jackson's head. It was really intimidating at first, but it was really fun.
Not many people can say that, especially with Samuel L. Jackson.
Ryan Lee: Yeah, I know.
Just to wrap up, there is a ton of buzz around Super 8 right now. What would you like to say to anyone who might be on the fence about the movie, about why they should check it out on June 10?
Ryan Lee: There are three reasons why you should check it out. One small reason is the train crash scene. What they did got us to jump out of our seats. The second reason would have to be the music. I listened to it the other day, and it made you feel like you were right there. Last is the special effects. The effects are pretty cool.
Nice. I actually talked to the composer, Michael Giacchino a few months back. He was just raving about the movie, and he's a wonderful composer.
Ryan Lee: Yeah. Last week they were scoring it, when I was there. I heard it from across the hall and it was really cool.
Well, that's all I have for you, Ryan. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with the movie, and your other projects.
Ryan Lee: Thank you so much.
You can watch Ryan Lee as the comedic pyromaniac Carey in J.J. Abrams' summer adventure Super 8, which arrives in theaters across the country on June 10.