On a sunny, Tuesday, in the Academy Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, following an interview with actress Bryce Dallas Howard, two children took a seat at the end of the long boardroom table. By age, they are the same age as two of my own children, 12 and 14, and their talent has them headlining Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. They are Oakes Fegley (Pete) and Oona Laurence (Natalie).
Oakes Fegley, now 12, and preparing to enter sixth grade, is known for his role as young Elias Thompson in the series Boardwalk Empire. Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is her starring role début in a feature film, as a 10-year old orphan, whose parents are killed in a car accident. After living in the Pacific Northwest woods for years, he’s discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger. He says he’s been helped by a dragon named Elliot.
I’m sure you’ve seen the scene where Pete jumps off the cliff and Elliot flies up into sight with Pete on his back? It’s an incredible sight and the opening of our interview. Just how many times did he have to make-believe he was throwing himself off a cliff before the final scene?
“I don’t know the exact number. I’d say probably 10-ish? Or a little bit more. It was fun. We did stunt training before we started filming and we felt safe with all the stuntmen. Every stunt was a ton of fun and I felt really safe while doing it. It was really, really cool!”
Next to Fegley sits a petite 14-year-old girl, with long dark hair. She has been acting for a while with a résumé that includes A Little Game, The Grief of Others, Damsel, Lamb, I Smile Back, Southpaw, Bad Moms, and as Matilda on Broadway. She is here to talk about her latest role, Natalie, a girl who befriends Pete when he is discovered in the forest.
She opens the interview with her favorite scene in Pete’s Dragon.
“I love the movie. The part where Oakes and Elliot say goodbye really made me cry. It really ripped my heart out.”
Fegley pipes in.
“That’s one of my favorite scenes as well. I also like the scene where Elliot slides into the cow!”
As a mom, I have come to learn that snot is a hilarious topic. Disney takes that humor and uses it in a characteristic of Elliot that is sure to have everyone laughing–Dragon Snot. Eww!
Wanna know how it’s done? Fegley is not afraid to reveal the trade secret.
“It’s water and all sorts of stuff. Do you know the air guns where you pull the lever back and once you release it, it shoves air through it? That’s sort of how it was done. They filled this machine with that and then the crew blasted it at you.”
In the movie, Pete’s dragon, Elliot is a furry beast that will have you wanting to hug and snuggle him. He is animated and Laurence and Fegley talked about the challenges of filming the scenes with Elliot.
Oona shared how imagination was a must!
“It was tough at first. A lot of the time, the dragon was a pole with a tennis ball on the end. It was difficult to imagine it was a dragon. As time went on, we all got used to it.”
“At the beginning, like she said, it was a tennis ball on a stick, or a piece of tape on the wall as an eye-line. We had to imagine that as a dragon. It gets easier and easier, but it is challenging. Definitely hard.”
Then the two became almost giddy as Fegley shared they’re seeing Elliot for the first time.
“They would give us rough drafts of the dragon, but we had never seen it. When we both saw it, we were like, Wow! This is amazing! How did they put this together? It looks so real.”
Laurence’s movie, Bad Moms, in which she stars as Jane Mitchell was far different. It was more of a comedy and now she transitions into a role more serious and dramatic, as Natalie. She does both roles believably well and says of her preference:
“I like doing both. They’re both very different. You get different things out of them. Everyone on both sets were so nice. I just want to keep doing whatever it is that comes my way.”
Both Laurence and Fegley admit they hadn’t seen the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon before filming their film version. Fegley is quick to add:
“Because they’re completely different, watching it wasn’t a matter of preparing with the other one. I did watch it after filming and I’ve seen it a couple of times since then.”
They may be pint-sized, but there is a sense of maturity to each of them. I had to nod my head in agreement when Fegley shared one of the reasons he took the role and his thoughts on his performance.
“It is a Disney film. I was like, WOW! I’m incredibly proud of myself. I can’t believe I got the role. It’s been life-changing.”
There were hundreds who auditioned for the role of Pete and Natalie. They take a moment to share how they got their roles in the film.
“We did the audition. Then another audition. I ended up doing a chemistry read with Oakes. It was kind of just like that! Then when I got it, I was like, “Oh, my! I am going to New Zealand! Whoa! I was crazy!”
Fegley keeps it short and shares the moment he got the news the part was his.
“I went through three auditions, then a chemistry read. I was actually at school. My parents were on the couch when I walked back from my bus stop. They told me I got the part. I was really happy!”
There are big things in the future for both Fegley and Laurence.
“I just finished filming a movie direct by Todd Hanes. Julianne Moore is in it. I get to do another starring role in that. It’s really cool”
That movie is Wonderstruck, for Amazon Studios in New York City. The film, based on a book by Brian Selznick, follows the separate stories of two deaf children.
Laurence’s path is a little different.
“I’m going to high school so I think that’s enough to keep me busy.”
Disney’s Pete’s Dragon was filmed on location in New Zealand. Laurence talks about what her time there was like.
“It is such a beautiful and luscious place. There is so much to do there. It was great! When we had free time we would go do all the touristy suff. The people are very nice. At the end of filming, my mom said, “We have to move here”!”
Robert Redford plays, Mr. Meachem, Grace’s father. He is often overheard sharing his sighting of a dragon in the woods years before the present. Fegley talks about working with Redford.
“He’s a legend. He is really cool. He is funny. He is nice. He is a lot like a father…to everybody. He’s amazing.”
The message both Fegley and Laurence hope families will take away from Pete’s Dragon is this:
“Family is very important. You can’t give up on family because they are there for you always.”
Pete’s Dragon Synopsis:
A reimagining of Disney’s cherished family film, “Pete’s Dragon” is the adventure of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.
For years, old wood-carver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) has delighted local children with his tales of the fierce dragon that resides deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. To his daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger, these stories are little more than tall tales…until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley). Pete is a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home who claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon named Elliot. And from Pete’s descriptions, Elliot seems remarkably similar to the dragon from Mr. Meacham’s stories. With the help of Natalie (Oona Laurence), an 11-year-old girl whose father Jack (Wes Bentley) owns the local lumber mill, Grace sets out to determine where Pete came from, where he belongs, and the truth about this dragon.