Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, stars in her first feature film, “Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove.” Inspired by the popular series of movies about a boy and a whale, this new adventure is about Kirra (Irwin), an Australian girl who visits her grandfather (Beau Bridges) in South Africa for the summer. When she discovers a stranded baby orca she names him Willy. She and her grandfather must help the whale get back to his pod before a greedy theme park owner steals him.
I spoke to Bindi and her mother Terri in the studios at a local public radio channel, WAMU, where she was appearing on their Animal House show. Bindi is a joy to talk to — so bright and friendly but also fearless and very passionate about animals, just like her dad.
I have one copy of the DVD to give away to the first person who sends me an email at email@example.com with “Bindi” in the subject line.
This is your first time acting. You’ve done a lot of documentary-style filming, but this was quite different.
I play a little girl called Kirra Cooper. She does not take no for an answer! This was my first time being someone else and being in a movie and it was very exciting. She was different from me but there was one similarity. She was trying to save this Orca called Willy, who washed over the lagoon wall and into my grandfather’s theme park. And in real life, I am trying to save the Steve Irwin wildlife preserve. It’s in Australia, up on Cape York and it’s in danger of being strip-mined. You can go to our website at Australia Zoo and sign a petition.
And how is Kirra different from you?
I can tell you a funny story about that! In one scene, I had to get really, really angry at the bad guy. My cheeks were getting all red and I was all grumpy. And I went back to the trailer and my mother said, “Bindi, I’ve never seen you that mad!” And I said, “I’ve never seen me that mad, either!” It was really fun to get a chance to do that. Beau Bridges was such an inspiration and he helped me so much. He gave me the book Acting: The First Six Lessons and I listened to it in audio and now I’m reading it, too.
Tell me about working with Beau Bridges!
It was so nice because my mum’s dad died a little over a year ago and so he became like another grandfather to me. In one scene he said when I was going to sleep, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” And that was heartwarming because that is what my grandfather used to say to me before I went to bed. I was also glad to work with someone who had been working in movies since he was six years old.
Did you film on location?
We got to go to South Africa for the very first time. My dad had been there before filming documentary films but there was political unrest and malaria so we did not get to go along. While we were filming my brother Robert went off and got to see Africa. His favorite animal is the chameleon and now I don’t think there is a single chameleon in Africa un-wrangled by Robert.
If you said “Boo” to me I wouldn’t sleep for two weeks! I don’t like scary movies. But I love my dad’s movie “Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course” and I liked doing this because it was like his. It isn’t just an action-packed fun family movie. You’d accidentally learn something, too. And there’s a great kid empowerment message. Kirra stands up for herself. She has a voice. A while ago I saw a very old movie and it had a man who said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” And I had to ask my mum what that meant! She said some people thought that children should not have opinions or have a voice. And I really believe we’re the next voters, we’re the next decision-makers, we are the generation making a difference on our planet to decide what will happen on this planet, so we should have a voice and be able to make decisions.
What was the most fun scene to work on?
They were all a lot of fun but the funniest was when I had to be eating an ice cream. But it was mashed potatoes! I’ll never look at ice cream in a movie the same way! They have to do that so it wouldn’t drip everywhere.
What’s the best advice you got about making the movie?
I was so used to documentary filming where it’s one take. You can’t really say, “Make that elephant charge again!” And you talk to the camera. With movie filming you’re talking to someone else. And Beau told me to think of it like you’re having a conversation. That really helped me. And everyone was lovely, even the crew. They all helped me so much. And we all laughed a lot of the time.
What should kids know about animals?
One of the great things that my dad told me was to treat animals the way you’d like to be treated. And it’d not just woodland creatures and conservation. Every time you lose an animal species, it’s like losing a brick from a house. Pretty soon the house just falls down. Snakes for example. People think they’re sticky and monstrous. But they’re cool and gorgeous. We live in a zoo and we get to share all our animals with the people who come in. We really put our animals first, and then the staff, and then the visitors. The animals aren’t pacing; they’re all happy. When you touch an animal, it ultimately touches you.
Do you have a favorite animal?
I love snakes and crocodiles but my favorite is the echidna, like the porcupine they have here. When a predator tries to grab them they curl up into a little ball. Whoever thought them up was very creative! Every August we go to study the saltwater crocodile, the largest reptile on the face of the earth. There’s so much we don’t know about them. You can’t give them a sedative so in order to put in the trackers we actually have to jump on them, use human force. It’s a lot of fun. You haven’t lived until you’ve been lying on a dinosaur. He’s an apex predator, the top of the food chain. And gorgeous!
How can kids help conservation and animal protection?
We’re working with an organization called the Sea Shepherd to try to protect the whales. And we have Wildlife Warriors, a non-profit organization working on protecting the Cambodian forest elephants, with tigers and cheetahs. And we help to train shepherds so they can do a better job of protecting their herds.
“The Blind Side” is a movie about football that had its own broken field running challenge. It is the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, a homeless black kid adopted by a wealthy white family. So, it could so easily have been syrupy, or condescending, or downright offensive. At worst, it could have been a cross between the Hallmark channel and “Diff’rent Strokes.”
There have been too many “magical Negro” characters in movies, the non-white character whose role in the story is to give some white people a spiritual or ennobling experience. And there have been too many of what my friend Tim Gordon calls “mighty whitey” movies, where some needy non-white person is helped by some saintly white person. And there have been way too many movies where someone says, with a catch in his or her throat, that “he helped me more than I could ever have helped him.” This movie risks failing in all three of these categories and somehow it manages to deftly come together to make the story genuinely touching. You may find yourself with a catch in your throat, not to mention a tear in your eye.
It helps that the story is true. The wealthy Touhey family did take in and then adopt a homeless black teenager whose life had been so chaotic that there was almost no record of his existence. He happened to go along with a friend who was applying to a private school on an athletic scholarship and was seen by the coach who recognized his ability. He is enormous and he is fast, both valuable in an offensive lineman. And this happened at just the time that the role of the offensive lineman was becoming one of the most critical positions on the team. Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock, in her Oscar-winning performance) explains at the beginning of the film, based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, that New York Giants lineman Lawrence Taylor changed the game. He went after quarterbacks like the Washington Redskins’ Joe Theismann, who received a career-ending injury because Taylor came after him in his blind spot. Hence the increased focus on protecting the quarterback, and that is the job for which Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) seems to have been designed.
It isn’t just that his is very big and very fast. It is another quality, the one that was identified when he was given a battery of tests as the only stand-out ability in a long list of failures. Tests showed that he had an extraordinary level of protective instinct and experience showed that he had an extraordinary ability as well.
She was never tested, but Leigh Anne is probably off the charts for protective instinct as well. It is this quality they share that makes us believe in their connection.
And it is another of Leigh Anne’s qualities that keeps the story from getting too sugary. She is kind of obnoxious. Girl-next-door Sandra Bullock shows us Leigh Anne’s determination and passionate dedication to her family and her ideals and makes us understand that she has a bit of a sense of humor about herself. When she has to admit her husband was right about something, she also concedes that the words taste like vinegar. She has no problem telling pretty much everyone from her condescending friends to the high school coach what they should do. But it is her vinegary spirit that makes the situation and the movie work. She does not cry over Oher’s trials and she does not act like he is her St. Bernhard puppy. She is just someone who has a strong sense of justice fueled by her faith, a quality too rarely portrayed in the media. And she has that protective instinct. Oher is not the usual gentle giant, which helps as well. He has a sense of humor and self-respect that makes clear that he is a full partner in becoming a member of the family, giving as much as he gets.
So this movie is smarter than it had to be, which gives its emotional core even more of punch. You’ve seen the highlights in the trailer. But the quiet moments in between and lovely performances by Bullock, Aaron, and Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne’s husband make this one of the best family films of the year.
Linda Holmes of NPR’s great Monkey See blog has a list of tired cliches that should be barred from all future romantic comedies because they are not funny and they are not romantic. Not coincidentally, several are featured in the movie and even the trailer for the dreary mess, “The Bounty Hunter.” The romantic kidnapping, for example, which in the “Bounty Hunter” trailer has Gerard Butler tossing Jennifer Aniston into the trunk of his car. As Holmes says, this is not funny — it’s creepy. Holmes also wants to prohibit the winking references to Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, the trashy best friend, the rain-soaked fights (take it inside, people), and punches in the crotch. Hear that, Hollywood?
The 39 Steps is a riotously hilarious theater experience based on the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie, itself based on a popular 1915 thriller by John Buchan. The play has 150 zany characters — all played by four actors. The show features an on-stage plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and some good old-fashioned romance as the hero and heroine go on a chase that takes them through Scotland and into a London music hall. The touring stage version is opening in Washington DC this week. Four actors performing 150 parts means not just a lot of split-second costume changes but a lot of lightning-fast changes of character, voice, and accent, what dialect coach Stephen Gabis calls “a living, breathing actor’s nightmare.”
I spoke to Mr. Gabis about working on the show and what makes accents so important in creating a character. Part of the fun of talking to him was the way he almost sub-consciously slipped in and out of a dozen different accents to illustrate his comments.
This has to be one of the most accent-intensive challenges of any theatrical production.
And there’s an understudy who has to cover not just the main character but all of the other roles as well! From my vantage point, it is like boot camp for the first week, about the dialect. It really has to become muscle memory. Everyone has a different skill set; everyone’s brain is complicatedly and differently wired for this sort of thing. Some people have a kind of mimicry chip and can pick it up on their own. Some are good at some accents and not good at others. For this particular piece, a consistent problem is for the Scots characters. You have the Highlands accent and the Glaswegian girl and the guys on the platform in Edinburgh and the bobbies that are chasing them, keeping them out of Ireland! Americans have some misconception that mixes Irish and Scots accents.
Can you give me an example of the differences?
You’re going to say any of your sounds like “love” or “come” or “mother” would be “loove” if you’re Irish but the Scots would say it like an American. I got “te” go instead of I got “to” go. You don’t have to roll your r’s, you just have to be able to tap them. That over-emphasized rolling would be exaggerated, what I call “music hall Scots.” That’s what performers like Harry Lauder used to do, for emphasis and to be entertaining. The R takes that tap when you’re in the position to make a D. American speech is very lateral. Words kind of lean on each other. More legato. There’s a bit of a bounce to this stuff. This play exaggerates some of the speech in the text. And Scots will repeat what the other person says for emphasis.
So it isn’t only pronunciation, then, it’s cultural.
Yes! For instance, knowing the relationships between the different cultures that live together and the effect they have on each other. And whether the person is educated or not is important, too, not just where they live. The Glasgow girl in this show sounds like one of my classmates when I was in drama school, Sharman Macdonald, that soft voice — she is the mother of Kiera Knightly.
Were you always interested in accents?
I grew up around a lot of different accents and I’m a mimic. I studied acting but I am an autodidact. I resisted learning all of the phonetic alphabet stuff in drama school but had to discipline myself when I began to coach and teach.
Are accents as important as they once were in identifying people and their backgrounds?
Things are mushing together — media has made accents get a bit homogenized and put into a blender. I have to be really attuned to when it is taking place. This play is set in the 30’s. But I can’t overdue the authenticity, either. It has to be understandable for the audience. You don’t want a museum piece, too mannered, like Colin Clive in “Frankenstein.” The accent can’t be a distraction.