In The Way, Way Back, a touching, amusing coming of age story from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants, Liam James is surrounded by a great ensemble of actors whose collective fame far exceeds his own.
But it’s James, who was 15 when he filmed the movie alongside Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph and more big names, who carries the film as Duncan. The 14-year-old son of a single mom, Duncan is struggling to find his way in the world.
A resident of suburban Vancouver, James has been working in television and film since he was 10. His credits include the AMC drama The Killing, NBC’s Fear Itself and the films 2012, Fred Claus and Alien vs. Predator 2.
James’ principal role in The Way, Way Back is the biggest in his career. The film opens Friday, July 16, in New Orleans. It’s scheduled to open July 26 in Baton Rouge.
James prepared for his role by getting down to the basics.
“I learned all my scenes and I knew what I wanted to do,” he said from Los Angeles during a press-junket weekend for the movie. “Nat and Jim, they knew I could do it, but they really took hold of me and helped me through the whole process.”
James had seen The Descendants, the George Clooney-starring, 2011 drama that won Faxon and Rash Academy Awards for screenwriting, and loved it. With The Way, Way Back, Faxon and Rash make their co-directorial debut.
“They collaborate so well, it’s almost like working with one person,” James said of the writer-directors. “They’re completely collaborative and they come together in such a beautiful way.
“They made it easy for me. I could talk to both of them or whoever was there. Whatever was going on, it seemed like a very natural process.”
Faxon and Rash, in addition to being filmmakers, have extensive acting experience in film and TV, including the TV series Community and Ben and Kate.
“They really went above and beyond for us,” James recalled of the film’s production last summer in Boston. “They know the process that an actor goes through, they know how actors work. That helped me and everybody on the shoot do a great job.”
James joined the film’s cast as a fan of his co-stars, Carell and Rockwell.
“Those are two of my favorite actors,” he said. “When I heard that I was going to be working with them I was like, ‘OK. I’m not gonna freak out, but this is amazing.’ In person, they lived up to my expectations and more.”
Many of James’ scenes are with Rockwell, who co-stars as the outgoing but underachieving manager of the Water Wizz Water Park. The mentor role Rockwell plays in The Way, Way Back manifested itself in real life when Rockwell and James participated in acting exercises together and joint readings of the script.
“I will call him my friend for the rest of my life,” James said.
Much of The Way, Way Back’s drama centers upon Duncan’s troubled relationship with his mother’s inflexible, controlling boyfriend. Trent is a rare non-comedic role for Carell.
“Steve doesn’t have even one funny scene,” James said. “That’s a hard thing to do, play a character who has no growth and is just a nasty person. He did an amazing job on that. Our scenes, where we’re clashing with such spitfire and angry words, they were fun to film. At the same time, off screen Steve is this charming, lovely guy who’s very funny.”
It was a treat working with Rudolph, who plays Rockwell’s girlfriend and co-worker at the water park, and Collette, who co-stars as Duncan’s mother.
“Toni, she was like a mother to me,” James said. “Toni, Maya, they all have great senses of humor. I probably am the least funny person in the group.”
James got into acting in 2006, after his mother asked if he wanted to do some work as an extra. He enjoyed it, moved on to body-double work and then auditioned for acting roles.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said. “And I’ve been so fortunate to meet all these people.”
James hopes he’ll have a sustained acting career.
“I want to be a part of as many great films as I can be. I really got lucky with The Way, Way Back. It was such an amazing experience. I’m going to remember last summer for the rest of my life. But if it all ended, I think I would say I was lucky to have all of these experiences I’ve had thus far.”