With New Film, Boy With Down Syndrome Gets Taste Of Stardom
On a dewy July morning last summer, Amy Wright looked on with mild concern as her son, Beau, ran across a hilly field in the Appalachian mountains outside Beckley, W.Va. The pair, along with Amy’s husband, Ben, were among many on the hillside as cameras rolled on Beau’s first scene in the independent film “Little Accidents.”
The role was a momentous opportunity for Beau, who celebrated his ninth birthday the day before arriving on set. But it was an even more bittersweet experience for his parents, who looked on as their son took on a part few people can play — a young boy with Down syndrome.
Amy’s worry that morning wasn’t merely that of a mother watching her son take his first step in front of the movie camera. It was also that of a mother who has watched her son overcome being born blind, not being able to walk until he was 3 and living day to day with an intellectual and developmental disability.
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But most of all, the role gave Beau the opportunity to show the world that those with Down syndrome are capable of much more than many think possible.
In “Little Accidents,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, Beau plays James, a role conceived by writer/director Sara Colangelo specifically for a young boy with Down syndrome. Following a devastating mining accident that kills their father, James must protect a secret with his older brother. The drama charts the lives of several families in the coal-mining town in the wake of the tragedy, which left only one survivor (“Milk’s” Boyd Holbrook). Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games”), Josh Lucas (“Sweet Home Alabama”) and Oscar nominee Chloe Sevigny (“Boys Don’t Cry”) also star.
Beau’s foray into acting began when the “Little Accidents” part seemingly fell into the Wrights’ lap. In 2013, Amy and Ben, both of whom have backgrounds in theater, wrote and performed, respectively, a song called “Be the One” to raise awareness about the benefits of establishing one-on-one relationships with those born with intellectual and developmental disabilities — even recruiting “Glee’s” Lauren Potter to star in a music video shot in Wilmington, N.C. last March.
Following filming, the couple got to know Potter’s agent and were soon notified of a national casting call looking for middle-school-aged boys with Down syndrome for an upcoming project. Although Beau was only 8 at the time, they were encouraged to respond. As Amy was told, “the opportunity was like winning the lottery because roles for kids with disabilities are few and far between.”
Ben, who originated the role of Jack in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” on Broadway and has appeared in such films as “Born on the Fourth of July,” never had the intention of ushering his kids into the entertainment business.
“I certainly wouldn’t encourage them to do it professionally,” he said. “People see the show part of show business, but forget that it is still a business.”
But after giving it considerable thought, the Wrights proposed the idea of auditioning to Beau, whose response surprised them. Although he had never expressed a desire to act, Beau, who loves watching movies on the family TV and his Kindle, approached them the next day and said he wanted to do “his movie.”
“Right after that, he worked with his sister Emma Grace and learned the lines and (we) got out the video camera and taped him doing it,” Ben said. “He wanted to do it again and again and again. He seemed to like it.”
Shortly after agreeing as a family to pursue the role, the audition process began with submitting the tapes of Beau working with the lines. Soon, the Wrights were contacted by the film’s director and producers, who were interested in setting up Skype video conference auditions. By May, the role was down to just Beau and another boy. By June, the part was his.
“I remember the night we got the call at like 9:30. Beau had gone out with his dad to get his sisters, and when they got back, I was out in the driveway jumping for joy,” Amy said, laughing. “He was so excited.”
After scoring the role, Ben said something interesting happened with his son. Beau began to understand and associate that something he was going to record in real life was going to end up on a screen like the shows he loves to watch.
“That is fairly sophisticated to connect those dots, and I feel like he did,” he said.
From West Virginia to Park City
The road to production was a swift one for the Wrights, who were packing up and heading to West Virginia by mid-July for a six-week shoot.
The first day of filming, Beau and his parents had to travel by ranger mobile at 6 a.m. to the remote hillside set for several hours of filming.
“That first day, heading through the woods, was tough for Beau,” said Ben, who sometimes had to carry his son.
As production went on, Ben and Amy could see that Beau was responding to the new experience of being in front of the camera.
“It is difficult with Beau because you don’t always know what he is thinking, but you could tell that he was into it,” Ben said. “I definitely think it gave him a sense of, ‘Gosh, something is expected of me here over and above what I typically do.'”
Amy said Beau’s cheery disposition was a favorite on set.
“It is a very heavy script, and everybody would say that Beau brought such a lightness to the set because he only has some understanding of the gravity of what the whole movie was about. So when he came to set, he was happy,” Amy said. “When other people would come out of scenes that may have drained them, Beau brought a real fresh energy and everyone loved it.”
Beau’s role as James required its own emotional spectrum, though. Filling the shoes of the tag-along younger brother, Beau has humorous and playful moments with his brother, played by 17-year-old Jacob Lofland (“Mud”), but must also muster the emotion for emotional scenes as the film moves along.
The brotherly bond Beau built with Lofland, both on screen and off, is what his parents point to as the most beneficial part of “Little Accidents” for their son, especially since Beau has three sisters — Lillie, Emma Grace and Ditty, who also has Down syndrome — at home. After finding out Beau had been cast just two weeks after him, Lofland started Skyping with his new on-screen brother to break the ice. Finally meeting in-person on set, the boys became inseparable, sharing the majority of their scenes and spending their downtime playing games.
“After we met that first day, we instantly hit it off,” Lofland said. “I’m so glad he liked me because Beau is so fun to be around.” Lofland said when he arrived at his hotel in Park City, Utah, for the film festival, the doorman told him someone was waiting for him. Opening the door to his room, Lofland found Beau, who came running towards him, arms open, screaming, “My brother!”
Since filming has ended, the boys have remained close, texting and Facetiming several times a week.
“I’m always gonna stay in touch with Beau,” Lofland said.
Sundance, which Amy said was the “best adventure ever,” was a big reunion for the cast and crew, who became like a family during production.
“Being downtown in Park City, where there was such a creative vibe with so many people from the industry, was amazing,” Amy said. “Sharing it all with Jacob is what made Beau happiest.”
The film’s premiere at Sundance garnered scattered praise, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it “a compelling but not self-important small-town drama” and IndieWire admiring Colangelo for an “impressive” feature film debut. But for the Wrights, being part of “Little Accidents” is something they hope will have even farther-reaching effects.
“Being the parents of kids with special needs, you become advocates,” Amy said. “For kids like Beau to be in roles like these is a great way for the world to see a 9-year-old boy on the big screen with Down syndrome that can (be physically active) and rattle off these lines. Kids just like him are capable of doing this,”
Beau, who got to walk down the red carpet at Sundance and sat through the entire film’s screening like “a little prince,” according to his mom, is still starstruck with seeing himself on the big screen.
“It was really cool!” Beau said. “I love being a movie star.”