Alex Etel entered the movie business on the highest of notes: As the star of a movie, at the age of eight, directed by Danny Boyle, who would go on to win Oscar gold for “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“Millions,” about a young boy who finds a bag full of cash, was named of the one the best films of the 2004 by Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert. He called Etel and his co-star “two of the most appealing child actors I’ve ever seen. Etel is like the young Macaulay Culkin, except that he has no idea he is cute.”
But Etel is not the cute little freckle-faced kid from “Millions” anymore. At age 16, Etel has grown into a handsome young man who still considers himself a regular British lad from Manchester who goes to school, has a steady girlfriend and enjoys action movies.
His favorite actor is Will Smith, in part because of the way he turns movie-making into a family experience, and he names “The Matrix,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Toy Story” among his most beloved films.
His newest role is as Felix, a teen dying of cancer in “Ways to Live Forever,” a dramatic feature and Crystal Heart Award-winning film playing at the 2010 Heartland Film Festival. It was a departure for Etel, who spends his entire screen time either in a wheelchair or crutches — not to mention completely bald.
“I’m not going to lie — it wasn’t nice,” he said of having his head shaved. “I live in Manchester, which is extremely cold, and it was winter as well. So I was walking around with a freezing head for about three months.
“When I first went down to the set they shaved it in patches … and then it went down to completely zero.
“It was funny to see the looks I got when I was walking around, whether people thought I was a thug or I was actually ill.”
He auditioned for the part with director Gustavo Ron and co-star Robbie Kay, and it went so well he walked out thinking, “Hmmm, I think I’ve got that.” But then a few weeks went by without any calls, leading to some disappointment.
Eventually, though, he got the part. The interaction between Etel and Kay as two boys sharing the same, slow death is the film’s high point. Kay’s character turns to humor to help him deal, while Felix is sly and sardonic. Etel even gets a wordless but powerful send-off in the hospital.
As for being immobilized in a wheelchair much of the time, he jokingly agrees that at least it meant he didn’t have as many marks to hit. “I was static most of the time. It was different, and I like a challenge.”
Etel likes changing things up so much that he says he’d love to tackle a thriller or action flick sometime in the future.
“I know that sounds completely different, but I think it would make me grow as an actor. I want to learn instead of carrying on with the same things.”
He’s certainly built an impressive resume of credits during his young life — and worked with some major names of the British screen, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin, Imelda Staunton and Timothy Spall.
He admits his memory is fuzzy from working on “Millions” since he was so young at the time, but distinctly remembers a family-type atmosphere that Boyle fostered on the set. The director encouraged his young actors to be playful, but made sure they knew when to knuckle down.
“(‘Millions’) was good, but I don’t think I really properly realized how good it was at the time because I was only 8 years old. It was like it was just going on around me instead of me actually being in it.
“But now I look back on it and I can’t believe my first role, my first acting thing was with an Oscar-winning director now. He picked me out. When I look back on it I think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s how it began.'”
Etel enjoys a close group of friends who remain unimpressed by his film career.
“I’ve grown up with mostly the same friends, even before I was filming. They’ve been on the journey with me. They think (sarcastically), ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got loads of money and you’re flying all over the world.’ I don’t know — they’re still my friends. They don’t seem bothered by it. I don’t want to bring my private life into acting because when I go home that’s me, home.”
He enjoys football (what we yanks call soccer), playing the guitar and music. He plans to study sound engineering in college.
One thing he isn’t participating in is any drama classes at his school. He says he’s “not a big stage lover,” while acknowledging maybe that will change as he gets older.
Etel does admit he was on the receiving end of some arm-twisting about employing his acting talent at school. When he talks about it, though, there isn’t a hint of ego in his bright eyes.
“(The teachers) were literally begging for me, and my mum was nearly kicking me. I know it sounds bad, but I do what I want to do. That’s how I like to live. I don’t want to live on someone else’s word.”