[Interview] Little women, little men: Young actors of ‘TROOP ZERO’ take their trip to the ’70s seriously

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Now available to stream on Amazon Prime, the adorably sweet Troop Zero aims to march right into your hearts.

Set in rural 1977 Georgia, an offbeat young girl named Christmas (Mckenna Grace) dreams of life in outer space. When a local competition offers her an opportunity to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, it becomes apparent that she must depend on some new friends (including Charlie Shotwell and Milan Ray) to give her hopes flight.

Co-starring Viola Davis, Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan, Troop Zero is a film that teaches you to work for what you value and value what you work for. It’s important to never forget your humble beginnings and motivations for doing what you’re striving for. The film, and what the actors bring to their performances, remind us that just because you may not have succeeded to the level you want, it doesn’t mean you can’t. You might only be one step away from achieving your goal, and that’s why you persist.

Fresh Fiction sat down with Grace (who’s in the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife), Shotwell (Captain Fantastic) and Ray (of the upcoming Charm City Kings) ahead of a special screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Highlands in Dallas. The young talents spoke about how they got into acting and how the movie changed their lives.

TROUPE ZERO featuring Allison Janney and Viola Davis courtesy of Amazon Studios.

To get some context for you guys — was there a specific performance or film that got you into acting?

Charlie Shotwell: I started acting when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. My older brother and I would make home videos together. He did Shakespearean theater and started making these videos. The first one he put me in was one titled “The Good, the Bad and the Charlie.” It was a Western standoff with Ennio Morricone music playing in the background. We had bananas for guns and were wearing cowboy hats and bandannas. It was really silly, but it was the first time I’ve acted. I didn’t think about it for a while, but then we did a few more videos and moved to Los Angeles. I decided to do auditions, too, since my brother was doing so many. That’s where it all started.

Milan Ray: I started acting here in Dallas, actually. I used to live here. I was born in D.C., then we moved here and later moved back. While I was here, I don’t know what it is that I saw that got me started, but I just kept begging my mom to put me in acting classes. She did. My very first audition was in Austin for a Walmart commercial. I booked it, and it shot here in Dallas.

Mckenna Grace: I love Shirley Temple, and I wanted to be in The Pee-wee Herman Show. But I learned that it ended. I wanted to be just like Shirley Temple. If my Memaw and Papa hadn’t given me a collection of her CDs, then I probably wouldn’t be acting right now. I also begged my mom to get me into acting.

Mckenna Grace, 13, at the IMDb Studio at Sundance 2019. Courtesy of Getty Images. Photo credit: Rick Polk.

I saw on your Instagram [Shotwell’s] that you’ve read books like No Country for Old Men. And then after hearing from you [Grace] that Shirley Temple inspired you, you guys are a bunch of old souls. Did that come strictly from your family, or did you find your own way to material from the past?

Shotwell: I have no idea …

Grace: I’m the one who introduced my mom to David Bowie and Queen. [Bowie’s music is used in Troop Zero.]

Shotwell: Well, my older brothers played video games all the time. I guess I was turned off by that and got more into reading, listening to music and doing other more productive stuff.

Seeing how you have so many veteran actors in this film — like Viola Davis, Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan — was there something that most surprised you about their technique that you have adopted?

Shotwell: Actors typically sit you down to give you the rundown of all their stuff. You watch them and see how they carry themselves around the set and go through a scene. I think it was most interesting seeing Allison, Viola and Jim, and how they all were able to go away from what people think of them as. People think of Viola and Allison as being serious actors, and Jim as a comedian. What’s funny is that they were flipped: Jim was able to do a more serious part while Allison and Viola tapped into comedy. They are able to swing both ways and play a whole range of characters.

Ray: It was a great learning experience to watch them all do their thing on set.

How do you feel that this particular story has changed the way that you live your life?

Ray: I feel like I’ve learned to not care as much about what people think or say about you. It doesn’t really matter. Just be you. My peers will question my ability to act as a way to get to me. But I don’t let it get to me because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what they say.

Grace: I’ve always learned to tuck away what people think. It’s difficult sometimes, but I try not to let things get to me, either. It doesn’t matter what people who I don’t know too well think about me. I think it’s important to carry that message with you that Troop Zero has. I think that my life has changed by being able to work with Allison, Ms. Viola and these two kids because now I have lifelong friends. I am really proud and delighted that I got to do this film.

I love that this film is set in the 1970s. I am a sucker for that era. Is there an aspect from that era that you wish would make a comeback today?

Shotwell: I wish David Bowie would come back.

Oh, me, too.

Shotwell: I think he’s great, and he plays a huge part in this movie. It would be great to have him back, but obviously impossible. So, I have his music, and I’m good with that.

Grace: It’s hard because there’s so much about the ’70s that I love. I think that people should start making music like the ’70s again. The music of the era was my favorite part. I was totally going to say I wish David Bowie would come back, too.

Ray: I would say a lot of the clothes. I really do like a lot of the ’70s clothes. In one of the scenes, I am wearing these jeans. I think it’s one of the first scenes I am in. I really like those jeans a lot.

Milan Ray, left, and Mckenna Grace star in ‘TROOP ZERO.’ Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Was there something that you discovered in the preparation process that you felt most informed your characters?

Grace: Well, I got to learn how to use a Southern accent. That was a part of it. I usually keep a journal for each character that I play. I write from the perspective of my character. I have about six of those journals. It was only about two years ago that I started. I did for my character, Christmas. It really helped me get in the mindset of her. Then again, Christmas and I are so similar that there wasn’t too much acting being done when we did the film.

What does one of those journals look like? What’s the starting point?

Grace: I should have brought it with me. That would have been a good idea. I started with The Haunting of Hill House, and I shared a journal with the older version of my character. I did one for Annabelle Comes Home. I did one for this, and I did one for the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

I also get a journal that I feel best matches their personality. I got a space one to write in for Christmas. I wrote in it with crayons, drew pictures and wrote quotes about space. I’d start before the script takes place, and then I would talk about things that happened in the script to help inform the scene. I write facts about Christmas and the other characters. I’m glad that I do it.

That’s cool. I hope you keep that up. What about you two?

Ray: Yeah. You just have to picture what that character would do in all situations. For a scene, I would think what would my character do, and just do it.

Shotwell: I think what was really important to note that we were real kids and not caricature of kids.

Grace: Because we’re not real kids.

Shotwell: I had to think about what the character would do and what I would do. I was taking inspiration from people like David Bowie. I watched movies like Billy Elliot and that kind of personality. It was fun to mesh all that together and shape a real character.

L-R: Bella Higginbotham, Charlie Shotwell, Mckenna Grace, Milan Ray and Johanna Colón in a scene from ‘TROOP ZERO.’ Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Lastly, I wanted to bring up my favorite scene. It’s when kids complete one of the tasks, and they go to claim their right to compete in the competition. Allison Janney’s character tells them that they cannot take part in it because of a particular law. From there, Viola Davis’ character grabs her rule book and tosses it out the window. Is that something you’ve learned to stand out in the business — throw the rule book and what is expected of you out the window? Take an unconventional approach to succeed ultimately.

Shotwell: You have to break the rules sometimes, that’s how you can make an impression and become something great. If you are not breaking the rules, then you’re following what everyone else is doing. As the movie shows, that’s why it’s so important to be who you are. If that means breaking a few rules, then that’s what needs to be done. In the end, it’s saying a powerful message.

Grace: Yes. Break the rules; just don’t break the law. I completely agree with what Charlie said. Sometimes you need to break the rules or the standards that society holds up to be yourself.

Ray: Right. Everybody has different standards. If you’re trying to impress someone, do it for yourself.

Watch TROOP ZERO on Amazon Video today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.