Acting on the ball
Joseph McCaughtry has gotten used to people telling him they hate him. And he likes it.
The Warren native plays the rich bully Lyle Ace in the coming-of-age comedy “Ping Pong Summer,” which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and opens Friday in select cities. It will be available locally Friday on Video on Demand through cable and satellite providers.
“I’ve had people walk up and say, ‘I wanted to punch you in the face,'” McCaughtry said during a telephone interview from his home in southern Maryland. “Yes! Thank you! That means I did my job.”
McCaughtry, whose family moved to Maryland when he was 10 years old, only had done high school theater when he landed the role that had him sharing the screen with Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future”), John Hannah (“The Mummy,” “Spartacus”) and Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon.
Writer-director Michael Tully is a Maryland native and wanted to cast as many of the young actors as possible from the area. McCaughtry said he did his initial audition and then went on a family vacation to North Carolina.
“They asked me to come to a callback, so I drove back to Maryland and did the callback, and right off the bat they just loved me,” he said. “About a week after the callback, I got a call from Michael that he was 99 percent sure he wanted me for Lyle Ace.”
“Ping Pong Summer” was shot in September and October 2012 in and around Ocean City, Md.
“It was completely surreal, almost like I was in a dream,” McCaughtry said. “I figured I would feel low on the scale with such big actors there, but the crew and all of the bigger actors worked so well together, it made it such an amazing experience working on this film. Everyone just really connected really well with each other.”
The movie – which tells the story of a teenaged boy whose family is vacationing in Ocean City, Md., in the mid ’80s – is designed to have the look and feel of ’80s films like “The Karate Kid.” It culminates in a ping pong match between the boy (Marcello Conte) and McCaughtry’s character. But McCaughtry didn’t go back and watch those old movies.
“He (Tully) didn’t want us watching ‘The Karate Kid’ … He didn’t want us to copy anyone. He wanted us to play it as real as possible. Honestly, there wasn’t much preparation for our characters. For myself, it was just what I thought was right at the time.”
Being the bully wasn’t easy. McCaughtry said a scene where he pours a gallon of milk on Conte’s character was particularly hard to shoot.
“I had to push my morals away, push that I-don’t-want-to-do-this feeling away and snap into character.”
But their animosity on screen didn’t carry over behind the scenes. McCaughtry said he and Conte became good friends during filming. And he wasn’t starstruck by some of his famous costars, in part because he doesn’t really remember actors names and roles, so he didn’t realize everything some of them had done. It wasn’t until McCaughtry was rewatching “The Mummy” one night after filming that he realized Hannah, who plays Conte’s father, was one of its stars.
McCaughtry, who turns 20 later this month, was in Utah when “Ping Pong Summer” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and he was in Cleveland in March when it played during the Cleveland International Film Festival. The experience of making the film and seeing the response to it has increased his interest in pursuing an acting career.
“Honestly, until ninth grade, I had no intention of being an actor at all,” he said. “It was not one of my goals. But I had a natural ability and thought I wanted to pursue it. Then I did the film. I already wanted to be an actor at that point, but it solidified it for me, seeing how it turned out and the amazing compliments I’ve gotten.”
He still lives in Maryland, but he has a West Coast agent and has been auditioning on tape for different roles. McCaughtry is considering relocating to New York, Los Angeles, Texas or another area with a vibrant film production market, but he doesn’t want to make a rash decision.
“I’m in no rush to leave,” he said. “Nothing is forcing me to go … I’m not really sure where I want to go at this point. There are so many places to choose from. I want to take my time, see what happens and let it all fold out in front of me. Then I’ll figure it out.”