Exclusive: SOUL SURFER’s Ross Thomas Interview
Ross Thomas stars in the biopic SOUL SURFER, arriving in theaters April 8, which tells the inspirational story of competitive surer Bethany Hamilton. On October 31, 2003, then thirteen-year-old Bethany was attacked by a tiger shark, leaving her with her left arm ripped off just below the shoulder. For many people, that might have been the last time they got in the water, let alone surfed, but a determined Bethany was back on her board less than a month before the incident. She is now competing full-time on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Qualifying Series.
Sean McNamara wrote and directed Soul Surfer, which follows Bethany (played by AnnaSophia Robb) through her ordeal and impressive recovery. Ross plays her supportive older brother Noah while Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt also star as her parents and Carrie Underwood makes her feature film debut as Bethany’s friend Sarah.
An advocate for environmental issues and star of the professional surfer-centric television series Beyond the Break, Ross was a natural choice to play an integral member of Bethany’s ocean-loving family and it was an opportunity he had wanted for quite some time.
Daemon’s Movies talked to Ross about playing Noah, the challenges of making a movie based on true events, and his documentary, Extraction: The Plundering of the Amarakaeri Reserve.
Bethany Hamilton’s story is incredible. How did you get involved with the film?
Ross Thomas: I had been involved with Bethany’s story myself. It is incredible that people all over the world had been following her story. It’s a very inspirational story. I was working in Hawaii on a TV show called ‘Beyond the Break’ and I remember Sean McNamara telling me that he was interested in making the movie version of Bethany’s story and that was all the way back in ’07. So at the time I was really intrigued by the project happening, and I told Sean, of course, that if it ever came to fruition I’d loved to be involved on some level.
Then all these years later I got a call that the movie was actually happening and all these amazing people had come together to be a part of it and I had the opportunity to audition for the role Noah. I jumped at that opportunity to A) get to be a part of telling the story and B) go back to Hawaii to work with all the great people I was with on ‘Beyond the Break.’
How closely does ‘Soul Surfer’ stick to the actual story?
Ross Thomas: I think ‘Soul Surfer’ is a really accurate portrayal of Bethany’s story. When you make a movie based on a true story there’s the really fine line that you have to walk because you want to do justice of the facts of what happened, but of course you’re making a movie for entertainment purposes as well. I think having the family there on set, them being such an active part of the filming process with the movie, that really helped add authenticity to what their story is about.
And then you collaborate with Sean McNamara who’s definitely got a vision, but is also a very collaborative filmmaker. I think that both sides came together and ultimately produced a film that we can all be proud of and really does justice to who Bethany is and what her message is to the world.
Having the family on set is unusual. How was that for you as an actor
Ross Thomas: Well, the Hamilton family has been instrumental in every step of this filmmaking process. The entire family was often present on the set to ensure that her story was being told sincerely and accurately. They often gave input and insight to insure a truthful performance, but they never interfered with our work as actors. So I felt that it was a unique opportunity to meet first hand the real family that we were portraying. We all got quite close with their family and the whole production became a big ‘Soul Surfer’ family. So it was a really good vibe on set.
What can you tell us about your character Noah?
Ross Thomas: I play Noah, who’s Bethany’s oldest brother. There’s three of them. There’s Noah, Timmy and Bethany. Noah is naturally the protective older brother. He’s got a strong moral fiber and is deeply invested in his family and his faith. Before and after the shark attack Noah was a strong support system for Bethany, not only with her passion for surfing, but also in dealing with the aftermath of the incident. Both Noah and the family as a whole was very instrumental to what this story is about, seeing how a family bonds and comes together in the face of tragedy to ultimately come out with a positive message in the end.
You’re a strong surfer yourself, right?
Ross Thomas: Yeah. I myself surf. I’m an avid surfer. I grew up surfing a bit in Santa Cruz, California and Northern California. It was never quite as much as I wanted to, but then I moved to Los Angeles to go to school and to pursue my career and I had the ocean here in our backyard, but the waves are really not consistent here and the water is pretty cold. So, having the opportunity to go to Hawaii and make a movie and also be able to surf in the film and on our days off was fantastic.
Like I said, I had that television series ‘Beyond the Break’ down in Hawaii which revolved around the world of professional surfing and I did an extensive amount of surfing on that show. For me, it’s part of my routine. I love the ocean. I love the outdoors. There’s something about surfing and being out there in the waves is really spiritual and has a meditative feeling to it.
Now, have you ever encountered a shark?
Ross Thomas: Luckily, no. I have not encountered a shark. I’ve done a bit of diving. I did some diving on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand and got to dive with sharks and got to see whale sharks up close. But surfing, no, I’ve never come into contact with a shark, nor do I hope to.
You’ve been doing a few things besides acting. Can you tell me about the documentary you shot last year?
Ross Thomas: Sure. I’ve been interested in indigenous cultures and Shamanism and ethno-botany for a long time, and as a result of that I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with various tribes and healers. After spending time in the Amazon I became inspired to help protect people who taught me so much. So I became an advocate of indigenous rights and rainforest preservation.
Last year I spent several months in the Peruvian Amazon doing a documentary called ‘Extraction; The Plundering of the Amarakaerie Reserve’ which provides a firsthand account of the indigenous Harakmbut tribe who are living in the shadow of seismic exploration on their land up in the rainforest. So I went down there and covered testimonials directly from the people of the tribe.
I’m also actively involved with the organizations who are working on the same type of cause called Survival International and also Amazon Watch.
What can we as citizens do to help the situation?
Ross Thomas: Right now the oil company has left the reserve and they’re analyzing data that they’ve collected. I continue to monitor the situation and am in constant dialogue with various NGO’s in the area and also members of the tribe who I am able to communicate with. So there is an organization called Senamag which is largely made up of indigenous people in and around that area who are on the front lines of the conflict. By going to the Senamag website there’s ways in which you can donate and also share links with people to create an awareness and education as to what is happening down there.
Really, the greatest defense that we have in this type of work is the power of awareness and how we can spread through something like I did which is the power of media. We can spread education and awareness all over the globe in a short amount of time. That’s really a powerful tool, just opening people’s eyes to what’s going on and making sure that we protect the people who aren’t able to stand up for themselves. Right now you’re seeing not just myself, but some really amazing people that are in the spotlight that are doing this kind of work; James Cameron has just gotten back from his second trip down to Brazil to really raise awareness about the Belo Monte dam there that’s threatening the Xingu region. That’s another big issue. The plight of these indigenous people is on an international scale and it’s not just in the area that I work in. It’s great to see other people coming together and also stand up for this cause.
How was it being behind the camera for a change?
Ross Thomas: Really a learning experience. When I was down there I was by myself. So it was myself and my camera. I think that’s really the epitome of guerilla filmmaking. It was truly independent documentary filmmaking.
I think that what made it so exciting for me was that there were so many unpredictable moments. Working in non-fiction and working in documentary is truly an experience because everything is happening at the moment for the first time. There’s no script and so you don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t know what you’re going to get. Then there’s also a very long time commitment to make sure that you tell an accurate story on both sides of what’s happening. You have to cover both of those. It was a learning experience. The next time that I do something like that I want to work with a team, a production and have more allies working with me because it was very difficult just on my own.
Is this something that you want to pursue more of in the future?
Ross Thomas: I like the idea of having it as parallel passion of mine. When you take it all on yourself, when you’re behind the camera and you’re passionate about helping someone else and showing someone else a story, that is truly when it becomes gratifying for me. So I think it creates a really interesting and great dynamic for me and my career because being an actor is so much about being in front of the camera and all the attention that comes with that. This gives me an opportunity to go take the attention off of myself and use the fact that I have a voice in the work that I do to help make a difference and help people.
On the acting side are there any dream roles that you have?
Ross Thomas: There are a plethora of stories and characters out there and it’s a highly competitive business. Everyone is vying for the same roles. I’m constantly on the lookout and my team as well for new and cutting edge material that will challenge me as an actor. I prefer to seek out characters that are as unfamiliar to me as possible because I feel like that’s when I do my best work, when I have a challenging part to immerse myself in. So that’s what we’re seeking out and hopefully there’s more stuff on the horizon.
What’s next for you now?
Ross Thomas: Unfortunately I’m not able to talk about the projects that I have coming up, but there are a few things that are in the works.
Soul Surfer will be released into theaters Friday, April 8 2011.
You can read all our Soul Surfer coverage here.
(Photo: Josh Madson)
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