Stunts and shenanigans are all in a days work on ‘PETE’S DRAGON’ for Oakes Fegley & Oona Laurence

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IMG_3977Courtney Howard // Film Critic

They may be shorter than you – by about a foot or more – but Oona Laurence (SOUTHPAW) and Oakes Fegley (PERSON OF INTEREST) are powerhouse child actors, who continue to act like normal kids do. The pair star in director David Lowery’s PETE’S DRAGON, a remake of the 1977 Disney film about a boy and his special friendship with a dragon named Elliot. Fegley carries the a lot of the weight on his small shoulders as the titular character – a boy caught between imagination and reality. Maybe it helps that Laurence is there to support him, playing Pete’s similarly aged pal, Natalie.

Fegley nabbed his part due to his ability to think outside the box, impressing Lowery.

There were many, many kids [up for the role]. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna get this.’ We were building traps. So me and David, at the chemistry test, I was building pipe traps – they’re basically like metal pipes. One time I built this trap, it just collapsed. David and I were just laughing. When I got the call, I was very, very excited. It was a dream come true.

Their roles paired them against a giant furry green dragon, who was such a diva, he didn’t bother showing up on set. Fegley explains how they brought the magic to life, saying,

Our eyeline was basically a tennis ball – or something bright on a stick. They would hold that up. We’d have to pretend there was a dragon there.”

Laurence adds,

We’d really have to use our imagination.

Like any set, there was downtime in between the shots. Laurence and Fegley took that time to play and use their imaginations. Laurence states,

We shot in a lot of cool places. I remember we were shooting on top of a mountain and it was really cold up there. So we were playing with little icicles. There was just so much fun things to do. Stunts and stuff – he [Fegley] obviously did more than me – it was just really fun. We were totally safe, but it was like barely work to us. I was falling out of a tree, but really I was in a harness and it was dropping me. It was really, really fun – like a rollercoaster ride.

While he eschews having any sort of survival skills whatsoever, Fegley says,

I like going camping, but that’s not something I would do for fun. Off set, we had many cool places and we had doubles – our age. They weren’t stunt doubles because we did all our own stunts. They were stand-ins or picture doubles.

Laurence chimes in,

We had a great time with them. To have more kids on set, it was awesome!

Since he was used to the fast pace of working on television shows or small parts in features before, Fegley says the production schedule was the thing that took him most by surprise.

With this it was four months. It does take [a] very long [time] to create the film. We filmed January through May in New Zealand. But we had to do so much to create the dragon. It was not easy to do all that.

Laurence concurs,

For a lot of the things I had done before PETE’S DRAGON, we’d have twelve days of shooting and that was it. I didn’t realize, for a movie like this, it takes a lot of time.

Fegley also took a keen interest in directing, going so far as to ask about the minutia of production.

I’d ask, ‘What lens are we on?’ And everybody would laugh. But I’m seriously trying to get the answer out. I’m very interested in all of the [mechanics].

A little bit of bravery was required of both Laurence and Fegley. One scene had Fegley escaping from a hospital barefoot, running around town. He elucidates,

Half the time I was completely barefoot. The other half of the time Weta Workshop made models of my feet and then made rubber fake feet. I did [keep the feet] but they are way to small now.

Laurence sings a soothing lullaby of sorts, which, for the actress who starred in the Tony winning musical MATILDA, wasn’t so much courage, but rather something that came naturally.

I learned it beforehand. It wasn’t that hard compared to MATILDA on Broadway. I love singing.

PETE’S DRAGON opens on Friday, August 12.

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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.