At 11 – just turning 12 – South Surrey actor Lilah Fitzgerald has a poise and maturity beyond her years.
She already displayed it early this year walking the red carpet – in a stunning gold- and-ruffles-gown highlighted by the media – for the Berlin premiere of director Wim Wenders’ Everything Will Be Fine, her first theatrical feature.
That innate savoir-faire didn’t desert her when she picked up the Leo Award for best lead performance by a female in a television movie at the Vancouver awards ceremony June 14.
The only thing that actually fazed the home-schooled, Morgan Crossing area resident, she admitted, was the moment of hearing her name announced for the award, recognizing her work in the B.C.-lensed Polka-Dot and Luey.
Her lead role was as a young girl on the edge of the foster system whose bond with a police dog, Luey, leads to a romance between her single mother and a policeman.
It was a fun gig (she turned 11 while they shot in Langley, Mission and Aldergrove last year), highlighted by the actual bond she developed with Maggie (the dog playing Luey), even though the young vegetarian actor had to have chicken meat rubbed on her hands to trigger Luey’s instant liking for her character.
“It was worth it,” she laughs. “And she turned out to be the sweetest dog.”
But even with the fun she had making the movie, she wasn’t prepared to win the Leo, even with her nomination, she said.
“I wasn’t expecting it. The lights (in the auditorium) were so bright I couldn’t see anything. I don’t remember what my speech was. Mom said she was crying. People gave me a standing ovation. I was lucky the presenter held the Leo (trophy) for me – it’s pretty heavy.”
Up against teen actress Megan Charpentier – becoming well known for horror movie roles – and adult star Meghan Ory, of the televison series Once Upon A Time, Lilah had been convinced her appearance that evening was to be simply as a graceful also-ran.
Her biggest fan, mom Angela Fitzgerald, also believed she was there to support her daughter through the recognition of her nomination and the temporary disappointment of being passed over for the award.
It wasn’t that big a deal, they felt; Ory and Charpentier are experienced, well-established actresses, while Lilah is still paying her dues; auditioning for new roles, and preparing to begin shooting for season two of the Bravo TV series Girlfriend’s Guide To Divorce this month.
It was also funny to her because Megan is the name of her older sister, a visual artist, writer and photographer – and like dad Tim, also a huge supporter of Lilah’s career .
“I felt for sure one of them was going to get it,” said Lilah.
“I was thinking I’ll know right away if it’s me or not me, but since they almost have the same name, they’ll be wondering which one it is when the award is first announced,” she said.
“Then the presenter said my name. I turned to my mom and said ‘What?!…”
She pauses for effect, eyes emphatically wide, before repeating “What?!”
It’s in that moment of dramatic exaggeration that you glimpse the thoroughly normal child inside the diminuitive Lilah.
But it’s also a demonstration of an endearing naturalness with which she zeroes in on and expresses emotions – already well-noted by industry professionals.
That includes actor James Franco, star of Everything Will Be Fine (along with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rachel McAdams, Marie-Josee Croze, Robert Naylor) – a drama about a man learning to reconnect with people, including a step-daughter, after the traumatic experience of killing a child in an accident.
Noted for his outspoken stance against the conventions of the ‘child actor’, Franco was throughly won over by Lilah when they shot the movie two years ago in Quebec (Lilah herself is averse to the term ‘child actor’ – considering it patronizing, she prefers ‘young actor’).
In an interview with the British online magazine www.theupcoming.co.uk, Franco enthused “Lilah Fitzgerald, who plays my step-daughter as a child, is a very funny, special girl… she is very precocious, but still a kid… Lilah has a good sense of humour and I think it really added to our relationship on the screen.”
For her part Lilah recalls Franco as “a neat person” who kept her laughing during rehearsals doing his part each time “as a different character in a movie he’d done.”
Wenders ended up writing banter between them into the script, Lilah said.
“He did a lot of improv, and I’d never done improv before.”
Wenders too, she recalls, is “so nice – he has such an eye for art.”
At the Berlin premiere, Lilah said, he insisted she stand in front of him “so I wouldn’t get cut out of the pictures.”
The red carpet, with it’s blinding glare of lights and photographers was another indelible memory.
“I didn’t know it would be that amazing,” she said. “I always said I wanted to go to Europe, and suddenly I’m in Europe going to the Berlin Film Festival. I don’t think I could have imagined what it would be like – and I have a really good imagination.”
Born in Vernon, Lilah started in the business when she was seven.
Her first audition was for the Twilight series, and although she didn’t land a part, she has been booking roles steadily ever since.
“I wanted to do it ever since I found out this was something you could do,” she said.
The family decided they had to move to South Surrey after a few too many scary winter drives on the Coquihalla to make Lilah’s early-morning casting calls, Angela said.
Lilah says she feels very lucky to be an actor and to have had all the support she has received from her family and people in the industry.
“People call it a play when they’re on stage. I feel like I’m having fun and ‘playing’ although I still take it seriously.
“It’s like a scream of joy – yay, I have another audition; yay, I’m on set. It’s so amazing – I don’t understand how you could do it, if you didn’t like it.”