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People In Film | Kodi Smit-McPhee

Kodi Smit-McPhee | Finding His Voice

In PARANORMAN, the voice of the film’s 11-year-old hero, Norman Babcock, is provided by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a young Australian actor who in a brief few years has made a big name for himself. While Norman talks to ghosts in order to rid his town of zombies and stop a witch's curse, the film is really a comedy, which was perfect for Smit-McPhee, whose work in recent years has been in fairly dark films. As he told Entertainment Weekly, “my favorite genre is comedy…It’s pretty ironic and funny that I always get these kind of dramatic…movies.”  But while PARANORMAN’s scary premise is actually just scary fun, Smit-McPhee’s more dramatic roles helped convince the filmmakers that he was the right actor for the job. Director Sam Fell acknowledged that it was “difficult to find someone young who has range and sensitivity. But we’d seen Kodi Smit-McPhee’s astonishing performance in The Road, and we felt that he could carry this movie so that audiences would invest in this boy’s journey.” Indeed the experience of one young man’s journey into adulthood proved a little too real for Smit-McPhee. By the end of his recording sessions, he found himself moving, at least in one way, towards becoming a man. As his voice began to change, he recounts, “I think by the last session, we had recorded a little bit, and they were like, ‘Alright, I think that’s it. We just squeezed the last bit out of you.’ My Norman voice is gone and stuck with that movie.”

Kodi Smit-McPhee: A Family Actor

Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Kodi Smit-McPhee grew up as part of an acting family. His father, Andy McPhee, a one-time professional wrestler, is also a successful actor, perhaps best known to American audiences for his role on the show Sons of Anarchy. In addition to acting himself, he works as a children’s acting coach, a vocation that has helped out both Kodi and his older sister, Sianoa Smit-McPhee. She started her acting career at 12, appearing regularly on the HBO comedy Hung. Studying at the Australian acting school Drama with a Difference, Kodi Smit-McPhee quickly gained notice and was cast in several TV movies, such as Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, and the TNT miniseries Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King. From the start, Kodi’s unique look was perfect for dark, dramatic stories. As such, many of his early roles were in dark, apocalyptic and horror films. And while this was not his personal experience, he learned well from his father’s lessons: “What my dad told me when I first started acting, just be real, be in that moment. So if you don’t know the world, you don’t know the world and you just have to block it all out.” 

Kodi Smit-McPhee: A Mature Talent

Kodi Smit-McPhee’s big break came when veteran Australian director Richard Roxburgh was looking for an actor to play alongside Eric Bana in the true-life family story Romulus, My Father.  After fearing the impossible task of finding a fresh young talent, Roxburgh recounts in an EyeForFilm interview his first meeting with Smit-McPhee: “He was eight years old at the time, it was a few months before we shot the film – he said, ‘Well, I looked the story up on the internet and it’s a really sad story. It’s about a boy who lives with his dad and his mum’s really unfaithful. And it’s really sad for the father and he can’t do anything about it.’ And he was espousing all these kinds of adult concepts, with a sort of precocious level of understanding, but without being precocious at all – he was just so delightful and he had an impish charm to him as well, quite apart from that beautiful angelic face.” Smit-McPhee’s talent for keeping his boyish sense of the world, even in the face of calamitous events, enraptured both audiences and critics alike. EyeForFilm noted that Smit-McPhee’s performance is “so exquisite as to rival that of Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Remember that double-barreled name, folks, since, with any luck, it will be gracing our film screens for a long time to come.” Indeed he was awarded the Young Actor’s Award by the Australian Film Institute. And soon not only audiences, but serious directors were paying attention to that “double-barreled name.”

Kodi Smit-McPhee: The Road to Success

Director John Hillcoat knew that finding the boy to stand alongside Viggo Mortensen in his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a post-apocalyptic tale that was also “a love story between a father and son,” would be no easy task. The child, who in some ways is the emotional core of the story, would need to be vulnerable, but also tough enough to endure the film’s grueling production schedule. After countless auditions, Hillcoat came upon Kodi Smit-McPhee’s tape made with his dad. As Hillcoat told The Washington Post, “There were certain scenes I would never have asked a kid to audition for…Yet they did these extra scenes where his real father played the father in the audition tape. And that to me was a message that, you know, 'My son can handle this’.” And McPhee did more than handle the role; he excelled in it. Empire noted that Smit-McPhee “shivers with a vulnerability … The Boy’s gentle innocence and desire to be a 'good guy' lend him a sense of otherworldliness, honouring The Boy on McCarthy’s page.” While The Road was still being edited, Matt Reeves was casting Let Me In, the English-language remake of Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish cult classic Let The Right One In, a moody tale of adolescence and vampires. After seeing Smit-McPhee’s work in Romulus, My Father, Reeves knew that he had his star, the bullied boy who befriends a young girl (Chloe Moretz) who turns out to be a very sage vampire. Reeves told DenofGeek that in Romulus “there was a lot of non-verbal acting going on, where he was very authentic, and that is what I was looking for as the most important quality – someone who could feel real.”  When the film came out, Reeves’ trust in the young actor was richly returned. The Hollywood Reporter noted that “Smit-McPhee and Moretz possess the soulful depth and pre-adolescent vulnerability necessary to keep it compellingly real.”

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