Ever since Lana Turner was discovered at a Sunset Boulevard cafe, there have been tales of young people stumbling into stardom. In that tradition comes Markees Christmas, star of the Sundance sensation “Morris From America,” who fell into a leading role and a new calling thanks to bad grades and a friend with a YouTube channel.

Christmas was only 15, had no professional experience, and had never even been on an airplane when he landed the title role in the film from writer/director Chad Hartigan (“This Is Martin Bonner”). Morris is a 13-year-old aspiring rapper who moves to Germany with his single father, Curtis (played by Craig Robinson, in a performance that won a special jury prize at Sundance). An outsider who doesn’t know the language, Morris is also the only black kid around, susceptible to the racism of even the most well-intentioned tutor. It’s a commanding screen debut by Christmas, made all the more remarkable by the fact that, as he says, “it came out of nowhere.” The film opens Aug. 19.

Christmas, who turned 17 on Aug. 11, lives with his mother LaTonya, his sister, and his 10-year-old niece, in what he calls a “rough neighborhood” of Los Angeles. He’s close with his father, Michael, a mechanic who lives in the San Bernardino area. Christmas loves the beach, is looking forward to getting his driver’s license, and was an active skateboarder until people kept stealing his boards. Despite his challenging surroundings and some “tough times” on which he doesn’t care to elaborate, he’s endlessly upbeat, with an easy smile.

Michael Lewis for Variety

When he was 12, he was told he wouldn’t pass the sixth grade unless he took part in the school play for extra credit. “I didn’t want to do it,” Christmas recalls with a laugh. “I told them I’m not the acting type.” The play was Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Christmas auditioned for the role of Travis, since it had the fewest amount of lines. Instead, he was cast in the lead role of Walter. He wasn’t pleased, but he went with it because, he says, “I had to get out of the sixth grade!”

By all accounts, his performance was impressive, especially to those close to him who had no idea he could act. That included Matt Hill, who had been his Big Brother since Christmas was 8, via the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program of America. “He was so good, so charismatic,” says Hill, a professor of economics who dabbles in the comedy scene.

Hill was inspired to shoot a short video, “Markees Vs.,” that featured Christmas battling a talking bathtub drain. “I didn’t even plan on putting it out,” says Hill. “It was just going to be for us and friends. But it turned out so good!”

Hill submitted the video to Channel 101, the comedy portal founded by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, where shorts are screened online and at live events, and audiences vote on their favorites. The video was well received, and Hill and Christmas ended up making three more.

Some of Hartigan’s friends attended the Channel 101 screenings, and recommended Christmas to the filmmaker, who was desperately searching for his lead actor for “Morris From America.”

“We had been seeing kids, and nobody was too exciting,” Hartigan says. “It was a long, frustrating process — if that actor wasn’t good, our movie would be bad.” Though Christmas’ goofy “Markees Vs.” clips didn’t indicate a great acting range, Hartigan says, “there was something about him. He was comfortable being silly, comfortable in front of a camera.”

Through Hill, Hartigan reached out for an audition. Christmas was skeptical. “I thought it was just another Channel 101 sketch, which itself is pretty cool,” he says. “Then I read more and found out it was a legit movie, and I got excited.” Christmas prepared two scenes for the audition, recording the lines of the other actors so he could practice the scenes in their entirety.

“Once I got used to being in front of a camera bigger than my house, it started to be fun.”
Markees Christmas

Christmas thought his audition was “terrible.” Hartigan admits that there was some stiffness and nerves, but he continued to meet and work with the young actor. “What stuck out to me was that I would ask all the kids before we started if they had any questions, and he was the only one who did. And his questions indicated he was really thinking about the scenes,” Hartigan says. “He also has a beautiful spirit; he’s a wonderful, happy, energetic kid.”

“Morris From America” is largely autobiographical, but somewhere during the writing process, Hartigan, who is white, had the idea to make the characters black. The change, he says, made the story much more exciting for him. “Picturing that type of kid in Europe; it felt so unique,” he says. “It turned it from a movie that I had seen, to one I hadn’t seen.”

Hartigan offered Christmas the role in January 2015. Even better, Christmas learned that Robinson would be playing his father. “I love ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’!” he says. “I didn’t know his name, but when I googled him, I was like, ‘This guy!? Are you serious?’”

The admiration was mutual; Robinson had checked out “Markees Vs.” before filming. “We talked about each other’s work,” says Robinson. “I knew from his videos that he was very natural, very funny, and that we’d get along.”

With his grandmother, Christmas hopped on his first plane ever to travel to Germany to shoot the film. Hartigan helped ease the newcomer into his first major role. “We smartly scheduled the film very deliberately so that the first day of shooting, there was no dialogue,” he notes. “Just scenes of him walking through town. Then we did the scenes where he’s supposed to be very nervous, because that’s what he was like those first days.”

Christmas realized he had found his calling. “Once I got used to being in front of a camera that was bigger than my whole house, it started to be fun,” he says. “I love to work, I love being on set, I love watching the lighting people put up the lights, how everyone works so hard. It’s like a family.”

In the year since the film was shot, much has changed. Most obvious, Christmas, who was not quite 5 feet tall when shooting “Morris,” has sprouted up six inches and slimmed down. “It’s like I popped a can of Green Giant,” he laughs. “I’ve been short all my life, and it’s strange. I can’t hide in my favorite hiding spots anymore!”

And the kid who had never considered acting now wants to make it his career. “I love it,” he says. “This is my way out of living dangerously.” His family hopes to change neighborhoods soon. Christmas is going to auditions, and while at Sundance he signed with Paradigm Talent Agency. And he’s still close with his Big Brother, Hill, who jokes that when Christmas asked him for guidance, he said, “I’ve been in Hollywood 10 years and I’ve made like $500. I don’t think I’m the best person to give you career advice.”

Those who know him best believe Christmas will come out on top. “My favorite story about him, which perfectly sums up what’s so likable about him,” says Hartigan, “is one of the first times I went to his house. I suggested going for a walk, and he said, ‘I don’t really walk much around here because gangbangers will give me a hard time.’ I said, ‘Because you’re small?’ and he said, ‘No, because I’m happy.’”

The statement, Hartigan says, was heartbreaking but true. “He walks down the street with a big smile on his face all the time. He’s a warm and lovely kid who’s not afraid to be a kid. When I heard that, I knew that was the kid I wanted Morris to be.”