Alex Etel made his first movie when he was eight years old, plucked out of school by director Danny Boyle to play the lead role in Millions. He’s been on hiatus for the last five years, though, living as a regular school kid in England. That is, until the Loch Ness Monster came calling. Etel stars in The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, a fantasy movie set in Scotland near that famous loch. Etel plays Angus, a lonely kid whose life changes when he discovers an egg that hatches into a mysterious, water-loving creature that only grows bigger—much bigger—with time. Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin also star in the movie, which comes out on Christmas Day.
Thirteen years old now, Etel held himself completely well in front of a room of Manhattan journalists last week. He’s talkative, friendly and un-self-conscious, even though he’s a 13-year-old with a fondness for blueberry muffins who had to do scenes in his bathing suit. Something like that would have scarred most of us for life at this age, but hey, the kid isn’t a movie star for nothing.
So is it tough playing with a creature that isn't really there in the room with you?
Yeah, it's really hard. It was a big challenge for me. The first thing that you had to get over was the self-consciousness of it, and that was really hard for me, especially in front of two hundred people and a camera.
What did you do to not think about it so much?
I don't really know. If you do something every day like that, you can get a bit used to it. So I just tried to cope with it and then I got used to it.
Did they show you sketches of what the monster was going to look like, or did they just say look, it's a big thing here?
No, when it was at the teenage version of it, it was a puppet, and then it grew to a tennis ball on a stick. It was very hard, very weird, and it's a weird thing to do.
Was it harder playing a serious role in this movie or playing your character in Millions, where you could be a little bit of a piss-taker?
It was harder doing this role, especially because of all the CGI and things. But being basically depressed the whole way through it is quite hard, and it's quite weird, because by the end of it he's a bit happier so you have to change. So it's a challenge.
How challenging were the water stunts?
The water scenes were very cold. I'm not going to deny it. It was freezing. But they were fun, in a way, apart from being near to frostbite. It's fun, because you're doing scuba diving, and this is all going to be part of your career one day. It's weird, a thirteen-year-old saying that, isn't it? It's weird, but it's a lot of fun.
How have you grown since you were in Millions when you were 8? How have you evolved and progressed and changed that you were able to get this character down.
To be honest, I really don't know how I did it. I'm really proud of myself that I did, and everyone seems to like it that's seen it. In my opinion I did better acting than Millions. I don't know how I did that, because I didn't do any drama or anything like that for about three or four years, so I don't know how I improved off of that.
You had some good adults to act with in this movie as well.
Yeah, I think they helped me a lot, especially Emily and Ben. Emily was really mother-like on set, and since it was only my second job, she did help me a lot and she kept me going for quite a lot of it because it was hard work and it was very tiring. And Ben always kept me laughing, which helps. Ben's completely crazy so he's funny. I did quite a lot of scenes with him as well.
And the dog? How was it working with the dog?
[Groans] The dog was not a very good actor. It was the only dog in the entire world that could miss every single plate on a table. They ended up having to pull things off because the dog would just, like, tiptoe around them. But when we got to Scotland, we had a different dog for two weeks that was much more well-trained, and it came to the point where it was chasing its owner. So I would have to chase the dog, the dog would be chasing its owner, pretending to be Crusoe. Crazy shoot.
Do you have a fear of water or a fear of anything?
I had a tiny fear of water at a stage in my life, because, kind of, of Jaws, which put me off a bit. So when I heard that it was going to be in water, at the time it shocked me. But I'm all right now.
Was the version of the monster in the movie how you imagined it?
No--much, much better, especially because if you tried to think of Bigfoot and you saw it on the screen, it would be ten times better when it's there. So all the facial features and everything of it were better than I had in my head. So I just sat there at the end of seeing it and went, well, I'm proud of that. It was really good.
You did an accent in this movie. Was that hard to do on top of the cold water, pretending the monster was there? There were a lot of things you were juggling.
Yeah, a lot of things. All the action--underwater scenes, trying to keep alive at one point, and then the accent on top of all that was a big, big challenge for me. That was one of the hardest things to do.
Did you work with a coach?
I worked with three coaches altogether on the whole shoot. One was only a week before I got to New Zealand, which was just grasping the basics of it. I had one for about three months of the shoot--she helped me a lot. The accent got easier, but it's never going to be really easy, because it's such a distinct accent compared to mine.
So how is your swimming experience before, in between and after?
Before, I was quite a bad swimmer, and that was the last question that Jay [Russell, the director] asked me: "By the way, can you swim?" So the first time I got there the head stuntman, Augie [Davis], taught me how to swim strongly, and then I got better through the shoot. By the end of it, I had to do a big swimming scene with waves and everything, trying to swim to the boat--so tiring. That's just a really big nightmare for me, because I had to do it, maybe, eleven times altogether. It must have only been about five meters, but god, it was hard.
So what is it about making movies that makes you want to do that instead of just being a kid in school?
Being an actor is weird, because you get to go to all different kinds of countries and things. So if I hadn't done Millions, I wouldn't have been able to meet those kind of people and go to those kind of places.
Are you planning on doing anything else right now?
Not at the moment. I've been through a few auditions, and not much has come out of it yet. I have been for an audition and the casting guy was at the screening the other day. So I wait and see.
What kinds of movies or TV shows would you like to do as an actor?
I'd like to appear in The Simpsons or Family Guy. I love those shows. That'd be cool.
But are there movies or characters or franchises that you would like to be in?
I went for an audition for "Narnia" and I'd like to be in that.
How famous would you say you are in the UK? Do you walk around and people recognize you?
A few people have. When I'm like with my friends in the park and stuff, just random people come up to me and say, "I've seen your film." And you go, "a lot of other people have as well." It's good that people do that, and I'm glad people saw it.
So different was working with Danny Boyle versus this director? How were they different, and how were they alike?
They work completely differently. Especially because [Millions] was my first acting job, Danny taught me a lot and helped me to move on a bit. But Jay is a perfectionist. So he's a great director that way.
What do your friends think of your being an actor?
I really can't get what they're thinking. Don't know at all. If they do think, they don't tell me.
Are you embarrassed when some of them see the scenes in your movies?
A few scenes are quite embarrassing, especially the first scene. In the first scene, I'm in a pair of swimming trunks, and it was toward the end of the shoot, and I'd been eating blueberry muffins quite a lot, so I was a bit pudgy. I was completely white because I'd had three winters on the go. So I wasn't looking at my best.
Does that kind of attention from being in the movies make you want to be famous, like on the cover of magazines, or does it make you feel, uh, I don't know if I can handle this?
Sometimes -- when I'm over here doing all this, and you expect that--like, I had to stand up in front of, altogether, 3,000 people and that was nerve-wracking. But when I'm out with my friends, I don't like it as much if people come up to me because obviously, you've gone out to have a good time with your friends and you've got people following you around and things, watching what you're doing. So it's annoying at times. and I just hope, when I grow up I don't have all my personal business over OK! magazine, or whatever. It's hard to avoid.
What other young actors close to your age would you like to work with?
There's not really that many that are as close to my age. It's a very limited number of them. I think maybe I'd like to work with Freddie Highmore, because obviously he's been in loads of films. I've not really seen that many of his films--I've seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and things, and he was good in them. So I'd just like to see why everyone loves him.