Tahoe’s teen star looks back at her movie adventure
ZEPHYR COVE (AP) – Two years ago, Becca Gardner was a middle school student on Lake Tahoe’s south shore, enjoying skiing, soccer and acting in local plays. Meanwhile, she and her mother drove trip after trip to Southern California for her to read for parts in movies or TV programs.
One finally clicked, and the 13-year-old won a role in ” An Unfinished Life,” starring Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez and Robert Redford, or – to Becca – Morgan, Jennifer and Grandpa Bob.
“I think about all of them every single day – how much I miss them and how much I wish I was on set with them, playing around. Everyone was so much fun on the set,” she said. “There wasn’t one dull person.”
Becca, now a 15-year-old high school sophomore, took to acting at an early age, performing Shakespeare in second grade and working in community theater productions.
Between 11 and 13, she and her mother made scores of trips to Southern California so she could read for parts – she estimates 50 a year.
“I don’t think I could get it done without the drive,” she said. “I can study in the car for school and study my lines and talk with my mom.”
Her Tahoe family is far different from her dysfunctional one in the movie.
Parents Rick and Kelly Gardner, both 44, 17-year-old brother R.J. and sisters Whitney, 11, and Michael, 8, live for ski season. Their intertwined lives of dance lessons, softball, soccer and baseball practice and other activities are listed in a calendar on a laptop in their kitchen.
In 31Ú2 months on the set (the movie takes place in a fictional Wyoming town, but was shot in British Columbia) Becca found another family in her co-stars, starting the first day with Redford.
“I was really nervous to meet him. I was excited. And I walk out of the trailer getting dressed, and he’s like ‘Rebecca, Rebecca,’ and I turn around and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and I’m like, ‘Hi, Mr. Redford,’ and he’s like, ‘You can call me Bob.’ I’m like, ‘OK. You can call me Becca.’
“I think of him as a stand-in grandpa. He took me under his wing from the beginning. He just put his arm around me and said, ‘We’re going to have fun.'”
Part of the fun was learning to drive the battered pickup Redford’s character Einar Gilkyson uses on his ranch.
“It was my first time driving and they had to put blocks on the pedals so I could reach,” recalls Becca, who stands a half inch taller than 5 feet.
“I was always trying to drive really well … and Bob would reach over and kick the pedal or something and make me mess up. I’d pop the clutch or something. … He told me to go straight and as fast as I could and we hit this huge bump and we got airborne and when we hit the ground – it was so much fun that day.”
She didn’t know any of Lopez’ music – or much about her co-star, who plays her mother, Jean Gilkyson.
“Everyone sees J-Lo, but I didn’t really know who J-Lo was. I just knew she was in the magazines and everything, but I loved Jennifer. Everybody else knows her as J-Lo, but I see her as Jennifer. Like they’re two different people. She was like a big sister to me. She’s so sweet and loving.”
During one of the perennial pauses between takes, Lopez asked her who her favorite singer was.
“I told her Stevie Nicks and she said, ‘I only know one of her songs,’ (Landslide) and she tried to sing the song, but she didn’t know the words very well, so I had to teach her.”
Freeman did the teaching when she joined him on a weekend cattle drive. Becca took equestrian lessons several years ago, but was taught English style. “I prefer to ride Western,” she said.
Then there was the shot in the rump.
Freeman plays Mitch Bradley, Gilkyson’s ranch hand who was mauled by a bear years earlier, making him a semi-invalid dependent on morphine.
One day, Gilkyson has gone to town and Bradley needs his fix. Griff Gilkyson (Becca’s character) is the only one to give it to him.
Although she only rolls back his pants to a discreet plumber-under-the-sink level, she kept asking him if it was OK. He assured her that it was.
“I was kind of nervous to see, like, his butt, and I pulled down his pants and he was wearing a thong!” she said.
The movie is set near Ishawooa, Wyo., where Gilkyson basically subsists, battling his own personal demons and caring for his friend, Mitch, when Lopez, playing the woman Einar blames for the death of his son shows up – beaten by an abusive boyfriend and seeking refuge with the 11-year-old granddaughter Einar never knew existed. Their story is one of forgiveness, family and the ties that bind, even from beyond the grave.
Reviews of the movie have been mostly on the positive side. It made $1 million in limited distribution its first weekend, averaging $7,254 in just 139 locations. However, Becca has been praised.
AP movie critic Christy Lemire compares her to a young Hilary Swank and calls her “a total natural and a real find (who) holds her own with the heavyweights.”
For now, the “total natural” is looking forward to winter ski competition and spring softball and still carries the same lunchbox to class she had in preschool. She continues to read for parts, and wait for callbacks.
Meanwhile, even at the Tahoe premiere of her movie, she’s just another kid from Whittell High – albeit the one signing autographs.
“Everyone is really supportive of me at school,” she said. “They think it’s cool, but they don’t really think I’m a superstar. I don’t want to be a superstar. I just want to be Becca.”