By JESSICA HERNDON
LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES (AP) — When working with spirited child actors, directors often keep a few tricks up their sleeves.
For George Tillman Jr., directing 14-year-old Skylan Brooks and 11-year-old Ethan Dizon, the stars of the new coming-of-age drama “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” meant encouraging them to match young Quvenzhane Wallis’ Oscar-nominated performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“I told them that is how good I wanted them to be,” said Tillman in a recent interview. “That was the standard and they really met it head-on.”
Starring alongside Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright and Jordin Sparks, the young actors offer emotional portrayals of Mister and Pete, two boys forsaken by their drug-addict mothers and left to fend for themselves through a sweltering summer in New York City.
“I got lost in the role,” says Skylan between sips of lemonade while sitting with Ethan on the patio of a westside cafe. “Ethan and I had such a strong connection during the crying scenes that we made other people on set cry. I didn’t think I would ever be able to do that. That was life changing.”
Evoking the emotions of helpless kids running out of options was something Tillman knew both youths would be capable of in “Mister & Pete,” which opens Friday. “During the audition process, they could really express themselves not only through dialogue, but through their behavior,” says Tillman. “Ethan’s eyes say it all.”
But Tillman did wonder if the Los Angeles natives would successfully embody underprivileged New York kids. To prepare for the roles, the actors spent four weeks on the East Coast and met kids growing up in Brooklyn’s housing projects whose lives mirrored their characters.
“It was an eye-opener,” says Skylan. “You learn to be more grateful.”
Upon working with the young actors, Hudson, who is painfully convincing as a heroin addict in the film, was impressed with not only how they handled their heavy workload — they each appear in over 160 scenes — but how they connected to the material. “I felt like I got to learn from them,” she says. “It didn’t seem like their first time around. They seemed very focused and intuitive.”
Both comfortable in front of the camera, Skylan appeared in 2010’s “Our Family Wedding” and on hit TV shows like “iCarly,” while Ethan has been cast on series such as “How I Met Your Mother” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” But this is the first time both have had leading roles.
“They hold the movie together,” says “Mister & Pete” executive producer Alicia Keys, who also scored the film.
To help endure the eight-hour shooting days, Skylan took his younger co-star under his wing, helping him stay on target between takes. “We’d play games like rock, paper, scissors to keep our energy up,” Skylan recalls.
But when it came time to shoot his first kissing scene with Sparks, it was Skylan who needed a dose of moxie. “We did 12 takes,” he admits, his head down as he tries to hide the fact that he’s blushing. “He still gets nervous when he sees her!” teases Ethan.
Back at school, the boys are the envy of their friends. “People don’t realize how hard it is to be an actor,” says Ethan. “We get rejected every day.” But as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did for Quvenzhane Wallis — she appears in the upcoming “12 Years a Slave” and will star in the remake of “Annie” — the performances of Skylan and Ethan in “Mister & Pete” could line them up for their own Oscar attention.
But that seems to be the furthest thing from their minds. “I don’t love acting because of the money or popularity,” Ethan declares. Nodding, Skylan adds, “If there is something else out there for me other than acting, I’ll definitely find it. But you always have to give it one more go.”