Alex Etel was only eight when Danny Boyle picked him during a general casting call to star in “Millions” (2005). And he was eleven when Jay Russell chose him for the lead in “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep,” a warm-hearted family film in which he plays a lonely Scottish boy who raises a newly-hatched critter that turns out to be the latest generation of the Loch Ness beastie. Now thirteen, Etel talked during a visit to Dallas about why he was glad to make this his second starring role.
“Before we did the film, I looked on the Internet at the local cinema listings,” Etel said, “and there was nothing on for my age at all, absolutely nothing. I wanted to go out with my friends, and the cinema’s the ideal place when it’s cold and rainy, and there was nothing on that we could see. It made me feel upset that no one had made something like that, so I wanted to make a film that people [my age] could go see with their friends at the weekend.”
Still, the part of little Angus MacMurrow made some demands on Etel. “It was hard to get into that depression mode,” he said. “He wasn’t a happy boy, really, in the film. And it was hard to get into that stage.
“I’ve got a few more friends,” Etel added puckishly. “And I’m a bit happier. When I’m not [making movies], I’m always doing something completely insane—I’m always doing sports or roller-blading. That’s what I do in my spare time. So it was a really weird character to play—I’ve always gotten ‘a parent died’ role in films I’ve played—which is really depressing, to be honest. But it’s all about how he lives through it and how he deals with his dad not coming back [from the war]. It’s a really sad story line, but it’s quite happy in the end.”
Etel had high praise for his human co-stars Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and David Morrissey, but was more ambiguous in discussing the title character, the fast-growing creature that he names Crusoe. “When it was the early stages of it, it was a puppet,” he said. “And when it got to the teenage stage, it was like a big puppet. They hadn’t even decided the noise that it made when we were making [the movie]. So it opened its mouth, but nothing came out. And then it got to a tennis ball on a stick, which got harder and harder to do. It was quite weird to act to a tennis ball. You’re just thinking, why am I doing this?”
And then there came the scenes with the full-sized Crusoe, which Etel actually rode after releasing it into the loch. “It was weird, because it was a Jet Ski with a big neck on the front of it,” he recalled. “And I had to sit on that neck, and there was someone driving on the back of it. And that was going over the water in the tank.
“And then they had the inside one, which made you feel really stupid, ’cause you were sitting on the neck with hydraulics underneath holding you up. It was weird, but it was a lot of fun.”
But post-production wizardry made all the difference. “It was only September the first time I saw [the finished film],” Etel said, “and I was just really amazed. And by the end I thought, I’m really proud of that.”
The story, of course, is set in Scotland (and during World War II), but though some of it was shot there, a good deal of it was done in New Zealand. “They have Weta Workshop,” Etel explained, “which is amazing—they did ‘King Kong’ and things like that there. They do really good special effects, and I think that’s what Jay was looking for, because if it looked really bad, it wasn’t going to be a good film. And it did look a lot like Scotland—it was all hills and everything. And it was quite sunny.”
Etel admitted he was happy to shoot in New Zealand for another reason. “Scotland was colder,” he said. “So I’m glad they kept us in New Zealand longer. I can’t deal with the cold anymore. I’ve just had four winters on the go. We had the English winter, then New Zealand, then we had English again, then we had summer in England—which was a complete washout.
“And New Zealand was so windy. When you’re in the water that long, it just gets freezing. And they had to cool the tank down as well, because it was making steam. So that made it even colder, which didn’t help. So on night shoots you sat with towels on, and then they put you in a shower and you warm up, and then they put you back in and you get cold again. You couldn’t win either way.”
It’s ironic that with all the physical demands of the picture and his own devotion to sports and roller-blading, in fact, that the only serious injury Etel suffered came off the field and the set, when he was attending a football match of his hometown team, Manchester United. He slipped on a drink spilled on the floor and broke his collarbone.
“It was two days before we left to come to L.A. the first time,” he said. “So I spent a week in complete agony, and them we came over here and it swelled up on the plane coming over and it was just agony all the way.
“It’s all right now,” Etel added. “But I still go to the United games!”
And despite their difficulty it was still one of the water scenes Etel said was his favorite—“the drowning scene,” as he called it. “We went into the swimming pool and we stepped onto this platform in the tank, and [stunt coordinator Augie Davis] had to put [a weight belt of] maybe seventy-two kilograms on me to make me sink. I was just tied down with weights, and I put my life in someone else’s hands.
“Fortunately,” he added with a smile, “I lived.”