Newcomer comes of age in indie darling 'Morris From America'

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Posted: Aug 18, 2016 4:05 PM
Newcomer comes of age in indie darling 'Morris From America'

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Newcomer Markees Christmas had a lot of firsts making "Morris from America ," a coming-of-age tale about a single father and his 13-year-old hip-hop-loving son who both move to Heidelberg, Germany. Not only was it his first film, his first time in Germany and his first trip on a plane, it was also the first time he had even considered acting professionally.

Christmas, who grew up in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, came to writer-director Chad Hartigan's attention through some comedic YouTube videos that his Big Brother had made. Hartigan reached out, Christmas auditioned — one of maybe 50 kids who were called in — and he got the part. When his mom told him, she assumed he was joking.

But, just like that, at age 15, Christmas was cast as the title character of an indie film that would go on to win awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It hits theaters in limited release Friday.

Craig Robinson, known for playing Darryl on "The Office" and as a comedic standout in films like "This is the End" and "Hot Tub Time Machine," had already signed on to play Morris' father, Curtis — a recently widowed soccer coach who is trying to be both a friend and a parental figure to Morris in this tricky transitional period.

Christmas was a fan of Robinson's work, even if he didn't know his name. He said it seemed awkward because most of Robinson's films he had seen were R-rated and definitely things he "wasn't supposed to be watching."

Robinson, seated next to Christmas on a recent afternoon, said the first time they met, he thought "that's my little brother now."

Although there are comedic elements in the film, it's a rare dramatic turn for Robinson. Both the actor and various critics have referred to Curtis as being a particularly "woke" father — the kind who doesn't stress about his son's cursing or smoking, but rather about why he didn't call to say he'd be late.

Christmas was worried, though, that his actual family would not be as understanding as his onscreen one.

"I didn't know how my mom was going to look at this movie. I didn't know if she was going to be like, 'You do this in real life? You curse in real life? You smoke in real life?' I thought that's how it was going to be. I was scared. I was like, 'You can't see this,'" Christmas said.

Yet he caved and "let" Mom accompany him to a screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

"I was like, 'You've got to know that there's a line between Markees and Morris. This is someone different. I don't curse.' She was like, 'I know, I know.' And then we got up in there and that first scene where Morris is cursing, she just gave me a dead stare in the theater. I didn't even want to sit next to her after that. That one hurt my feelings! Just how she was looking at me, I was like, 'Man!'"

Robinson chimed in: "That's the life of an actor. I stupidly invited my family to the premiere of 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno.'"

"Oh come on, man," Christmas said.

"It had been over a year. And I hadn't seen all the scenes, either. When we were watching it, I was covering my mom's eyes," Robinson said.

Christmas thought about it for a moment and laughed.

"That's something I wouldn't have even told them I shot," he said.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr