Back in West Chester for just two days, Charlie McDermott spent last night at a multiplex watching Tropic Thunder, a Ben Stiller comedy about self-absorbed actors who get kidnapped by drug lords while filming a war epic in the jungle. Everyone else he was with—younger sisters Erin and Grace, neighbors, friends, a cousin—missed the movie’s wealth of film-industry jabs. But not McDermott.
“I see just about every movie there is in the theaters,” he says. “When I watch a film, it’s to see it. But subconsciously, I notice things.”
Two years ago, at 16, McDermott left for Hollywood. Now he spends more time working there and relaxing here—though he’s never changed the East Coast time on the watch that was a going-away
present from neighbors. In just about every way, the two environments require polar-opposite mindsets.
“It feels like I’m living two lives,” says McDermott. “All I do is work out there, and here there is no industry. When I’m working (and paying his own rent for his Burbank, Calif., apartment), I love it. But I love this place more.”
That much is obvious on this Labor Day weekend, as McDermott gently sways in a wicker rocking chair on a back porch overlooking a lush green backdrop and a built-in pool the family installed last summer. He isn’t wearing shoes.
When home, McDermott provides comic relief for the family. “They all say they miss me being funny,” he says.
At work, he’s been as busy as all get-out. The lifestyle is hectic, sometimes frantic, and he often reflects his distaste for the industry’s “fake” folks, and the pollution and limited open space in Los Angeles. Yet McDermott can’t deny how quickly his career has soared. Catch him at theaters now in Sex Drive, a comedy starring another locally bred Hollywood success story, Seth Green. On Nov. 1, McDermott appeared with Ed Asner in the Hallmark Channel’s made-for-TV film Generation Gap.
Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner Frozen River opened in theaters this summer. In it, McDermott is the teenage son of a character played by Melissa Leo (21 Grams, Hide and Seek), who some suggest will be an Oscar nominee.
McDermott’s appearance on the Emmy-winning comedy The Office aired in May. And if the TV gods smile down on him, the $8 million ABC fantasy pilot Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas will be picked up this fall and become a primetime series by January. McDermott’s role as a ghost requires a three-hour makeup job and special black contact lenses. Depending what happens to his character, a season of episodes could keep him filming through March.
Described as Harry Potter meets Pan’s Labyrinth meets Indiana Jones, the pilot—directed by Tommy Schlamme, an Emmy winner for The West Wing—centers on a 13-year-old girl who discovers a secret supernatural world. She can see the ghost, though she’s scared of it. McDermott pops up and says one line he honestly can’t remember right now. “It’s creepy, vague and monotonous,” he says.
The filming for his lead role in For the Love of Jade, an independent production shooting in nearby Easton, will depend on his Captain Cook schedule. Jade is a 45-year-old prisoner who flashes back to life in the 1970s and the events that put her in jail. McDermott, who plays a young Jade’s love interest, says it’s the best script he’s ever read. “It sucked me in,” he says.
McDermott has already co-starred in 2006’s Disappearances with Kris Kristoff-erson, who plays Québec Bill in a tale of Depression-era whiskey smuggling near the Canadian border. The story is a rite of passage for McDermott’s character, Wild Bill Bonhomme, Québec Bill’s son. McDermott outdid 130 others for the role.
Two years earlier, McDermott made his unlikely debut in Malvern-based director M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. He’s the 10-year-old boy who delivers the message that creatures are on the prowl. After his dad, Charlie Sr., saw an ad for extras, McDermott and sister Erin awoke at 6 a.m. one morning for the casting call. Within an hour, the line of 32 amateurs grew to 1,000, then 4,000 and 8,000 over two days.
“They herded us in 50 at a time,” McDermott recalls. “We were back in school, then Erin got a call and she didn’t even want to do it. I was crushed, but I went along with her and saw the casting director, who asked what I was doing there; the girls were this week, but the boys were next week. Two days later, I got the call—and lines.”
McDermott remembers when he first saw Star Wars at a neighbor’s house. Just 6 at the time, he was unsure if he was old enough for the guns and violence in the PG film. After it ended, he returned home and found his father in the garage. With Charlie Sr.’s OK, he watched the movie again—and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi soon thereafter.
“They’re still the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Thereafter, armed with Star Wars toys, McDermott began his filmmaking career. Until eighth grade, his favorite movies were alien related. When he grew weary with written reports for school, he asked teachers if a substitute documentary film would do. He also remembers asking his mom, Barbara, how people get on TV.
“I viewed making movies as practice, so I did it every day until I did The Village. Then I had to focus on acting,” he says.
The best actors are quiet, sensitive and shy, McDermott says. “Acting really has to be real,” he adds. “Each time, you have to pretend that nothing is riding on it. It’s always so hard to explain how not to care about the one thing you care about.”
At this juncture, McDermott has emerged from one of the profession’s touchiest age ranges, 16-18, when studios must follow strict labor laws. In May, McDermott earned his high school diploma from the West Chester-based cyber-school Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. “After I submitted my last unit, it was uneventful,” says McDermott, who earned an open-ended acceptance to Woodbury College in Burbank, Calif., based on his film work. “I just turned off the computer and watched some TV.”
When he first moved to L.A., his friends thought it was “sweet” and “cool.” After seeing him on screen, they still ask, “What did you make for that role, dude—a million?”
“I’m like, ‘No, not even close,’” he says.
The week he turned 18 in April, McDermott booked The Office and Generation Gap—and a month later, Captain Cook. His next age hurdle will be his early 20s, when parents’ funding and patience often dry up. “I’ve seen so many go home for good,” McDermott says.
McDermott credits his parents, who once ran a multimillion-dollar local fitness business, for his work ethic. Their rearing has also helped him keep his nose clean. He’s avoided the industry’s pretension, drugs and stereotypical lifestyle. “Those who are fake only want to become famous and make money,” McDermott says. “I don’t want to be fake; I don’t want to be famous. I just want to be an actor. I want to do what the public doesn’t see, as opposed to what it does see—the parties and the red carpet.”
With friends from Sex Drive, he’s also written two episodes of a TV show. After a third, they’ll seek funding. He’s helped with editing, too. “I’m doing all I can,” McDermott says. “It just feels right, and everything feels like a dream.”
Then there are the dreams he has when he’s working. “They’re all standing over me, filming me sleep, and I’m saying, ‘Can’t we do this later?’” he says. “I guess I never shut off. I’m always thinking about what will make it work the next day.”
McDermott’s upstairs bedroom in West Chester remains frozen in time—circa eighth grade. Lord of the Rings posters share wall space with those for Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty, Shyamalan’s Signs (which McDermott once attempted to remake as The Dream), Finding Nemo and Seabiscuit. There’s a life-size cutout of Legolas, a Lord of the Rings character. “Now he just creeps me out,” McDermott says.
He points to photos with Kristofferson from Disappearances—one autographed. There’s an “Applause” light (a Christmas gift) and a rack stuffed with issues of Entertainment Weekly. “I used to read the entire issue the day it came,” he admits. “Now, most times, I know what’s in the magazine before it comes out. All the stuff I really want is out in California.”
When McDermott began, his dream was to work. Now his dream is to work enough that there’s time (and financial means) to relax some.
“Maybe I’m stupid and believe in myself too much, but I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do,” he says. “It has been ever since I was old enough to think about what I wanted to do.”
To learn more about Charlie McDermott, visit charliemcdermott.com.