‘The first time I saw my face on a poster, I thought, I’m still just a normal kid’

Child actors on working with some of the biggest names in film, plus behind the scenes stories

Woody Norman opposite Joaquin Phoenix in the film C’mon C’mon. Photograph: A24

Woody Norman opposite Joaquin Phoenix in the film C’mon C’mon. Photograph: A24

 

Jude Hill, clad in a white button-up shirt with a cheeky grin, is just as charming in real life as he is in Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s forthcoming autobiographical film about an Irish boy growing up amid the Troubles in the 1960s.

“I had the time of my life doing this film,” the 11-year-old actor from Northern Ireland, who stars as Buddy, the young Branagh stand-in, says on video call from Los Angeles. He’s one of several youngsters winning praise for their starring turns in prestige dramas this season. They include Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard, opposite Will Smith, as their father; Woody Norman, who tag-teams with Joaquin Phoenix in C’mon C’mon; and Daniel Ranieri as a boy learning about life from a bar-owning uncle (Ben Affleck) in the George Clooney-directed drama The Tender Bar.

Here, the five actors share what it was like working with stars of the screen and court, behind-the-scenes stories and how they reacted to seeing their faces on posters for the first time.

Jude Hill in the Kenneth Branagh film Belfast. Photograph: Rob Youngson/Focus Features
Jude Hill in the Kenneth Branagh film Belfast. Photograph: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

JUDE HILL

The 11-year-old plays nine-year-old Buddy in Belfast

One morning I woke up for a normal school day, and my mum showed me an email. I only read about two words of it before I started running around the house screaming that I got the role, and I was going to get to work with all these amazing people – Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench.

Me and Buddy aren’t that different. We both love football and films and have the same personality. Every second the cameras weren’t rolling, I was playing football with the other actors.

Judi Dench is very, very funny and sometimes very inappropriate. To have her play my grandma is insane. We bet £2 to see who could guess the number of times it would take to film a scene, and I ended up winning. I’m keeping that money in my memory box forever.

I’m definitely not a ladies’ man. All the scenes with that girl [whom Buddy has a crush on] were very, very awkward!

The first time I saw my face on a poster, I thought, That’s not real. I’m still just a normal kid, and this is my first film, but I think if you work hard, then you can achieve anything.

I learned so many things, but the biggest was to have fun with acting. My little sister, Georgia, who’s nine, has also started acting. Maybe she’ll become an actor, too.

I cried the first time I watched the film. And I still get really emotional every time I see it.

I’d love to play one of the Avengers in a Marvel film. It’s between Thor and Iron Man. That’s number 1 on my bucket list.

Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in the Will Smith film King Richard. Photograph: Warner Bros
Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in the Will Smith film King Richard. Photograph: Warner Bros

DEMI SINGLETON

The 14-year-old plays a young Serena Williams in her formative years in King Richard

I came to LA from New York City, and once I got here, Saniyya came over, we hung out, and we’ve been friends ever since. We recently went to Halloween Horror Nights together, and while we were filming, we’d go to The Grove [an outdoor mall] every other weekend.

Venus and Serena surprised us with a visit to the set. We spoke about everything except tennis. It was great to see their sisterly bond firsthand and really helped me and Saniyya as actresses.

The tennis training was intense. I was expecting it to be so easy, because I’ve been dancing for my entire life and thought it’d be much more similar to choreography. The hardest thing to master was the serve. You can be great at every other shot, but if you don’t know how to serve, you’re unlikely to win.

Mr Will was hard to take seriously in those short shorts! We would make fun of him, but we also really admire him; he’s so kind, so humble and was always teaching us something. One thing he told Saniyya and me was to be very selective about the roles we choose because they can define who you are for the rest of your career.

Aunjanue [Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena’s mother] taught me how to speak up for myself and my character. There were one or two scenes where I read it and didn’t feel like Serena would react that way, and you feel like you’re so young and aren’t supposed to say much, but she showed me it was okay to talk to the director and come up with different ways to do things.

Any role that highlights how powerful women can be is a role I want to be in. I also really want to do an action movie like Wonder Woman or Black Widow, because that’s been my dream ever since I was a little girl.

SANIYYA SIDNEY

The 15-year-old plays Venus Williams as she’s first winning tournaments in King Richard

When Venus and Serena came to set, what I took away was how close the family was. They told us, “Yeah, we all shared rooms and did talent shows together; we were so close that there was never a day we weren’t together.”

When you create a character from someone else’s imagination, you have the freedom to create emotions and traits, but with a real-life person, you want to make sure you’re portraying them the best you can. I spent lots of time studying videos of Venus and Serena when they were younger.

The tennis training was quite intense. The way Venus and Serena play is so unique, and I worked on Venus’s serve every day. My coach, Mr Eric [Taino], and I were both so proud the day I got the serve down. I’m left-handed, but I had to learn to play right-handed for the movie.

Mr Will is the funniest person ever. It was amazing to watch him create Richard. He inspired me to push myself because he would come to work each day better than yesterday.

My family is, like, “Oh, my goodness, we know you as Saniyya, and now we’re going around town and seeing you on a billboard; that’s kind of crazy, girl!” They’re so proud.

I hope families all go see this movie and feel like they’re represented. I also want young girls who may be seeing themselves on screen to know that it’s important to stay humble and keep your head up. Make sure to take care of yourself.

I’d love to do an action film. A Marvel movie star that plays tennis would be hilariously cool.

Daniel Ranieri in a scene from the George Clooney-directed film The Tender Bar, which stars Ben Affleck. Photograph: Claire Folger/Amazon Studios
Daniel Ranieri in the George Clooney-directed film The Tender Bar, which stars Ben Affleck. Photograph: Claire Folger/Amazon Studios

DANIEL RANIERI

The 10-year-old plays the writer JR Moehringer as a boy in The Tender Bar

My mom filmed me cursing about the lockdown, and a couple of months later, it went viral. Jimmy Kimmel wanted me on his show, and right after we got done with the interview, George Clooney’s casting director contacted my mom and said George wanted me to be in his next movie. I was, like, “Wait, what?!”

Ben was so nice to me; me and him have a connection now. The last day of filming, he got me, like, 10 PlayStation games, with a headset. I keep asking him, “When are you coming to New York?”

The best advice I got was when you’re filming, don’t act like you’re filming – just talk like you’re having a real conversation.

I didn’t always want to be an actor. I wanted to be a race driver, and then I changed my mind and wanted to be a firefighter, but now I’m really stuck on being an actor.

I did a lot of the scenes in one or two takes. George was so easy to film with and didn’t do 100 takes. But every time we got done filming a scene, I had to go back into school on set. It was so annoying because I couldn’t really watch anyone else film or learn anything from Tye and Ben.

I’d love to be someone from Star Wars or be in an Avengers film. My dream is to work with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth.

Woody Norman with the radio equipment his character’s uncle uses in the film C’mon C’mon. Photograph: A24
Woody Norman: I can learn a scene after reading it two or three times. Photograph: A24

WOODY NORMAN

The 12-year-old British actor plays the American Jesse, a boy staying with his uncle (played by Phoenix) for a while in C’mon C’mon

Joaquin rolled up to the audition in his pyjamas; they were red and looked like painter’s clothes. He’s such a nice guy, so genuine. We would just play, bouncing ideas off each other. We’re still great friends.

We were always laughing – I got headaches! Joaquin’s laugh is so contagious. I just learned to always try to be as comfortable as you can on set.

We’d start filming, and then I’d decide what to do. We’d never practice. Well, we’d read the lines, like, once, but they’re very loose, and we’d add whatever we wanted to them. There are lots of scenes that aren’t in the script.

I have a good memory, but only for things that are interesting. Like, I can never remember things to do with school. I can learn a scene after reading it two or three times. I have a photographic memory – I use that term loosely; it’s not really photographic. It’s more like, if I can’t remember, I close my eyes and imagine what it looks like.

I don’t like playing people too much like me. Jesse is very different from me – he’s introverted, I’m extroverted; he doesn’t have many friends, I have my group of friends – so I can put a little of myself into the role, as opposed to it all just being me.

What I want people watching the film to take away is that young people are humans with opinions just as valid as yours. We are not children or babies. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times