Behind the casting of ‘Super 8’

Tentpole's teens were kept in the dark

When the six kid actors drawing raves for “Super 8” were first auditioning, none had any clue they were contending for a J.J. Abrams-directed, Steven Spielberg-produced summer tentpole.

In fact, the thousands who turned out seeking roles — many of them first-timers — thought they were vying for a small indie film called “Little Darlings.” Abrams, who wanted to create a low-pressure atmosphere for the young thesps, handed them fake scripts to read.

Even 13-year-old Elle Fanning, whose profile was just beginning to rise following Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” was brought in believing she was reading for a small film about a little girl.

The result? Some little darlings, indeed.

“When you saw that first test of all those kids together,” one studio exec tells Variety, “you really got the feeling that these kids were the roles — and there was no outside ego influencing the part.”

“Super 8” blossomed when Spielberg suggested Abrams combine two ideas for future film projects: a small-town alien invasion and the story of kids making Super 8 movies. Since then, operating in extreme secrecy has been Abrams’ m.o., and that delivered a group of kids totally fresh to the Hollywood scene.

That includes film’s star, 15-year-old Joel Courtney, who was visiting his brother in Los Angeles last summer. His biggest hope was to get some actinging instruction and maybe land a commercial before heading home to Idaho.

A couple of classes and several screen tests later, Courtney landed the part after nailing several emotional scenes in front of Abrams. Only later would he learn that his very first role would be the lead in a summer tentpole.

Abrams’ knack for casting unknowns goes back to his mentor Spielberg, also known for unearthing fresh talent. Henry Thomas had barely done anything before Spielberg chose him to play Elliot in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and most of the cast members in the Spielberg-produced “The Goonies” were unfamiliar to audiences at the time.

Abrams has been candid about his desire to make “Super 8” an homage to those and other Spielberg pics, and that included a desire to avoid household names: One exec told Variety that after seeing early screen tests, it became clear that Abrams wanted a group of very green actors (which also helped hold the budget down to an estimated $50 million).

Even after the kids were cast, worries persisted that they’d have trouble carrying the film. Though reviews of “Super 8” have been mixed, critics are nearly unanimous in naming the young ensemble as the highlight of the film.

Fast-forward to Wednesday’s premiere, where the group of six gleefully bounced around the after-party, receiving kudos and back-slaps from stars like Jon Favreau, Chris Pine (whom Abrams pulled from relative obscurity to be Captain Kirk), Conan O’Brien and “Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader.

Abrams even took time at the premiere to single out the kids — including a wisecrack about how green they really were. “These kids reminded me every day,” Abrams joked, “how hard it is to direct.”

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