Radio-television-film junior Samuel Davis carries himself with an almost apologetic boldness. Standing on the set of his third feature film, he speaks with both an easy confidence and humble self-awareness — at times you have to prod him into talking more about himself.
Last Saturday was the final day of production for “Abel’s Field,” which stars Davis as Seth McArdle, a troubled high school senior who develops an unlikely friendship with his school’s groundskeeper, played by journeyman actor Kevin Sorbo. Shot on location 35 miles northeast of Austin in Thrall, the film’s cast and crew is 95-percent Texan.
“This is a Texas film. It’s a Texas story,” said producer Tore Knos. “The audition tapes that we saw out of Los Angeles were primarily Los Angeles-based actors who had grown up in LA and didn’t really, we felt, embody that spirit — that kind of fight that you find in a lot of the residents living here in Texas.”
Knos said the decision to cast the lead role of Seth out of Austin was due in part to the insight of casting director Vicky Boone. Boone, a native Houstonian, worked in Austin for 10 years as a theater director and taught acting and directing at UT before moving on to a career in casting. Recently, she’s casted Spike Jonze’s “Scenes from the Suburbs” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
Having originally discovered Davis in a commercial audition about 10 months ago, Boone initially had the student actor come in to read for one of the film’s supporting roles. But as Knos recalls, “When he came into the audition, [director] Gordie Haakstad and I’s jaws just dropped — I mean, he is the complete package. If there’s anyone who can play Texan, it’s Samuel Davis.”
Knos’ statement is a little hyperbolic. Samuel Davis doesn’t speak with half the stereotypical drawl of Tommy Lee Jones, nor does he have the kind of mustache one would expect to figure prominently into this discussion, but what Davis does have is pedigree. A native of Clear Lake, the master-planned community on the outskirts of greater Houston where NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located, Davis is a sixth-generation Texan. His father, John Davis, has represented Clear Lake’s 129th district in the Texas State Legislature since the mid-’90s.
At Clear Lake High School, Davis participated in football and track and field until landing a role in a school production of “Julius Caesar.” After that, he dropped all his other extracurricular activities and focused on his acting.
However, despite his successes as an actor, in his time at UT, Davis has tried to downplay his thespianism and shift his focus to other aspects of film production. “I don’t talk about it too much to people,” he said. “I guess I have a fear of being pretentious, and unfortunately, a lot of people that say that they act are very arrogant. I think that acting is art, and I think you should be humble about everything you create. Just as acting is an interest, I like the creating point of view, the producing part of it, and that’s just as fun as it is to act in front of the camera.”
Davis’s real passion is writing, and associate professor Richard Lewis’ introduction to screenwriting class figures prominently into his 15-hour course load for this semester. Even so, he doesn’t seem very content to resign himself to just one facet of film production yet. “I think I like screenwriting because you’re able to tell that story,” Davis said. “But I also like watching Gordie because he gets to direct, but he doesn’t have to worry about all of the other issues that are going on. I think for film, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I think it’s important to get everyone’s perspective on something.”
Line producer Sandhya Shardanand corroborated Davis’s interpretation of the industry while talking about her experience with the young actor and his nebulous film aspirations.
“Samuel is a very natural actor. When you see him, you really feel his emotions coming from his heart,” Shardanand said. “As an actor, I’m sure his experience will certainly influence his [screenwriting] because when you understand the challenges of an actor and what they can draw from the page and what guidance they might need — just a few more words to tell them a little bit about their character can make a huge difference.”
Shardanand, a 1993 UT MBA graduate who held creative producing roles on Malick’s last three projects, including one that just wrapped production in Oklahoma starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, said that not having the kind of big budget resources she is used to working with was a challenge.
“This one is a very low budget film, and if I could have hired the same people I worked with on those movies, I would, but I can’t ... my job as line producer for ‘Abel’s Field’ was to look at the money I had and hire the best people I could afford to hire. I’d like to get Academy Award-winning cinematographers and sound people and all those people, but they’re a little out of my reach right now.”
Yet, having spent most of her film career in Austin, Shardanand knew that assembling a crew on such a budget would be an easier task here than it would be in most places.
“I remember when I got into the field, I would call people because I was offered a job doing something I had never done before, and I called somebody randomly,” she said. “So I’m basically asking somebody ‘How do you do your job?’ so I can do the same thing. I think in New York or LA someone would be like ‘Why would I tell you how to do that? You’re the competition.’ But here, nobody has a problem sharing their information, helping you along, bringing everyone else up.”
It was this cultured atmosphere of community, Shardanand said, which allowed her to put together a production team that met what she refers to as a ‘quest for excellence.’
“I mean, just because our actors or our crew or the different people working here have not won Oscars yet does not mean they’re also not capable of excellence,” she said. ”So I looked for people who I knew could do a very good job.”
Though she wasn’t involved in casting Davis, to Shardanand, he was indicative of the level of excellence she looked for in her own hires.
“Now that we’ve been working with him, Sam, seeing him do amazing work in ‘Abel’s Field’ ... his own character and personality very much mirror the character in the movie,” she said. “That’s probably why the performance is so natural, because it’s not so far from who he really is. It’s been really great seeing his work every day — and he has been here every day in some scene or another. The movie revolves around his character — he’s the heart of it.”
The seasoned actors who worked alongside Davis echoed Shardanand’s sentiments when talking about their co-star.
Kevin Sorbo, most famous for playing Hercules in “Hercules: the Legendary Journeys,” and Captain Dylan Hunt in Gene Roddenberry’s “Andromeda,” plays groundskeeper Abel Adamson in the film. “For someone just starting out in the business, he displayed a confidence and professionalism that I wasn’t even close to having when I was his age. I hate him for that,” quipped Sorbo, seeming anything but disappointed with Davis.
Richard Dillard, another veteran actor who, despite a long list of acting credits will likely always be best known for his role as Mr. Pickford in 1993’s “Dazed and Confused,” remarked on the technical proficiency of Davis’s abilities.
“He’s very directable, I can tell because I see Gordie going up and talking to him between the shots, and he’ll do something totally different for the next take all in the same scene. Then Gordie will come back and say something again, and it will be totally different. You don’t always see that, sometimes an actor does the same thing over and over no matter what anybody says to him. It shows the directability of him. He’s able to adapt and do what the director says, which is so important in the film business.”
Right now, Davis is just trying to get back into school. After missing the first two weeks of the semester during filming, he acknowledges that it will be a struggle to catch up, but he’s adamant about keeping college a part of his life.
“I took RTF 318 last year, and [assistant professor] Ed Radtke was speaking a lot about how persistence is necessary ... You’ll see a lot of different views on set of how to shoot things a certain way, and it’s interesting watching the cinematographer and how he frames his shot,” Davis said. “We’re talking about it in class, and it’s right here — it’s exactly it. It’s like a field trip every day.”
Printed on Friday, September 16, 2011 as: UT student fares well in film industry.