DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The movie "Morris From America" opens in theaters this weekend. It's about an African-American teenager who moves to Germany with his father. Mired in culture shock, the two bond over hip-hop.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MORRIS FROM AMERICA")
CRAIG ROBINSON: (As Curtis Gentry) It's music right here, boy.
MARKEES CHRISTMAS: (As Morris Gentry) It's boring.
ROBINSON: (As Curtis Gentry) Boy, go to your room. You're grounded.
CHRISTMAS: (As Morris Gentry) For what?
ROBINSON: (As Curtis Gentry) Because you like terrible music.
CHRISTMAS: (As Morris Gentry) You can't ground me for that.
ROBINSON: (As Curtis Gentry) I can't?
GREENE: Comic actor Craig Robinson plays the father, and Morris is portrayed by newcomer Markees Christmas. NPR's Mandalit del Barco met up with the rising star as he made his debut.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: "Morris From America" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Nestled in the mountain town of Park City, Utah, Sundance has a rugged glamour. Movie stars spill drinks as they trudge through the snow. Movie producers frantically make deals in luxury ski resorts and condos. And yet, there on the red carpet was Markees Christmas, a baby-faced 16-year-old from south Los Angeles. He gingerly stepped in front of a line of photographers, a charming fish out of water, unsure of how to pose.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good, only one more. Thank you.
DEL BARCO: Then Christmas settled into his seat in a packed movie theater to watch himself on the big screen for the first time as Morris, a shy, chubby 13-year-old transplanted from America to Germany. Morris listens to rap, tries to make friends and develops a crush on a blond classmate. During one key scene in the movie, there he is as Morris in his bedroom fantasizing about the object of his affection. He dresses up one of his pillows with her sweater and slow dances with it. He kisses it and tenderly caresses it and begins to, well, you get the picture.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MORRIS FROM AMERICA")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Ever had a...
DEL BARCO: As the audience giggles, Christmas cringes, cowering in his seat, pulling his hoodie over his face.
DEL BARCO: He just couldn't bear to watch himself.
CHRISTMAS: No. That pillow scene just melts my soul (laughter). It just hits me real hard every time I see it. Like, I had fun shooting it. It's just seeing other people see it and they're actually laughing, it's just like, no. Like, I really don't even want my friends to see it.
DEL BARCO: Christmas is now sitting in a park up the hill from his house in LA. He says aside from that embarrassing scene he can relate to his character.
CHRISTMAS: Morris is shy, a lot like me, but wants to be famous, just like me, falls in love too easy, has a pretty - a pretty good relationship with his father.
DEL BARCO: Christmas actually grew up without his father around. When he was 8, his mom signed him up for the Big Brothers program. His assigned mentor, Matt Hill, watched him act in his sixth grade play then recruited him to make a web series of short, funny YouTube videos. In them, Christmas plays just about all the characters.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MARKEES VS.: SECRET AGENT MARKEES CHRISTMAS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) He changed the world.
CHRISTMAS: (As Special Agent Markees Christmas) This is Special Agent Markees Christmas.
JAE SUH PARK: (As character) Your country needs you.
DEL BARCO: There's "Markees Vs. Capitalism," "Markees Saves The Fish," "Markees: Secret Agent."
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MARKEES VS.: SECRET AGENT MARKEES CHRISTMAS"
CHRISTMAS: (As Special Agent Markees Christmas) No.
CHRISTMAS: (As Dr. Science) There's no use. Even if you do escape, you'll die.
CHRISTMAS: (As Special Agent Markees Christmas) But why?
CHRISTMAS: (As Dr. Science) Don't you know all the crimes America's committed?
CHRISTMAS: (As Special Agent Markees Christmas) I don't know about any of that, man. I've only had up to a sixth grade history.
CHRISTMAS: (As Dr. Science) Well, then I know exactly what we should do.
ROBINSON: (Laughter) It was just silly and ridiculous. And he's got this white fake beard and mustache. It was ridiculous.
DEL BARCO: Comic actor Craig Robinson notes these five-minute YouTube videos were the only thing Christmas had done on camera before making "Morris From America." Robinson, who plays Morris' father, says he's impressed by how well the young actor did.
ROBINSON: He cried. He rapped. He had the pillow scene. Like, he got a lot in one. So, yeah, kudos to you kid.
DEL BARCO: Director Chad Hartigan had seen the YouTube videos while searching for his main actor. The director sent a message to Christmas's Big Brother via YouTube to call him in to read for the part.
CHRIS HARTIGAN: His audition was OK (laughter). It wasn't amazing because he had never done anything like that before. But, I mean, there is something special about this kid. He's very rough. There was the raw materials there, but I was going to have to earn my salary. I mean, this entire movie rests on his little shoulders.
DEL BARCO: Hartigan says he took a chance on Christmas, who's a lot like the character he plays - a sensitive kid not in any rush to grow up. The director says he didn't want to teach Christmas how to act, but he did spend a lot of one-on-one rehearsal time with him at home.
HARTIGAN: One of the first times I came to hang out at his house I suggested maybe we go for a walk and talk about the movie. And he said it's not the safest neighborhood to walk around in and that he sometimes gets picked on or messed with by gang bangers. And I just said, oh, because you're small. And he said, no, because I'm happy. I do think that we captured some of that in the movie.
DEL BARCO: Christmas says in his neighborhood he can't wear baggy pants or anything red or blue. That's how the rival gang members dress.
CHRISTMAS: In these type of neighborhoods, you're supposed to be tough at all times. You're supposed to look tough. You're supposed to walk tough - everything tough. If I'm just walking down the street just being happy, just loving life, someone's going to be like, man, you're smiling too much.
DEL BARCO: He says growing up he's seen gang violence up close.
CHRISTMAS: I've witnessed people get shot right in front of my face, so I'm still traumatized just thinking about it - just too much to be around. Especially for someone that's shy, it's too much to be around.
DEL BARCO: Even so, Christmas says he was terrified to leave home to go to Germany to film the movie. He'd never been on a plane before, never ventured out of LA. His grandma went with him on location. Back here in LA, he lives in a small apartment with his mother LaTania Green, a hairdresser proud of being five years sober, also his sister Terri Anne and his niece.
LATANIA GREEN: When he started walking, pretty much, he was entertaining. So it didn't surprise me for them putting him in this film. It didn't surprise me at all, and he did a very good job.
TERRI ANNE: He's going to make it. He's going to make sure that we all make it.
DEL BARCO: Like Morris, Markees Christmas spends a lot of time hanging out in his bedroom, listening to hip-hop and playing "Grand Theft Auto."
CHRISTMAS: I was just making those videos for fun, so once I went to Germany, got used to the set life, I just fell in love with it. Acting is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
DEL BARCO: Markees Christmas has already shot a pilot for a Disney show. Craig Robinson says he's got a bright future in showbiz.
ROBINSON: He's a nice kid and - who's enjoying his ride. You know, he's got an agent and everything. Go, Markees, go. Go get them, tiger.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRISTMAS: Hit it (beat boxing) yeah. Let's go, yeah, yeah, come on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.