At 16, Toronto's Devon Bostick is a child actor in that deliciously awkward stage of being all big feet and boyish bravado.
Lanky and lean, the relatively unknown star of Atom Egoyan's upcoming film Adoration is, by turns, an old soul and an adolescent with a propensity for fidgeting - constantly combing long fingers through his tousled brown hair, checking his reflection in a window, and tugging on a rope necklace around his tanned neck.
Sitting this past week at a noisy café patio in downtown Toronto, the teenager - who is making his fifth trip to the Toronto International Film Festival next month, in Egoyan's company - says he assumed, after a three-month audition process, that he had lost the lead role in the director's $5.5-million feature, which in May was a Palme d'Or contender at Cannes. (It opens here and in the United States in February.)
"I'd auditioned about seven times, and Atom finally called to say, 'You're doing well. You're our first choice. But I'm going to the United States to check out some other people,' " recalls Bostick, who started acting at 10, and has recently appeared in Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces, Kari Skogland's The Stone Angel and will soon have a recurring role in the new CBC drama The Session, airing in January.
"I thought I was sunk, that he'd go with an American. When my agent called to say I'd actually got the part, I was shocked. Adoration has been the hardest, and most rewarding, project I've done so far. I learned so much."
Egoyan, a meticulous director who thinks and rethinks every word of a script, says Bostick was always his No. 1 pick. Still, he felt compelled to cast the net wider for his 11th feature film (his eighth at Cannes) to make sure he was leaving nothing to chance.
"I don't think I've been on a casting search for an unknown this wide, perhaps, since Felicia's Journey, when we found Elaine Cassidy [who hails from County Wicklow, Ireland] We looked across the country. We looked at hundreds of kids, coming from everywhere. But Devon, in the end, felt absolutely right," says the two-time Oscar nominee.
"He has a very particular energy," adds Egoyan. "He's very bright, but there's also a quality to him that is unpredictable yet compelling. He's not too smart for his own good, and yet he reads with intelligence. That was crucial for this role. I felt if the character in any way seemed to understand the implications of what he was doing, the tone of the film would have been wildly different."
By last fall, Egoyan had chosen his entire cast, which includes Scott Speedman, Rachel Blanchard and Arsinée Khanjian. Everyone, that is, except for the all-important adolescent, named Simon, whose parents are dead and who is being raised by his older brother, Tom (Speedman).
The complex storyline goes something like this: In high-school French class, Simon's teacher, Sabine (Khanjian), asks her students to translate from French to English a news story about a Middle Eastern terrorist who hid a bomb in his pregnant girlfriend's luggage.
Simon takes the assignment a step further, and weaves a tale in which he imagines himself as the child of a father who had tried to kill his pregnant wife. The story makes its way onto the Internet, where other students, parents and school officials assume it's fact, not fiction.
Egoyan then uses such issues as cross-cultural miscommunication and the pervasiveness of technology, against a backdrop of global terrorism, to piece together a cinematic montage about a young man who reinvents his life on the World Wide Web.
"Devon is able to hold an extraordinary emotional reservoir," says Egoyan, not usually an overly effusive type. "A lot of kids are very used to the performing aspects of their personality, which can become quite cloying at a certain point. But there was something very genuine about him."
Bostick, who spends his free time playing hacky sack and longboarding with pals in Toronto's Greektown, appears poised to catapult into a new cinematic sphere. Recently named one of Playback Magazine's Next 25 (a list of hot emerging Canadian talent), Bostick is also in the upcoming Second World War drama, The Poet, with Roy Scheider and Colm Feore. This summer alone he's been called to New York four times to audition for independent films.
But the actor - nervous glances at his reflection in the café window aside - has little ego and seems remarkably grounded. In a crumpled blue shirt, baggy jeans, and Converse runners (no laces), he said he still finds it hard to believe that the whole Cannes experience - the red carpet, the media glare, the standing ovation when Adoration's cast walked into the theatre - actually happened.
"It feels like a dream. It was crazy," says Bostick, who in two weeks' time will juggle TIFF with the start of Grade 12 at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, in west-end Toronto. "The part that made me all messed up and all jittery was all the interviews and the press," he adds. "That really took me out of my element. It's weird being on the spot. I remember walking the red carpet and looking up at the big screen, and thinking, 'Hey, I am walking.' It was so surreal. Once the trip ended, I was like, 'Did I just do that?' It never really registered. It all just went by so fast."
His acting chops, he figures, are in the family genes. His mother is Toronto-based casting director Stephanie Gorin. His dad is actor Joe Bostick ( Lars and the Real Girl). His younger brother Jesse has been cast in such television shows as The Murdoch Mysteries, and also has a role in The Poet. And his grandparents have appeared as extras on sets around town.
"We have the whole family going. We could make an army," says Bostick, whose mom is English and dad is Norwegian. "Yes, I'm part Viking," he observes with a grin.
Having grown up in that milieu, Bostick knows that the life of an actor isn't always peachy, and that money can be tight. "But I want to do it because I get a feeling that I don't really get from anything else. And the final product is always worth it."
From Grades 1 to 6, Bostick went to children's theatre camp. He then dabbled in some commercial work, but didn't like that much: "I like the subtleties I get to play in film and TV roles; commercials are far from that. Maybe I'll do more of that kind of work when I get older and actually need the money to live on my own."
John Buchan, head of talent with CBC's arts-and-entertainment division, who cast Bostick in The Session, figures the young man's onscreen appeal is part and parcel of "growing up in a show-business family. Through osmosis, you pick it up. He's clearly a bright kid, too," says Buchan, "and he knows the ins and outs of the business. He's very pragmatic about it."
The Session is a drama that Bostick describes as " Quantum Leap, but therapy-style." In the 13 episodes ordered so far, Erin Karpluk plays a woman who can go back in time and relive moments from her past with the help of a mysterious therapist (Michael Riley). Bostick plays the woman's dead brother.
Jason Knight, Buchan's right-hand man and a casting consultant at the CBC, says they wanted an actor who could bring "a haunted, tragic quality" to the part. "It's a person whose life was cut short, so when we first see him in The Session, the lead character has travelled back to the past and sees her brother. It needed to be a moment where there's an instant moment of incredible connection between the two. Devon has a real depth as an actor. He's an old soul, so he can tap into that kind of expression very easily."
Bostick's first, albeit small, break was a lead in Michael Mabbott's 2006 comedy Citizen Duane, a film with quirky potential that fizzled at the box office. "That got me to the Toronto film festival the first time," he recalls. "Again they were looking for someone completely different. I did my audition involving mime. It was completely wacko and something I would never do again. I don't know what caught their attention. But I do know the director was actually afraid of having me on set if I actually acted like that. It was a big worry."
So what does as a 16-year-old wunderkind like to do besides act, and terrorize his neighbourhood on his longboard? Bostick thinks for a minute, then offers a cheeky smile. "Cake. Ice-cream cake. Skor flavoured. Those Dairy Queen ones."
Clearly, this is still a bright kid growing into a man's body.