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THE PERFORMANCE

Times Staff Writer

Kodi SMIT-MCPHEE is just 11 years old, but in the new drama “Romulus, My Father,” opening in limited release Friday, he brings a pathos far beyond his own experience to the role of a young Raimond Gaita, the real-life Australian philosopher on whose 1998 memoir the film is based.

Smit-McPhee plays the sensitive son of struggling immigrant parents in 1960s rural Australia. He spends much of his time orbiting his hard-working ironsmith father (Eric Bana) and rarely sees his pathologically adulterous mother Christina (Franka Potente). When his parents do sporadically reunite, Raimond’s already solitary existence becomes drenched in despair and longing. Indeed, much of this story’s heartbreak is communicated in Smit-McPhee’s delicate blue-green eyes.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment for someone so young, but native Australian Smit-McPhee already is well-schooled in acting, coming as he does from a family of performers. His father, Andy McPhee, has been a working actor for 22 years, and his 16-year-old sister, Sianoa, has had a recurring role on an Australian soap opera for three years. “It’s just something that happens around the house all the time,” Andy McPhee said. “To him, it’s normal.”

Director Richard Roxburgh said that Smit-McPhee was about the 50th boy to audition for the role, but that he stood out because he’d come so prepared. “He talked about how he’d researched the book online and started to talk about the details of the story in a very observant, empathetic and adult way,” Roxburgh said. “We were just gobsmacked by him. Above and beyond this, he has got this really wonderful open, angelic face and very expressive beautiful eyes.”

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His innate talent has helped Smit-McPhee land a spot on the A-list of child actors.

Last year, his performance in “Romulus” earned him a best actor nomination and the best young actor’s award from the Australian Film Institute -- not bad for his first major film role -- and he will next appear opposite Viggo Mortensen in “The Road,” John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel.

Speaking from a hotel room in Pittsburgh, where he’s shooting “The Road,” Smit-McPhee said he had worked to get in the mind-set of his character in “Romulus,” to understand “how hard it was for him to live that life -- and he didn’t breakdown.”

The toughest scene, he said, was depicting Raimond’s panic when he discovers his mother has overdosed on sleeping pills. But it wasn’t the emotional aspect that was most trying, said Smit-McPhee. It was the physical logistics of it.

“I had to breathe a lot, very fast,” he said. “It made me kind of dizzy.”

Working with Bana, he said, was “pretty fun. He’s down to earth.”

During his preparation for the role, he and his father visited the town in which the true story is based and got to meet the inspiration for his character -- Raimond Gaita himself.

“I’m good friends with him,” Smit-McPhee said .

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Even after one of Smit-McPhee’s most wrenching scenes -- where his character is being beaten by his father -- Roxburgh said that off-screen Smit-McPhee would dissolve into laughter. To him, it was a playful game of pretend.

“He’s a little kid just loving the madness of it,” said Roxburgh.

Smit-McPhee “was called upon to do an enormous amount beyond what most adults are called to do.”

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gina.piccalo@latimes.com

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Where you’ve seen him

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After appearing in a few TV movies, Kodi Smit-McPhee, 11, got his first big break at age 9 with a costarring role in two episodes of the 2006 TNT miniseries “Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King.” He leads the cast of the wrenching drama “Romulus, My Father,” holding his own opposite Franka Potente and Eric Bana. Next, Smit-McPhee plays the son of Viggo Mortensen’s character in the upcoming post-apocalyptic drama “The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and he also is set to appear as the younger incarnation of the comic book anti-hero in Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”


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