Hollywood's new It kid

While he has been put forward as a best supporting actor candidate for the Oscars, some voters think Jacob Tremblay, nine, has best-actor potential.
While he has been put forward as a best supporting actor candidate for the Oscars, some voters think Jacob Tremblay, nine, has best-actor potential.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Despite the buzz he is generating for his showing in the film Room, Jacob Tremblay stays endearing

LOS ANGELES•Here is the impolite truth about a lot of child actors: They are unbearable little creatures. They have been media trained within an inch of their young lives. They usually come accompanied by narcissistic, fame- hungry parents. Their career role model is Miley Cyrus.

But once in a while, a child performer comes along - Drew Barrymore, Ron Howard, Kirsten Dunst - with the mark of something truly special. A lot of people in Hollywood think Jacob Tremblay is one of them.

The nine-year-old has been generating serious Oscar attention for his emotional performance in Room, about a mother and son who make a heroic escape from horrific, long-term captivity. He is so good, in fact, that a behind-the-scenes tug of war has broken out over the proper Oscar field for him.

He has been put forward as a supporting actor candidate - and was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award in that category last Wednesday - but some voters think he has best-actor potential.

How about a new category, one created just for him: best blast of fresh air.

Hollywood's awards race is a tired, bloated ritual that finds Oscar hopefuls smiling through gritted teeth and serving up safe, saynothing answers to the same inane questions asked over and over by red-carpet reporters.

Cloying awards correspondent: "Did you ever think you'd be in the running for an Oscar?" Cut-and- paste answer: "It's such an honour, blah, blah, blah."

But Tremblay, bless his heart, has not yet figured out how to fake it. He tends to answer without a filter, injecting some desperately needed realness to the endless banquets, vote-mongering cocktail hours and red carpets.

Consider a conversation I had with him after Room won the international prize at the Moet British Independent Film Awards last Sunday. "Did you have fun?" I asked, rather inanely.

"Um, well, I did get to eat some bread and some shrimp," he said by telephone from London. "And I got to meet the girl from Titanic." (That would be Kate Winslet, who received an award for drawing attention to British film-making.)

"What did you think of the ceremony?" I asked.

"They talked about a bunch of movies that I had never heard of," he said. "I didn't stay for the whole thing. It was nighttime and I couldn't stay awake any longer."

Don't misunderstand. Tremblay is having a ton of fun. He celebrated that Screen Actors Guild nomination with a big ice cream sundae. At the recent Governors Awards in Los Angeles, he was thrilled when Will Smith gave him a high five and Johnny Depp got down on one knee to straighten his itty-bitty bow tie.

"We're friends now," he said afterwards of Depp.

And he would very much like an Oscar to put on his dresser. "I don't have any trophies at home," he said. "I'm not good at sports is why."

Wearing a tuxedo can be fun too.

"I like to pretend I'm James Bond when I put it on or maybe Iron Man when he's going to a party," he said.

Still, as he makes abundantly clear in his childlike way - an unstifled yawn here, a bewildered stare there - the awards scene wears thin. Sometimes, he would rather be home playing Lego or watching a superhero movie.

According to actress Brie Larson, herself a likely Oscar nominee for playing the mother in Room, Tremblay's appraisal of their movie after seeing it for the first time was: "It's good. But it's no Avengers."

The boy, who is from Langley, British Columbia, and has two sisters, comes from an acting family, at least of a sort. His parents were leery of show business - his dad is a police detective and his mum a housewife - but they agreed in 2012 to let their eldest daughter, Emma, attend an open casting call for the science-fiction film Elysium (2013). She booked the part, attracting the attention of talent agents.

It took about two seconds for the agents to notice Tremblay. His little sister, Erica, is now acting too.

Tremblay landed a role in The Smurfs 2 (2013). Soon, he was one of the hottest tickets in town, withdirectors fighting over him for films with simultaneous shoots. One of the victors was Jordan Roberts, writer-director of Burn Your Maps, a comedic drama about a boy who goes on a grand adventure.

Roberts, who wrote Big Hero 6 (2014), said: "He's got serious, serious talent. Lots of kids can cry on command. But Jake takes you in and out of his emotions seamlessly. He also thinks onscreen, which is rare for a child actor. He's not just regurgitating lines."

Room was a coup for Tremblay, in part because casting directors were trying to find twins to play the child role. It would mean that production could move much faster, with one boy acting while the other rested. Director Lenny Abrahamson saw about 2,000 child actors before giving the part to Tremblay, taking a risk that the child could learn the enormous amount of dialogue.

"I get this question all the time, like all the time," Tremblay said with a touch of exasperation when asked how he memorised his Room lines.

"I just practise. My mum helps me. She knows how my brain works."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Hollywood's new It kid'. Print Edition | Subscribe