At 13, Percy Hynes White already has credits a middle-aged actor could envy. In the last few months alone, he's nabbed two acting awards for his first leading role in a feature and appeared onscreen in Robin Williams's penultimate film, Night at the Museum 3, featuring the likes of Owen Wilson and Ricky Gervais. But when I try to catch up with him for a chat, the life of a young actor is revealed. Once we have to reschedule because he's delayed on set out of town. Another time, his phone had lost its charge while he was distracted by his new Xbox.
He's talented and in-demand; still, he's a teen.
When we do connect, Newfoundland-born Percy is quick to use words like "awesome" to describe what it's like to be working so much, so young. To hear him tell it, acting is just plain fun. Back from five weeks shooting an upcoming feature tentatively called Backcountry, he enthusiastically mentions the people he worked with and says he's made some best friends.
It's understandable he's not fazed by cameras or spotlights; they've been around him since he was born. His parents – Joel Thomas Hynes and Sherry White – are both accomplished writers and performers in film, TV and on stage. Percy says he had his first role at five; his father will tell you that, in fact, he made his debut in utero.
That's not to say Percy simply inherited the ability to perform. Although he has studied – a couple of years of theatre school in St. John's (his hometown) – he was director Christian Sparkes's first choice for the lead in Cast No Shadow (which recently swept the Atlantic Film Festival awards, picking up best film, director, screenplay and more, alongside Percy's win for best actor) for his instinctual talent. "I knew Percy could do it," Sparkes says. "The least of my worries was that he could deliver."
In fact, the question wasn't so much whether he could do it, but whether, at 11, he should.
Cast No Shadow – opening Friday in select cities – is the unsettling tale of a troubled teen navigating his way around an abusive father. Originally written (by Hynes) for an older lead, Sparkes says they had trouble finding the right kid. "The film rests on the kid's shoulders because he's in every scene."
Naturally, Percy's parents weren't keen on their young son delving into such dark material and resisted. Sparkes kept coming back to them and eventually Hynes rewrote the script for a younger boy and toned down some of the content. The choice was left to Percy, who read the script, did a couple of rehearsals and decided he'd like to play 13-year-old Jude (with his own father playing Jude's violent dad).
With his big, wise eyes, Percy is decidedly compelling onscreen, a worldly mixture of youth and age. It's a stunning performance. Says Sparkes: "He's confident and he doesn't overthink it, he just operates on instinct, which is where you want your actors to be."
While Percy says carrying a film with such tough content could be "emotionally wrecking, that's the type of character Jude is, he's totally screwed-up," he credits his father and Sparkes for helping him focus into the role.
For his part, Sparkes says that while Percy could emotionally get there "surprisingly easily, the hard part was keeping him interested in being in a movie and being in a dark film, because Percy is nothing like the boy in the movie. He's a real ham, he's always beatboxing or breakdancing or telling jokes or doing impressions with the cast and crew."
Of course you won't see any of his beatboxing in Cast No Shadow, but Percy added his touch in other less obvious ways. In one scene he is eating with a local recluse played by Mary Colin-Chisholm, though eating is too delicate to describe the way Jude is shoving food into his face. It wasn't written that way, but Percy started doing it and, says Sparkes, "it made total sense. He's been on his own for a while, his dad's in jail, he's probably starving." (Percy also made suggestions when on set for Night at the Museum, including one scene they shot that "hinted at who my character grew up to be.") It doesn't take hints to imagine what Percy could grow up to be. He's been offered so much work, he's had to turn down some impressive deals. After all, he does have to get to high school, even if he described his experience on Cast No Shadow, in an emotional acceptance speech for the best-actor award, as "the best time of my life."