Stuttering on road to fame

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      SALT LAKE CITY Actor Reece Thompson doesn't have a stutter. If he did, I would have detected it sometime during the hours we spent trapped at the Salt Lake City airport after the Sundance Film Festival in January.

      He sure has an aptitude for it, though, as he displays in his performance of 14-year-old Hal Hefner in Rocket Science, opening in Vancouver on Friday (August 17). In director Jeffrey Blitz's debut dramatic feature, young Hal has a stutter that he attempts to overcome by joining his high-school debating team. Actually, that's his secondary motive; like most teenage boys, his primary goal is to impress a girl.

      To get the stutter just right, the 18-year-old Thompson worked with a speech therapist. "The guy thought that was really odd," he said, explaining that the therapist was accustomed to being hired to cure people of stuttering, not teach it. Thompson also found a coach in Blitz, who revealed during the Q&A following the film's Sundance premiere that he himself stuttered as a kid.

      "It was a specific kind of stuttering," Thompson explained. "Jeff [Blitz] wanted to stay away from the Porky Pig or the forced-out, painful-to-watch kind of stuttering that you see most of the time in film and television. He wanted it to be more, like, intellectual. Like moving around the words that he knew he was going to stutter on.

      "It was difficult to get it down at first, but then it kind of became a part of my life. There was actually a point where everyone was seriously worried whether or not I would be able to speak again properly," he laughed.

      For Blitz (known for his 2003 hit doc Spellbound), Hal's struggle with stuttering represents the challenge of finding one's own voice, "Not just in terms of speech, but in how you meet the world," he told the audience after the premiere. "I thought that stuttering was a really nice way of suggesting someone who had to navigate a lot of tough things."

      Thompson said that for him, landing the part of Hal was the culmination of seven years of finding his way through the Vancouver film industry. He started by doing background work and eventually earned small roles in films like Dreamcatcher and some children's TV shows. It was always his dream to become an actor. "I guess it was just in my blood," he explained. "I wish it was someone like Marlon Brando that inspired me to act, but I think it was, like, Jackie Chan films”¦Power Rangers”¦Dennis the Menace was a big inspiration for me, a lot of stuff like that. A lot of stupid kids' movies."

      Hal, his first major role, will likely put Thompson on the star map; around Sundance, he was being hailed as the second coming of Lou Taylor Pucci, whose work in Thumbsucker earned a special-jury prize in 2005. At the Rocket Science premiere, festival director Geoffrey Gilmore positively gushed about the film: "We've seen lots of coming-of-age stories here, but we've rarely seen one with the nuance, integrity, and I think quality that [this film] brings to us," he said.

      Thompson seemed a bit dazed by all the attention rather than caught up in it, saying he's never done so much press or had so much free stuff thrown his way before.

      "It's strange" was about all Thompson could muster when asked to describe being at the festival. The only thing he seemed confident about was that deep down he'll be the same person afterward: "Yeah, when I get back home, I'll probably ditch all of my friends, move to L.A., and hang out with nobody but celebrities," he joked. "No, I don't think this could change who I am forever or anything."

      But then again, it may be too early to tell. On that winter day, home was still hundreds of miles away, the film wasn't in theatres yet, and hey, Thompson still had to get out of the airport.