Issaquah actor Riley Griffiths, 14, stars in ‘Super 8’

June 21, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

On a morning in March, as Beaver Lake Middle School language arts and social studies teacher Karen Smith greeted students in the hallway, eight-grader Riley Griffiths stepped up and asked a question.

Actors Joel Courtney (left) and Issaquah resident Riley Griffiths discuss a scene with director J.J. Abrams before filming on the set of ‘Super 8.’ By Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

Griffiths, 14, whispered, “‘The trailer for ‘Super 8’ came out last night. Can we watch it in class this morning?’” Smith recalled.

“Super 8” — a summer blockbuster about a creature turned loose in a Rust Belt town — started filming not long after Griffiths started school at Beaver Lake. Other students in Smith’s class realized Griffiths had left for a film shoot, but none understood the magnitude. Yet.

The rapt class watched the “Super 8” trailer — and burst into laughter and cheers at the conclusion.

“The students were just so enthralled, and they were so happy for him,” Smith said.

Griffiths sent a tape to audition for the film months before his family relocated from Utah to Washington. Then, days after classes started at Beaver Lake, he came home from school — and faced the unexpected.

“My mom was standing by the door with the phone and she said, ‘Riley, J.J. Abrams just called.’ I almost fainted, I think,” he recalled. “I called J.J. and he asked me if I wanted to do the part and I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’ I was trying to contain myself on the phone, and the second I pressed the end button, I started running around my house and jumping over my couches and yelling and screaming.”

So, Griffiths, plucked from ordinary teendom, traveled to Weirton, W.Va., a rusting steel mill town, for filming. The cast and crew then moved to a Los Angeles soundstage to shoot additional scenes.

Filming for “Super 8” ended just before Christmas. Griffiths returned to Beaver Lake in January.

“He was so humble about the movie — he was excited about it — but he was still an eighth-grade kid trying to fit in, trying to do well in school,” Smith said. “He handled it really well.”

Griffiths later invited students from Smith’s class to a “Super 8” preview at Lincoln Square in Bellevue. The teacher, a longtime Klahanie resident, described her former student as “totally grounded, just a normal kid” playing a high-wattage role.

Life imitates art

In the film, Griffiths is Charles, a Steven Spielberg in training, or in a more appropriate comparison, a nascent Abrams. Charles is the director, the figure behind the camera as the team films a zombie film within the film. In a memorable clip, Griffiths as Charles hollers “Production value!” to the team during a shoot.

“He’s very bossy. He’s production-value crazed,” Griffiths said, referring to the character. “He kind of puts up a tough front, but really, deep down inside, he’s really caring and he’s kind of a softie.”

Griffiths gained 30 pounds — by downing pasta and milkshakes aplenty — and grew longer hair for the role.

Since filming concluded, his face lost the cherubic roundness and he shot from 5 feet, 6 inches at the start of filming to almost 6 feet by the premiere.

“I hit my growth spurt right after the movie, so it was kind of easy to shed that weight,” he said.

Like “Star Trek” and other Abrams’ productions, the script remained top secret and details had to be kept shielded, even from cast members’ families — and classmates.

“I just loved being onstage and I loved to make people laugh, so I just always wanted to do it,” Griffiths, now practiced at answering the same questions again and again from interviewers, said before a June 13 appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show.

The experience marked a monumental shift for Griffiths, a stage actor before Abrams came calling.

“With stage acting, you’re just trying to act to the back row. With film and everything, you’ve got to be so real, and you’ve got to hit your mark and you’ve got to eat a french fry at the right time and take a step at the right time,” he said. “It was definitely very different, but you know, J.J. taught us so much about it. He just made us feel so comfortable on set, and it was really, really good.”

The young cast received tutoring on set and completed schoolwork together between takes. The experience offered education beyond textbooks, too.

“It was just pretty much just one big acting class for me,” he added.

Before Griffiths can embark on another film, freshman year at Skyline High School is next.

“It’s been pretty crazy. People are recognizing me on the street,” he said. “It’s also been better, because I’ve been getting scripts in and everything. It’s opened up a lot of doors for acting.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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