Hunter McCracken: Texas tyro grows on ‘Tree’

Youth Impact Report 2011: Bigscreen Kids

Impact: The unknown thesp carries Cannes hit “The Tree of Life.”
Next: Still at school, McCracken, who likes to hunt and fish, is considering other acting projects.

How’s this for the first — and so far only — entry on your resume: playing the lead role in Cannes Palme d’Or-winning art film “The Tree of Life,” directed by Terrence Malick? Oh, and that pivotal debut role? In addition to booking more screen time than co-star Brad Pitt, the character grows up to be none other than Sean Penn.

Not bad for Hunter McCracken, a Texas kid who’d never acted before, yet still manages to deliver a riveting, fully lived-in performance as the sensitive son who squirms under the harsh thumb of his disciplinarian father (Pitt).

McCracken was playing on the school playground in Clifton when he was scouted by the filmmakers, who spent a year searching for the three boys to play the O’Brien brothers. They sifted through more than 10,000 kids in Texas schools, watching boys interacting, before they narrowed it down.

“We found Hunter a year before we actually cast him and considered casting him in another role,” says co-producer Nicolas Gonda. “But over that year, Hunter matured, and we discovered he possessed the qualities of the hero Jack. And when he began working with Jessica, we saw the chemistry was amazing and he had this great depth and sensitivity. The more we shot, the more we realized he was extraordinary.”

Gonda notes that McCracken’s seasoned co-stars were equally impressed. “Jessica often said, ‘He’s one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with’ — and here’s a kid with no training whatsoever. Just an amazing natural talent.”