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Interview: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ Author Jeff Kinney, Lead Kid Actors
CHICAGO – In the best selling arena that is kid’s books, author Jeff Kinney has won praise and sales for his “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. The film version of that series is about to be released, with Zachary Gordon as Greg and Robert Capron as Rowley.
The Wimpy Kid series focuses on the middle school tribulations of Greg Heffley, who hasn’t grown as tall as some of his classmates, and whose best friend Rowley is somewhat of a social pariah. But Greg is willing to give it his best shot, and the film focuses on his efforts despite the challenges of being ostracized, practicing an inept social bearing and trying to avoid a big brother who tortures him. Basically Greg is you and me.
Author Jeff Kinney began his kid literature journey as a cartoonist – his simple line drawings are the basic illustrations for Wimpy Kid. Frustrated with rejection notices from the major comic strip syndicates, Kinney adapted his adventures to target kids, and the series of books became runaway best sellers.
Zachary Gordon is familiar to audiences from the excellent ‘The Brothers Bloom’ (playing one of the boys as a youth) and his voiceover work in a number of cartoons. Robert Capron is an enthusiastic newcomer to show business, and was actually cast first because of his perfect Rowley auditiion.
Photo Credit: Rob McEwan for © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
HollywoodChicago.com sat down with the exceedingly humble Jeff Kinney and the ebullient Wimpy Kid lead actors at a recent interview. It was a daunting task to bring the popular books to life, but the heart of those present contributed to the success.
HollywoodChicago.com: The art of the cartoonist is being altered greatly in the new media landscape. What were your early inspirations as a budding cartoonist and what are we losing in our culture now that the comic pages are changing or being absorbed on-line?
Jeff Kinney: I think its scary as a culture to see newspapers vanishing. You need a record with what is going on around you, and comics are part and parcel of that record. On my path I luckily failed to get on the comics pages [laughs]. But when I was growing up there was the holy trinity of Berke Breathed [’Bloom County’], Bill Watterson [‘Calvin and Hobbes’] and Gary Larson [’The Far Side’]. It was my big rock star dream to break into that club. I didn’t probably because my drawings weren’t good enough, but also the opportunities were shrinking. Personally that failure was a boon for me, because I wanted my cartoons to be seen, and I have gotten them seen, just in a different form.
HC: Did you have a vision for the characters going into the audition process? How critical was it to get it right?
Kinney: One thing I liked about Fox Studio’s approach is that they weren’t going to make a movie unless they got their perfect Greg. And Greg was also the very hardest part to cast, because the character is so simply drawn that everyone brings their own ideas as to what he might look like. What everyone decided was that it wasn’t so much the look of Greg as the voice. And I think Zach really nailed his audition. When I saw his audition tape I said that is the kid that gets who this character is.
Robert was an easy one. The producers saw him and said, ‘we’ve got our Rowley.’ And the other characters felt into place nicely as well.
HC: So Robert, you were cast first?
Robert Capron: Yes, and the thing is I was going through some anxiety, because if they wasn’t going to be a Greg, there is no point having a Rowley. [laughs] So I was like ‘please find a Greg, please find a Greg.’ And I had to go through auditions with about six different kids. One the groups I had to work with four different times, but that was the one Zach was in.
HC: Zach, how did you feel through the audition process?
Zachary Gordon: Before I even heard of the audition I loved the books. I told my Mom I wanted to produce, direct and star in this movie. [laughs] And four months later they called me to audition for Greg. I thought I physically looked like him, but at the time I had really long hair.
The audition process was nine months, and during that time I slept with the books under my pillow for good luck. And after the callback I actually drew pictures saying my birthday wish, three days before, was to get this part. I drew Greg and all the other characters in the book. I went into a couple of ‘boot camps’ for the part, where they cut my hair and made me look like Greg. In the last screen test, I just felt that me and Robert had on-screen chemistry.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
Kinney: Zach, I heard your drawing was great of a real cute bear.
Gordon: [Protesting] It’s Mickey Mouse!
Kinney: He was drawing this picture at my house in front of all these little kids, and they were all saying, ‘it’s a bear!’ And he was like ‘it’s Mickey Mouse!’ [laughs]
HC: When you were auditioning, what did you use from the books that helped you create your characters?
Gordon: I actually had to read the books a couple of times when I was learning my lines, and pacing back and forth thinking ‘what would Greg do in this situation?’ It’s kind of funny because when I was filming the movie I had to miss my first two months of middle school. So I was completely scared at the end of filming, hoping that my middle school wasn’t as terrifying as Greg’s, oh my gosh.
But thankfully my first day it wasn’t.
Capron: My idea for the character is that I would read random scenes when he was interacting with Greg, because Rowley is a pushover. He is. I’ve just figured out that word, I’ve been studying my vocabulary. He just kind of goes along with what happens to him. But he’s a good character because he’s honest and he tries to be happy about everything, he’s optimistic.
My school was like Greg’s. There were grown-up kids with tips of mustaches and you could see a faint beard [Kinney laughs]. And kids actually wear pajamas to school. They do. You can tell it’s their pajamas because of the stains on them. It’s so weird.
HC: Jeff, you originally thought the cartoons would appeal to adults, reliving their childhood school traumas. What did you think of them finding a new audience?
Kinney: Oh the day I got the call from my publisher saying that they wanted to make the books a children’s series I definitely had a moment of shock. It really kind of scrambled my brains for a moment that I writing for a different audience all this time. But then I realized that I wouldn’t have to change much at all, if anything, to make it appropriate for a kid’s audience. I think my sensibilities are a kid’s sensibility anyway, I’m a very ‘G to PG’ rated person. I don’t add anything bad to the world. The one thing I felt a little conflicted on was that to understand the jokes you had to understand that Greg is imperfect and flawed. If you don’t or see him as a role model, you get into some sticky territories.
Gordon: So you’re saying there was bad content in the original books?
Gordon: Do you have a copy of that? [general laughter]
Photo Credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: Jeff, there are nods to the American class system in your work – Greg and Rowley go trick-or-treating in the ‘rich’ section of town – what challenges do you observe for children of different monetary classes mixing together and how do you interpret it in your work?
Kinney: I don’t like to make social statements with my books at all. However, in the fourth book I have a plot that hinges on Greg feeling a little jealous because Rowley’s family is a little better off. So in a sense I was tapping into the struggles that people are having right now. But only in the context of a child’s world.
HC: What is the origin of the ‘cheese touch’ in the book and movie?
Kinney: We had cooties growing up, and cooties are a lower elementary school phenomenon, it doesn’t really carry over to middle school. I wanted to come up with something that was much more viral and much more dangerous. That’s where the idea for the cheese touch came from, a more nuclear strand of cooties.
HC: Zach and Robert, do you have anything like that in your schools?
Capron: There was stuff for me in my school. The way my school hallway is set up there are blue, green and white tiles. You could never touch the white tiles. So it would be like Twister, really weird. And if you did touch a white tile, everyone would think you were stupid. Loser, they would say. That was in elementary school.
Gordon: In my school, we actually had a remake of the cheese touch. Kids would run around saying ‘you’ve got the cheese touch!’
HC: Zach, you are becoming one of the great kid icons of the current children’s book world. How do relate to Daniel Radcliffe (as Harry Potter) and Logan Lerman (as Percy Jackson) in joining this particular Legend Club?
Gordon: I would say carrying my first lead, the first day I went onto the set, that I realized it wasn’t fun and games. I had a lot of responsibility for the character. I remember when we had 10 minute breaks during filming, I’d go watch the other kids hang out, but I had to go to school or study my lines. But a lot of people were counting on me and I didn’t want to let them down. I don’t think I let them down.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: Robert, a kid like Rowley seems born to be an actor. What are the differences between you, as an actor, and the way that Rowley approaches his life?
Capron: I’m definitely not as naive as he is, but I think I’m like him in other ways, I’m kind of gullible. Anyone can tell me anything and I believe them, because I guess I’m so honest. I think everyone else is honest. But lately I’ve been noticing that everyone lies a lot. [laughs]
Kinney: Tell us your quote about this press tour.
Capron: You know when Greg [in the movie] says, ‘I’ll be famous someday, but now I’m stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons.’ I was just joking around and I said, ‘I’ll be famous some day but now I’m stuck on a press tour with a bunch of morons!’ [general laughter] I was just joking.
HC: Zach and Robert, now that you made the film, what advice would you give to your classmates on how to survive middle school?
Gordon: If people don’t like you or are jealous of you, you just have to ignore them and walk away. Don’t tattle on them, that will make them hate you more, just a word of advice. And…DON’T bring a roller backpack to school. That’s another tip. And don’t forget to treat people how you want to be treated. To be a good friend you need to have a good friend.
Capron: I would say that popularity doesn’t matter. That’s the problem these days. Everybody thinks they’re a loser because there are some kids going around telling you how awesome they are. We’re not alone, you’re not the only one who gets bullied and is unpopular. Don’t think about it, you are who you are, that’s the way you are. And just ignore them.
Kinney: Would you say popularity doesn’t matter but being a movie star is kind of nice to have in your back pocket?
Capron: I will admit that, yes. [general laughter]
Gordon: If someone picks on you just say, ‘hey, I’m a movie star.’
HC: Jeff, do you worry that the film will convert the the generic and relatable line drawings into specific flesh-and-blood movie images?
Kinney: Yes, it was one of the big decisions I had to make. I had written these books to be timeless. I was very careful to keep them out of a specific time. I knew if we made the movie it would set it in a particular time and place. But the costume and set designers were careful to follow that template. It does feel like a timeless piece.
Ultimately I decided to allow the film because you only live once. Also, when I attended the wrap party of the movie I remember seeing the various families associated with the kid actors, how happy they were, and how happy the actors were. It was those relationships, the joy that this brought to these kids that trumped any artistic conflict I had.
Gordon: [Claps] Nomination – Best Speech by an author.