SOLON: Sitting in a local restaurant recently, Connor Corum of Macedonia acted like a kid. Not a movie-star kid. Not like one I crossed paths with once, who complained that the hotel on a movie shoot was less than first-class.
Six-year-old Connor would rather think about Spider-Man, Star Wars and playing games on the family iPad than discuss his approach to acting (which boils down to being “like playing”) or his next career move. He’s sufficiently unjaded to call his new movie role “really awesome.”
But it’s this lack of pretense that likely led to Connor getting a pivotal role in Heaven is for Real, the new movie based on Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo’s book of the same name. The book described how Burpo’s 4-year-old son Colton began describing heaven after a difficult surgery for a ruptured appendix — and any kid who brought obvious artificiality to movie scenes would probably ruin the film. Connor was more than able to avoid show-biz tricks because this is his first screen role.
A recent chat with Connor and his parents, Shannon and Chris, revealed that Connor ended up working with Greg Kinnear (as Todd) and Kelly Reilly (as Todd’s wife, Sonja) almost by fluke. A family friend told the Corums about a casting call for blond, blue-eyed boys between the ages of 5 and 7 — a description Connor, then 5, certainly fit — and they thought it might be a fun local thing to do.
Shannon said she “didn’t understand the magnitude of it; I thought it was just in Cleveland that they did [the auditions].” Only later did she learn that the filmmakers were searching all over the U.S. and in Canada.
“We sent a picture in and his date of birth basically, and they said come in,” Shannon said. “He had a scene, he had to do lines, and he had to speak candidly about what heaven means to him.”
Having read the book, Shannon said she recognized the connection when she saw the audition scene. She had liked Burpo’s message, and Chris said they were “really thankful that we could be a part of delivering hope to people.”
And Connor? “I asked him if he wanted to do it, and he said yes,” said Shannon, who recalled showing up at the audition and seeing other parents and children approaching it more intensely. “We were there for fun. It was something very casual … and not to be taken too seriously.”
Then, they were invited to Los Angeles for a screen test with Kinnear. And the field had narrowed to just five. “It became more real,” she said.
When Connor got the job, that meant a big adjustment for the Corums as a whole. Shooting took two months in Winnipeg in the summer of 2013. The Corums packed up the whole family, including Connor’s sister Ryan, who was 3 at the time, and brother Pierce, who was 6 months. Shannon took a leave from her job as a physician recruiter while self-described “IT geek” Chris worked remotely. And, Shannon said, “We had help. We recruited grandparents … who helped with the two little ones while I was on the set with Connor.”
With assistance from director Randall Wallace, Connor was often able to find his own way into scenes — for example, imagining something sad from his own life to convey sadness in the movie — but sometimes it was a stretch. In one scene, Colton is supposed to be afraid of holding a large spider; Connor could not wait to get his hands on it. A scene of Colton being rushed into surgery did not bother Connor because “it was kind of like riding in a car but [with] no top.”
On the other hand, the movie family singing We Will Rock You on a car trip was no problem for him.
“His grandmother is a big Queen fan,” Shannon said. “He was very excited that it was the song.”
“We’ve had that scene in our car,” Chris added.
Heaven is for Real, in theaters on Wednesday, comes during a wave of faith-based films (Son of God, Noah, God’s Not Dead) and has included church outreach among its promotional efforts. No doubt there will be discussion of its message. And the Corums will see if it leads to more interest in Connor as an actor.
“We’re really protective of him,” Shannon said. “We’ve been plucked from normal suburban life into this kind of new world. We’re trying to take it one day at a time. If [acting] is something he enjoys, certainly we’ll entertain it. But if it becomes work and not fun for him, that’s when we’ll pull back. … He’s 6. That’s the priority — being the normal kid.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.