Oakes Fegley and Jaden Michael on the magic of WONDERSTRUCK

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Jaden Michael and Oakes Fegley in WONDERSTRUCK. Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s about finding yourself and finding who you are and where you belong.

The need to connect and yearning for discovery are the emotions that link the young parallel lives at the core of director Todd Haynes’ WONDERSTRUCK. Almost like the characters they play, two of the film’s young stars are also maturing into their identities. Oakes Fegley (PETE’S DRAGON) and Jaden Michael (THE GET DOWN) are taking this town by storm, having discovered their own niche in the industry.

The highly-accessible, high concept family film adapted by Brian Selznick from his original novel, spans two different eras (1927 and 1977), telling a story about three children who secretly wish for something greater. Ben (Oakes Fegley) longs for his estranged father. Rose (Millicent Simmonds) dreams of a mysterious actress. And Jamie (Jaden Michael) searches for friendship. Their journeys bond them in a mesmerizing fashion.

At the film’s recent press day, I sat down with the two affable actors to discuss everything from their on-set experiences, to their proficiency at being museum docents, to how they plan to grow in their careers. Let’s just say that these two are going to be the future of Hollywood.

Did either of you read the book before you got the script? Or did you just work off the versions of your characters in the script?

Jaden Michael: The script. I think Jamie’s very similar. That’s one of my favorite parts about the book is that most times when you read a book and see the film, it’s so different. But this one it stayed true to the story.

Oakes Fegley: Brian [Selznick] was able to keep a lot of that similar aspect to it. He was very good with making sure it wasn’t too different. With film adaptations, that happens almost every time nowadays, is that it’s completely different from the book and people don’t enjoy it as much.

Michael: That’s mostly because you have a different screenwriter and different author. That causes… But, in WONDERSTRUCK, since Brian wrote the book and the screenplay, any differences…

It was easily adaptable, in other words.

Fegley: Exactly! For me, I based it off both.

What aspects did you both most want to bring out the most in your characters?

Fegley: The fact that not only has he had a really hard time, the beginning is really rough for Ben. He loses his mother and hearing and that causes him trouble. I wanted that to be really apparent that he’s having a rough time. But also, something that’s very important, is that he hasn’t lost his playfulness in being a child – even though he has lost his mother and his hearing – he still hasn’t lost that.

Michael: It was really similar for me too. It’s 1977, in New York City. New York City is asking the government for money because they were broke. It’s a very sad time in history, but it’s also a time about finding yourself and finding who you are and where you belong. My character is in limbo – he doesn’t really know where he belongs. That’s why he carries his Polaroid with him to document everything. That’s what he keeps close in his heart. He comes from divorced parents so that too has a significance in the way he carries himself. This kid has been through some stuff, but he’s still a child and still trying to be happy.

Oakes, did you have to put ear plugs in your ears while shooting?

Fegley: No. The only time I did a deaf-training like that was when Todd and I took a long walk around New York City with noise-cancellation headphones and ear plugs to simulate how it would be as Ben walking through New York City with no hearing and he’s still really new to that. The fact that he is feeling completely wonder-struck because it’s a completely different experience.

What was your greatest takeaway from doing that? Not having that sense to rely on…

Fegley: While Ben comes from having hearing, as a character, he still knows and has that feeling like he can hear things. It’s almost like a phantom limb. He still feels like he might have hearing, but he doesn’t. It’s something that Todd really helped me bring out.

Are you both now expert level guides in the Natural History Museum now? Could you two give tours?

Michael: Oh yeah. I grew up in New York City. My aunt lives up the block. I virtually grew up in the Natural History Museum. The museum is the story of my life. It was a lot of fun to shoot there. I could totally be like [acts as a docent] “This is the awesome Natural History Museum.” I’ve been there so many times in all these years and I’m still not sure if I’ve completely seen every part of the museum. It’s just so big. It changes all the time! I could probably take you around.

Fegley: The Museum of Natural History is one of those places where, as a little kid, it fills you with such curiosity and imaginative capability that’s different from most museums.

Do you both have a favorite moment that happened on-set?

Michael: When we were eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The scene when we’re in my secret room and we’re eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth and [mimics having a full mouth of peanut butter] I’m trying to teach him sign language and talk at the same time. There were so many shots of it – we must’ve did 40-50 takes.

Fegley: I think we did one shot just over 40 times.

How many sandwiches did you go through?

Fegley: We ate like 20 halves. We both had one half.

Michael: Two was too much, okay? [laughs]

So no more peanut butter sandwiches for either of you, ever again?

Michael: The next morning, they were like, “What can I get for you Jaden? Do you want a peanut butter and…?” “Uh NO.” [laughs]

Tell me about working with Todd. You both have come from working with other amazing directors like, Jaden, with Jim Jarmusch….

Michael: Stephen Gyllenhaal, Lawrence Fishburne. Todd was really special. I really enjoyed working with him because he’s such a nice guy and has such a big heart. Working with him was so easy, because he was so cool with anything. I speak for both of us when I say if we had an idea and wanted to try something out, he was cool with us really diving into it. That’s not something you get with everyone.

Fegley: Really awesome. He had a different way of working that was very unique. He has a different vision and way. He likes to go through the process of filmmaking that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He’s a really nice guy. He cares about what he does and who he does it with.

His collaborators are amazing. I know, Oakes, you had mentioned at the PETE’S DRAGON junket that you were really curious about how to direct, setting up shots and lenses. Is that something you’re still into? Did you learn from Ed Lachman?

Fegley: I am! I was always asking what the lens was and I’m very interested in how the camera angle looks at things and how lighting works – especially in what Ed does. Ed is amazing and incredible. The way he lights shots is unlike anything I’d seen. Todd’s team has really such an incredible vision.

Jaden, are you interested in anything outside of acting?

Michael: I want to start up my own film studio. I free write every once in a while. I’d like to direct. I have another friend who wants to direct and friends who want to become actors. I want to make a little film studio all with kids. I write the scripts. We’re in the process of doing it right now.

Were either of you allowed to help in selecting your wardrobe – or was that all Sandy?

Michael: We had a lot of fun. Funny story. In the 70’s they had a certain texture in the jeans and pants back then. She wanted me to wear bell bottoms. It had to be the right material.

Fegley: Tight at that! You know…

Michael: She went to a thrift store, bought a pair of jeans that were like size 65…an extreme…I sat in one pant leg. It was so ridiculously big.

Fegley: And we were like, “What are you going to do with that?!”

Michael: She cut it up, did her magic and, a week later, I’m laying on the floor trying to pull up the pants and Sandy’s standing above me like, “Welcome to the 70’s.”

Is it odd having a co-star that you never have scenes with? Was the press tour the first time you met Millicent [Simmonds]?

Michael: We did school together every day. Every day you’d have to shoot some 20’s and some 70’s. So we did school together and fittings together.

Fegley: We learned sign language. [signs and states] I don’t know that much.

That’s still impressive.

Michael: [signs] We learned a couple words and after that we met some deaf actors. There’s a teacher from NYU who’s teaching me sign language, so now I’m learning sign language. It’s a lot of fun. After meeting her, I celebrated my birthday at her house last year. We’ve hung out. She’s cool.

Fegley: Yeah. She’s an awesome person. It’s very special because she’s never acted before this project and we’re really proud of her. She’s working on another film…

Michael: …with Emily Blunt…

Fegley: …her second picture and we’re all really happy that she got to be a part of this.

WONDERSTRUCK opens in select theaters on October 20.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.