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John D'Leo - The Kid's Got Skills
08/30/2011 - By Teja Anderson
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Marlboro's John D'Leo Heading Towards a Bright Future
When meeting John D’Leo for the first time people are often surprised to hear his real age, since his boyish good looks and youthful voice allow him to pass for years younger than sixteen, the age he will be on the day after our interview.
However, once he starts talking about his extremely varied and successful career as a child actor it becomes clear that this young man is every bit as mature, intelligent, witty and self-assured as many adults.
In the unpredictable world of Hollywood and the entertainment business in general, appearing younger has served John well over the past six years. He has appeared in commercials, print, television and films and he has worked with stars like Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis, Tracey Morgan and Jennifer Aniston, to name but a few. His breakout role in “The Wrestler” (2008) was as a video game playing youngster conversing and sparring with Mickey Rourke, portraying the aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. John as “Adam” practically stole the scene from Mickey Rourke, who received an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for Best Actor in his role!
With a huge Verizon® commercial campaign and two new movies coming out this fall - “Wanderlust” starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston and his first starring role as “Billy” in “Murt Ramirez Wants to Kick My Ass” - Living In Marlboro was lucky enough to catch John on a rare day off from auditions and filming. We sat down with John and his mother Ginna D’Leo in the back office of her trendy new hair salon, SOHO Studios in Old Bridge, for a chat. John, perched on a stool, spoke animatedly, often using hilarious character voices and wild arm gestures to tell his stories of life on the set as a child actor.
LIM: So you are turning 16 tomorrow. Any big birthday plans?
JD: I had friends over yesterday and we went to Six Flags Great Adventure. I didn’t get a chance to go on Kingda Ka yet because there was a thunderstorm but El Toro was awesome. My brother went too. I have a brother who is 20 and one who is 23.
LIM: Ah, so you are the baby?
JD: You have to remind me?
LIM: You may be the baby but you already have a career going on. What do they do?
JD: My brother Pat (Patrick), the younger one, is really into sports (he’s a golfer) and my oldest brother Vincent is an adrenaline junkie so he’s really into the military and is in the service right now.
LIM: So how is it that you picked acting instead of following one of your brothers?
JD: Well, about six years ago I was watching a movie, “The Kid” with Bruce Willis, and it had a child actor in it and I was like, “I can do that! I can definitely do that.” After I bugged my Dad (Chuck D’Leo) for about two months he found an acting school in Red Bank, Actor’s Training Institute (ATI) and after less than a year of training Eileen Noble, my manager, came in to scout for kids and she liked me and started sending me out on auditions. Now I upgraded to Actors Playground in Freehold; they have several great teachers there.
LIM: What was the first job you booked?
JD: [Aside to his mother] Should I say? [She nods] Are you sure? I guess it’s not that embarrassing now. It was a Chuck E. Cheese commercial. I actually did three Chuck E. Cheese commercials. But the first real thing I did was an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” That is what got me into SAG (ScreenActor’s Guild). I got a letter - “Congratulations!” - and I was like, “what is this SAG thing?” I didn’t realize at the time that it was a pretty big deal. I was just having fun doing commercials and eating lots of free pizza. I didn’t know anything about joining a union, paying dues and taxes and getting insurance and stuff. But once I did “Law & Order” I had to join SAG.
LIM: It’s not an easy thing to get into SAG. Many actors try for years and years and never get in. I am sure you now realize that there is a big difference between union and non-union sets.
JD: Yeah, a big difference. [Laughs] It’s like first class and coach, way in the back of the plane! First class is way more fun.
LIM: What was your role on “Law & Order?”
JD: It was pretty cool and pretty graphic. It was about a Dad who went crazy. He had so much debt he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to take care of his family and he went psycho and just killed us all. But first they showed us as just this normal, happy family.
LIM: So you got killed off in your very first serious role?
JD: Yeah, Christopher Meloni pulls the sheet back off my head and I’m lying in bed on a pillow with a .44 bullet hole in my head [makes dying retching sounds] lying in a pool of blood. I had to hold my breath.
LIM: Was it hard to keep still?
JD: When you are in the moment, you just get in the zone. You have all these people around you, the whole production…it’s a job and so you focus. It’s an adult business with kids in it, not the other way around.
LIM: How do people treat you on the set, like a kid or like an adult?
JD: Like an adult, I guess. I love being on the set, everyone is always extremely nice unless it’s some really low budget thing and then they can get all stressed out. [Mimics director yelling] “People get to work; we are on a time frame here!” I like to talk to the camera guys, the directors and the crew because I am interested in both sides of the camera, in front and behind. I like to talk with the cinematographers and see how they set up shots and stuff. When I did “The Wrestler” it was an independent film but it was still pretty up there. Mickey Rourke was a really nice guy and I got to work with Darren Aronofsky, who is a nice guy too and I think just the most awesome director.
LIM: Yes, they are certainly some heavyweights in the business, no pun intended. So, how did you land the role of “Adam”, Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s video game playing little buddy?
JD: I actually got to the call back late because I had five other auditions that day. I was trying to be like a big Italian bully kid so I had on this cutoff sleeve shirt and I show up late and all these people are waiting for me like [snort] who is this kid? [Laughs] Then I end up getting it.
LIM: You have that great scene with Mickey Rourke playing the old style, original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) videogame version of his life as a wrestler. Was that scene scripted? Because it almost seems like improv…
JD: [Demurs]Well I don’t know….how good do you think I did?
LIM: I thought you were incredible; you looked like a kid playing a video game and just talking, not like you were trying to say your lines.
JD: It’s an inside joke between the crew and the cast about whether that was scripted or not so I am just going to leave it at that. [John’s mother Ginna interjects.]
GD: They did two versions; one was scripted and one ad-libbed and they went with the one that was... [John cuts her off]
JD: Mom, you almost contradicted everything I just said in the last two minutes; you almost wasted everything I just said...thanks! I’m not getting any younger here, every minute counts. [We all laugh]
LIM: Okay, so how did you prepare; had you ever played that video game before?
JD: Are you kidding? Nintendo 64®? I’m born in the 21st century; I don’t even know what Atari® is. Are you serious? I live in a world of touch screen computers and voice activated GPS. I’m used to an 18 button controller and Mickey Rourke picks up a two button controller and asks me how to work it. I was laughing.
LIM: I see your point. So there was indeed a fair amount of acting going on.
JD: We weren’t even really playing; it was a pre-recorded trailer that winds up letting him win.
LIM: The film was a huge hit. What was the premiere like?
JD: That was cool; my first time down the red carpet. It was at Lincoln Center and I could not see for probably five minutes from all the flashing cameras. [Makes sound effects] I just kept blinking and telling myself to smile. I wore like a nice suit and I was like….”Yeaaaahhhh!” Wearing a nice suit was totally cool.
LIM: What was it like seeing yourself up there on the big screen?
JD: Usually when you see a movie you are watching the movie but when you see yourself in a movie all you do is watch you. I just focused on me… “Oh, I could have said that line differently…that line was good….well, maybe.” You are just staring at yourself like a moving mirror.
LIM: Who was your date?
JD: For the premiere? I was twelve; I took my mom…just like my favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio. He is just an amazing actor; he did that movie with Johnny Depp when he was my age, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and he was so good. It is ridiculous what a good actor he was as a kid. I saw that and I was like, I need to step up my game. He is a major inspiration to me and Johnny Depp is, too because he is one of the most diverse actors ever; from “Sweeny Todd” to “Pirates of the Caribbean?” That is crazy; the guy has got some skills.
LIM: What was it like working with more comedic actors like Bruce Willis and Tracey Morgan in “Cop Out” (2010)?
JD: [Laughs] Tracy Morgan is one of the funniest darn people you will ever meet. He is hilarious. You think with some actors that they are just funny for the cameras and they don’t really act like that in person; but no, they act like that in real life too. Paul Rudd is another one. I met him on the set of “Wanderlust” (due out later this year and also starring Jennifer Aniston) and he just improvs the whole time on the set. I asked one of the set guys, does he even act? They were like no, dude, he doesn’t act; he just speaks. He is hilarious!
LIM: How about you? Did they let you do any improv on set?
JD: On “Wanderlust?” Actually, yes; the set was awesome! It was the most relaxed, the most fun, the most creative, the most supportive. The director (David Wain) told you to use your instincts. My favorite set so far.
LIM: Tell us about the movie and your character, “Tanner.”
JD: It’s about this uptight urban couple (Paul Rudd and Jenifer Aniston) who go on vacation and they stop at this commune and before you know it they want to give up everything and move there. I play Paul Rudd’s nephew and I live in this legit huge mansion and I am a spoiled little bratty rich kid. I am just like my dad, who is a big jerk played by Ken Marino, but then me and my mom get rid of my dad and go to the commune, too. It’s going to be really funny.
LIM: This was yet another movie where you are surrounded with and mostly working with adults. Have you ever gotten to work with other kids?
JD: Well in “Brooklyn’s Finest” I played Ethan Hawke’s son, Vinny and there was another kid on that set that I got to be pretty good friends with. I enjoy having other kids on the set as long as they are professional.
LIM: Now that you’ve gotten time on both coasts, which are you liking better, New York or L.A.?
JD: L.A. is a nice place to visit but not to live. New York all the way. [Counts off on his fingers] One: New York is better for casting. Two: The best L.A. movie was “The Godfather” filmed…where? Three: There is no Italian food in L.A. so I could never live there ever! Four: They may have crazy good Mexican food - I mean the breakfast burritos are amazing - but if you ask for pasta marinara you get noodles with ketchup! Besides, Atlantic over Pacific all the way! And, five: We’ve got the Jersey Shore - not the show but the actual physical Jersey Shore.
LIM: Yes, let’s not confuse the reality show with the true Jersey Shore….
JD: It may be hypocritical because I have watched that show and some of the episodes are the funniest things ever; just to laugh at them and make fun of them is hilarious. You are laughing at them, not with them and they know that.
LIM: But they are such negative stereotypes. You are obviously proud to be Italian…
JD: Yes, proud to be both Italian and Irish. But there are people in New Jersey that are really like the people on the show and are okay with it, actually even proud of it. There are kids in my school who are like that.
LIM: Speaking of school, have you missed a lot because of filming?
JD: Yeah, but the administration has been really cool about it. I have good grades and I have to have an on-set tutor which is annoying and kind of defeats the whole purpose of me being there to have fun and practice my career and the process.
LIM: What are your favorite subjects in school?
JD: In school? Lunch? Gym? Last period; time to pack up and go home period?
LIM: I see. But what if the acting doesn’t pan out? Do you have a career Plan B?
JD: This whole industry is what I want to do. So, it’ either going to be acting or directing or writing or producing or cinematography; I would even work on set as a gaffer (on set electrician). To be honest, I just love being on a set; working at any job would make me happy. But if you are asking what I would do if I wasn’t in the entertainment business? [Throws his arms in the air and looks to his mother for help, shaking his head] That is a tough question and I don’t have an answer for that.
LIM: What about college?
JD: NYU all the way. Tisch Film School. I was on a set this summer and all the guys were from NYU and we had a blast. It’s an independent film called “Murt Ramirez Wants to Kick My Ass.” It about bullying but it’s really funny.
LIM: You’ve done drama and comedy; is there a genre you like best?
JD: I would love to do a horror movie. That would be awesome and I could be like the ultimate zombie fighter (makes shooting and gurgling sound effects). That would be crazy; I would write that script.
LIM: What is it about teenage boys and zombies?
JD: They are just the most fun things to shoot - not that I am like a serial killer or anything. But like with video games nowadays, it’s just fun, it’s entertaining. Just ask any 15 year-old kid in America; do you like playing video games and shooting things? Yes! Right now I am playing a mix of Call of Duty® and Halo®. But it’s summer so I can play more. During the school year I am not allowed to play Xbox® on school days, only on the weekends. I can’t really argue with my parents with that rule because I know that if I have a really good game and so do all of my friends….we would be playing the game and we would not be doing our schoolwork. So parental restrictions are sometimes good [deadpans] and I eat my vegetables and drink a big glass of orange juice every morning too. [Chuckles] Not really.
LIM: So you have rules; you don’t have star status at home. Is your mom ever a “Stage Mom” at all?
JD: [Emphatically]Absolutely not! I will say it to her face. She is the complete opposite. [John imitates his mom in a high pitched voice] “Anytime you want us to stop driving you into NewYork and paying tolls and stuff please let us know!” If anything my Dad is the one who tells me stuff on the set, like be sure you stay focused, you know, get in character and I am like “Dad, get out of here.” My Mom, she is perfect, she doesn’t bother me at all unless I want a drink or something. Because, this is what I want to do, this is my thing, and no, my parents didn’t tell me to say that. But she does help me with all my paperwork and social security and stuff like that.
LIM: What acting projects do you have going on right now?
JD: I just finished shooting a big Verizon® commercial but sadly nothing else is in the mix right now. I did just send tapes out to California.
LIM: Is there a job that got away?
JD: Well, for television I guess. I got pretty close to playing the kid (Luke Dunphy) on “Modern Family.” But you know the red headed kid (Nolan Gould) got it.
LIM: So what else are you doing for fun this summer? You mentioned loving the Jersey Shore...do you have a favorite beach?
JD: Avon, Belmar is probably the best; the people who go there know why. Point Pleasant sometimes.
LIM: Happy birthday tomorrow by the way, will you be getting your driver’s permit right away? [Both John and his mother groan for apparently different reasons.]
JD: Well, at my school you can only take the class when you are a sophomore so I couldn’t sign up to do that until this coming fall. Then after you pass that class and take the written exam you still have to go to the DMV and do all that so I guess I won’t be driving right away. But I can’t wait to start.
LIM: [To Ginna]Will you let John drive himself to auditions in the city?
GD: I don’t know, maybe when he is 18.We see kids on auditions all the time, even when John was a lot younger ,whose parents let them go up to the auditions by themselves. But his father or I always go with him. You never know what might happen to them in the elevator or in the building. Besides, he looks younger than he really is…
JD: [In a deep throaty voice] “Little boy, how did you get here? Where are your Mommy and Daddy?” [In his own voice] Oh, I’m 17, I drove here in my own car. [We all laugh]
LIM: What kind of car do you want?
JD: A fast one! No, actually this is going to sound really corny but something with really, really good gas mileage. But not a Prius®.
LIM: Why? Are you concerned about the environment?
JD: No, I am concerned about how much money is coming out of my pocket for gas! Gas is like $ 4 a gallon. I mean come on if you do a decent amount of driving that’s like $400 bucks a week!
LIM: You must have made some decent money by now…
JD: Yeah, but after taxes and manager's and agent’s fees, I get like 25% of what I make and that goes in the bank. My parents joke that I owe them millions right now.
LIM: One good movie is all you need and I have a feeling by the time people are reading this you will have booked something big!
JD: Yeah, that would be awesome!
Valentino’s in Freehold
“Saving Private Ryan”
Three People You’d Dine With:
Steven Spielberg, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and one more; Chris Angel from “Mind Freak”
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