By now you’ve heard the remarkable tale of Joel Courtney, the 15-year-old star of J.J. Abrams‘ coming-of-age sci-fi thriller “Super 8.“ He went to L.A. hoping to land a commercial and earn $100 and walked away with the lead role of Joe Lamb in Abrams and Steven Spielberg‘s much-buzzed-about collaboration.
One would imagine Courtney was feeling the pressure of working with two of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and knowing the film’s long-term success would rest not on its alien mystery, but his performance.
“There was a bit of pressure, but I talked to the other guys on set a lot — the other actors — and I put a lot of it on them,” Courtney says. “I talked to them a lot and they were really good friends. Also working with J.J., that was pretty nerve-wrecking for the first week, but then I got to know him and he was a pretty cool guy.”
While Courtney is a huge fan of the “pretty cool” Abrams’ work — “I’ve watched every episode of ‘Lost,’ I’m trying to catch up on ‘Fringe,’ I love ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘Alias’ was just genius” — he had no idea what the filmmaker looked like, which actually helped ease his nerves during the audition process.
“The first time I met J.J., it was in the auditioning room and people kept calling him J.J., but I didn’t know if he was The J.J.,” he recalls. “So I had my dad IMDB him and then I saw his picture and it turned out that I met The J.J., so I was like, ‘Woah!’ I was super glad I didn’t know that because I would have been freaking out the entire time.”
This refreshing brand of innocence and naivete lends itself to the film. Like “Almost Famous'” Patrick Fugit before him, Courtney
perfectly embodies a kid who learns how cruel the world can be at too
young an age — experiencing the loss of his mother and the detachment
of his father — yet still remains hopeful. We feel for him because
despite all the hardships, he still hasn’t lost his innocence, which is
twinged in heartbreaking sadness.
Courtney talks of tapping into the emotion of Joe losing his mother the
way someone talks about learning how to ride a bike. “It was kind of
hard, but not really at the same time. I’m really like my character,
so I really don’t have to go too far into being Joe from being myself. I
just imagined something super sad like that and then it clicked.”
Prior to landing “Super 8,” Courtney says he had “six acting classes” and did a few school plays in elementary school, “which didn’t really do anything for me.” He had so little experience, some of his friends in Moscow, Idaho, didn’t believe he landed a role in a feature film.
“I think that a couple of them didn’t really believe me that I was filming a movie. I think some of them thought that I was on vacation for like, half the year,” he says. “When the movie came out, I think then they believed me.”
Next up for Courtney is a two-episode stint on R.L. Stine‘s “The Haunting Hour,“ where he finds himself back in the sci-fi mix.
“I play a movie geek, especially like the old ones from the late ’50s, early ’60s. The really bad B-rated ones that are super cheesy. He gets sucked up into an old movie like that and it’s one of his favorites,” he enthusiastically explains. “He knows what’s happening, he knows who the bad guy is, so he’s trying to figure out what’s going on and he has to save the girl.”
When asked if the sci-fi genre is something he’s particularly interested in, he answers, “I wouldn’t say I’m really interested in sci-fi, I just keep getting sucked into it,” which is followed by a short laugh.
Courtney is currently in final negotiations for two films — a new adaptation of “Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn” (he would play Sawyer) and the supernatural thriller “The Healer” — and says he isn’t nervous about his career after “Super 8.”
“I have a really good agent and she’s really looking out for me. She does a great job. I’m not really nervous about my next job. I totally trust her and I trust that she’s going to find me a really great role.”
Courtney is open “to do anything,” but does have one exception: “Anything that’s not all screwy and messy.”
We imagine it’s hard to pin-point the exact moment your life changed forever, especially at 15. However, when we asked Courtney if landing the part of Joe Lamb in “Super 8” was that moment, his answer was immediate and definite: “Absolutely.”