Do you feel wimpy, kid?
Adults have Larry David. Eleven-year-olds have Greg Heffley.
Heffley’s the hero of Jeff Kinney’s children’s book series “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” a lazy, judgmental, inadvertently hilarious sixth-grader enduring the most trauma-inducing epoch in a kid’s life: middle school.
Greg’s exploits, complete with amusing kiddie-style drawings, have spent 80 consecutive weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list, and roughly 65 million people have checked out the online edition of his chronicles on FunBrain.com.
Now Hollywood is calling. The rights for Kinney’s creation sold to Fox 2000 last summer, and Saturday the nationwide casting search -- which already has hit cities in Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts and Colorado -- arrived in Los Angeles.
If all goes well, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” will arrive on screen next summer -- practically record pace for an industry that routinely spends nine years getting a movie made and all the more surprising as the first book just debuted in the spring of 2007. That said, Hollywood is practically thirsting for properties with bona fide youth appeal, given that the “Harry Potter” franchise has grossed billions at the box office, and “High School Musical 3" took in more than $40 million opening weekend.
Although its laugh-out-loud comedy is more in the vein of such low-tech classics as “Home Alone,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” began as an online cartoon in 2004 and now boasts some 7 million books in print. Kinney is blunt about his hero’s appeal.
“Greg’s morally bankrupt,” he said. “There’s a soul there, but you can’t see it. It’s masked by bravado. Greg does the right thing, but it’s only when it’s the right thing for himself.”
“Greg is just wonderfully flawed,” echoed the film’s producer, Nina Jacobson.
The film will focus almost exclusively on the events of the first book, and the relationship between Greg and Rowley, his slightly dorky best friend who is the frequent butt of Greg’s shenanigans. Jacobson said that the movie played like “Superbad” for the tween set, “a romantic comedy between friends.”
On a recent morning, 10-, 11- and 12-year-old boys began lining up outside a dance hall deep in the Valley, stage mothers in tow, for a chance to immortalize such Heffley-isms as “I’m somewhere around the 52nd or 53rd most popular [kid] this year. But the good news is that I’m about to move up one spot because Charlie Davies is above me and he’s getting his braces next week.”
By 2 p.m. Nancy Foy, the casting executive from Fox, had auditioned 156 kids, all shapes, shapes, sizes and colors, in batches of five, without their parents. Each spent about 30 seconds reading the opening of the book. It’s not quite “Call me Ishmael,” but “Wimpy Kid” does have its piquancy: “First of all, let me get something straight: This is a JOURNAL, not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY told her to get one that didn’t say ‘diary’ on it.”
Some read in monotone, others performed theatrically, trying to evince the jaded tone that little boys sometimes take toward their embarrassing parents. During a break, Foy explained, “In my experience, you’ll find somebody in an open call. Not the lead, but an interesting offbeat kid. What we’re looking for is energy, an interesting eccentricity that everyone wants to watch.”
“There have been kids who’ve asked, ‘Do you get extra points for memorizing it?’ ” added Jacobson with a laugh.
Foy also has a stack on her desk of photos and resumes from virtually every tween professional actor, including Zach Mills, who starred in “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who appears opposite Viggo Mortensen in the upcoming drama “The Road.” She has been putting all the professionals on tape too.
About 20 kids from today’s session will be selected to go to callbacks on the Fox lot, where they’ll read from the script by Jackie and Jeff Filgo, best known as executive producers of “That ‘70s Show.” There’s no director yet, but Jacobson and studio executive Carla Hacken will start interviewing finalists in the next few weeks.
“Usually, you would never start casting without a director, but we figure that [Greg’s] probably going to be a complete unknown, so there’s no harm in doing massive open calls,” said Hacken, who is fast-tracking the project for the studio.
Kinney, a 37-year-old game designer from Massachusetts, didn’t intend “Wimpy Kid” for its rabid tween fan base. “It took me 10 years to even write this thing. It never occurred to me that I was writing for children,” he said, chuckling. “My editor acquired it as a book for adults. It was supposed to be a nostalgia piece, something like ‘Wonder Years,’ but then the publishing house changed course and decided to make it a kids series.”
Kinney is deeply involved with the adaptation, not only as executive producer, but also as spiritual godfather. “That was more of a lucky break for us than some obligation that we have to satisfy,” said Jacobson. “He has brought so many funny jokes into the movie. I talk to him several times a week. We go to him every time we’re in a crunch, if a scene is not funny enough. He’s more of a secret weapon.”
“I have an unusual amount of input,” said Kinney, and “I’m thrilled to death with that.”
Indeed, Kinney and Greg Heffley are definitely part of the lure for many of the 10-year-olds who’ve come out on a scorching Saturday. There are a slew of would-be child actors, stars of their local church plays, improv groups and school theater companies, but also a lot of fans of the book.
Red-headed Jacob Mabee, a sixth-grader accompanied by his mother, explains that he’s read all three of the published “Wimpy Kid” books. “I was reading the book and looked at the back and went to the website,” he said. He saw the auditions and asked his mother if he could try it out.
Seventh-grader Nick Podany thought it was “just going to be a normal day,” but then he heard about the “Wimpy Kid” auditions in his tap class and persuaded his mom to bring him here a few hours later.
“I love those books,” he said, adding that Kinney and Greg Heffley capture exactly what “I feel about school: ‘What else could go wrong?’ ”