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Young actors get into ‘Holes’

Special to The Times

To the ranks of rising young stars, there are two more names to add alongside Hilary, Frankie and Amanda: Shia and Khleo. Appearing in the new Disney film “Holes,” Shia LaBeouf, 16, and Khleo Thomas, 14, are already relishing their time in the spotlight and eager for more.

Directed by Andrew Davis, known for grown-up action films such as “The Fugitive” and “Collateral Damage,” “Holes” is surprisingly sophisticated fare for the tween-to-teen audience. Adapted by Louis Sacher from his bestselling novel, the film intertwines the misadventures of a group of boys at a juvenile detention facility in the Texas desert and two related back stories. LaBeouf plays the beleaguered Stanley Yelnats IV, who realizes things are not what they seem at the camp, and Thomas plays Zero, an orphan and fellow detainee.

LaBeouf was a regular on the popular Disney Channel series “Even Stevens.” His name is a combination of Yiddish and French Cajun, which he says translates as “thank God for beef.” He was initially drawn to performing for reasons other than the usual quest for attention.

“I went to the 32nd Street performing arts magnet school” in Los Angeles, he says. “I was at a terrible school and the only way to get out was to be a performer, so that’s what sparked my interest.”

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In a nearly deserted office building Sunday afternoon on the Disney lot in Burbank, the two actors seem every bit their young ages, rambunctious and roughhousing before sort of settling down in front of two large bowls of M&Ms; and Jelly Bellies.

Thomas, whose full name is Khaleed Leon (Khleo is a stage moniker combining the two), was born in Anchorage, Alaska, where his father was stationed with the Army. Eventually relocating to Southern California, he began working in commercials at age 6. Though “Holes” is based on a popular book, neither Thomas nor LaBeouf had read it before they were cast.

“After I read it,” Thomas says, “I expected to be in the desert, but you just can’t be ready for that until you’re right there.” To prepare for the 100-plus-degree heat they would endure while filming outside Ridgecrest, the actors underwent a two-week physical training camp.

As Thomas explains, “We had to climb rope, dig holes, run, go hiking, do sit-ups and push-ups. The whole time we were thinking, why do we need this? Then we get to the desert and we understood. It was so hot, you could only be in a hole for 20 minutes at a time.”

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“Holes” also features such veterans as Sigourney Weaver, Henry Winkler, Patricia Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson. The young actors especially took to Jon Voight, who obviously relished the comedic strokes of playing the crooked guard Mr. Sir.

“He gave me lots of hints,” Thomas offers, “like on eye contact, where to focus when they’re shooting a close-up and the person I’m supposed to be talking to isn’t there. He said if you focus on something near you, you’ll look away sooner, so it’s better to look at something far.”

LaBeouf added, “Sometimes he’d still be in Mr. Sir mode and give you acting advice. Advice from a cowboy -- ‘You’ve got to have a manly walk there, boy.’ ”

Thomas hasn’t landed his next movie role, while LaBeouf has finished roles in the upcoming “When Harry Met Lloyd: Dumb and Dumberer” and “The Battle of Shaker Heights.”

As many 16-year-old boys likely would be, LaBeouf seems excited by his role in “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”

“I swear to God I was going through puberty right there!” he jokes. “It was set up so I was sitting with Bernie Mac, and the three Angels were sitting all in a row right across from us. They’re all in skirts, doing this,” LaBeouf rather broadly crosses and recrosses his legs. “I tell you, it was the best experience.”

The youngsters are also eager to talk about the song they recorded for the “Holes” soundtrack with rapper Doug E. Fresh, enthusiastically bursting into an a cappella rendition. The track, which features LaBeouf, Thomas and three of their fellow cast members, had its origins in the nearly six hours a day spent riding a bus to and from the remote location.

“The only thing to do on that bus,” says LaBeouf, “was nothing, twiddle our thumbs, sleep or freestyle rap.... When we weren’t filming, between takes, we’d all start rapping and beat-boxing. The producers noticed it in the dailies and came up with the idea of the song.”

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Shooting days also included sessions with tutors. “People may think kids don’t get a good education on set,” LaBeouf says, but “had we not been there, we’d be in a classroom with 60 kids and one teacher. So two teachers for three students isn’t bad.”

On-set schooling offered another perk. “You’ve never seen kids run to school like we would,” LaBeouf recalls, “because the tutor’s trailer had air-conditioning.”


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