Davenport was decidedly unenthusiastic about the changes the filmmakers had planned for her hair, however. “I dyed my hair brown, and it is normally blond. I was kind of weirded out. But, I mean, I feel exactly the same until I look in the mirror.” Davenport quickly struck up a friendship with costars Abigail Breslin and Zach Mills. “We made up nicknames for each other and played games, ran around and hung out with each other off set. So even though much of the story is about people losing their money and their homes and stuff, we all managed to have a really good time because everyone was so nice and the set was a lot of fun.”
Mills, who appeared opposite Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, plays Stirling, a boy who comes to live at Kit’s house as a boarder after his parents lose their house. “My mom and I end up renting a room while my father goes off to look for work. The sad part is he doesn’t write to us like he said he would,” says Mills. “Something I learned about doing this role was that the Great Depression wasn’t all that great and people lost everything they had and sometimes they lost each other, too. Kit’s story is all about overcoming things like that.”
At the center of the mystery is a young hobo named Will, played by actor Max Thieriot, familiar to many young movie fans from his appearances in family films including The Pacifier and Nancy Drew. Seventeen-year-old Thieriot, however, admits he had never heard of the American Girl dolls or books. “As a teenaged guy, American Girl was never really on my personal radar,” says Thieriot. “Once I knew that I might be cast in this movie, I went to the American Girl store in Los Angeles just to check it out and I could not believe how popular the place was. It just blew my mind watching these little girls and how they act and react with all the dolls and clothes and books. I realized I was going to be a part of something very, very big and, if the crowds at the store were any indication, a lot of people will be seeing this movie.”
British-born actress Julia Ormand, who plays Kit’s mother, was fascinated by the amount of research that comes with each American girl doll. “It’s really a journey of discovery about what people in America went through in the Depression in the ‘30s—how people as a population faced hardship and social stigma. “This is a family that starts off pretty sound economically,” she adds, “and a child who has no real awareness of social issues. She’s introduced to people from a social class that she wouldn’t normally have encountered, and instead of coming at it with prejudice she comes at it with a lot of heart.”
Ormond has appeared opposite some of Hollywood’s premier leading men, including Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall), Harrison Ford (Sabrina) and Richard Gere (First Knight). Even so, she found Breslin to be a formidable acting partner. “Abigail is really remarkable,” she says. “She’s in virtually every single scene. For anyone, but especially a child actor, it’s an incredible amount of pressure. She has an openness that’s completely right for Kit and an easy access to an emotional range that is really quite extraordinary. She also has an incredible comprehension of how things work: camera needs, marks, all those sorts of things.”
Ormond’s leading man in Kit Kittredge is Chris O’Donnell, who plays her husband. He is, she says, “the quintessential American male. Not just in looks, but also in his stoic determination. He has these very moving scenes where he’s struggling to hold it together, to protect the family from what he’s really going through. It’s kind of a tricky balance of a 1930s male who perhaps would have a different approach to somebody today, but nevertheless really a touching moment for anybody who feels a responsibility of providing for their family.”
For O’Donnell, who is probably best known for playing Robin to Val Kilmer’s Caped Crusader in Batman Forever and for his starring role opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl was a special project. “I really wanted to do something for my daughter and it’s a great script. It’s a great American tale of a time that was really tough in our country, the Depression, and you get a chance to see how families stuck together. Today we’re just super-consumers, and people are buying, buying, buying. But it wasn’t always like this. It really puts things in perspective.”
The actor acknowledges that the quality of the cast says a lot about the script, as well people’s familiarity with American Girl dolls. “Talent attracts talent. When a cast like this gets put together, people start to say, ‘I want to be a part of that, too.’”
“Abigail’s as mature as any adult actor I’ve ever worked with, so that’s been fantastic,” says the actor. “And Patricia Rozema, the director, stays real focused. She keeps people in good spirits and she really listens. I think it’s real easy as a director to sit back and watch the monitor, but she’s always listening. She pays attention and makes sure you hit all the right beats in a scene.”
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl’s supporting cast is rich with actors known for their commitment and talent. Stanley Tucci, recently seen in The Devil Wears Prada plays Mr. Berk, a boarder in the Kittredge household who is a magician by profession.
“Kids will instantly love the mystery of it,” says Tucci, a two-time Emmy winner. “It’s a wonderful story to be told through a child’s eyes. The story is always pertinent, because there’s always poverty no matter how wealthy a country we are. The moral is everybody pitches in together and does what they have to do to help each other as a community to get through the tough times.”
Tucci came to the set immediately after finishing another film and had little time to prepare. He credits the director and the script with making it easier for him to jump onto the fast moving train that was the Kit Kittredge production. “It’s a good script and very clearly written,” he says. “Patricia thinks very quickly and she’s not afraid to change things instantly and be spontaneous. Only a director who thinks that way and takes everything in stride—and also has a great sense of humor, which she does—could make a movie this way.”
Magician David Ben was brought on to teach Tucci the tricks of his character’s trade. Ben says he taught the actor a broad range of things he can do around the dinner table with everyday objects for the people who are living there. “Part of my own career is reconstructing magic from different time periods, particularly from the ‘20s and the ‘30s,” says Ben. “The filmmakers wanted a period levitation. Magicians have been floating people since around 1900 and you see still Criss Angel and David Blaine do it, but there was a particular style to how people floated in the ‘30s. And that's what the filmmakers wanted to recreate.”
Academy Award® nominee Joan Cusack turns in a memorable performance as Miss Bond, the dizzy mobile librarian who is levitated by Mr. Berk. An admirer of Patricia Rozema since she saw the director’s interpretation of the Jane Austen novel “Mansfield Park,” she was thrilled to work on the project. “It’s a very empowering movie about little girls and about confidence,” says the actress. “If I was a little girl and there was a little typewriter and a little bed and the little glasses and all the little things they have that go with the doll, I would love it.”
For the role of Miss Dooley, the man-hungry dance instructor who also boards with the Kittredges, the filmmakers brought in Jane Krakowski, who won a Tony Award for her work in the Broadway musical “Nine.” “They had assembled an amazing cast of people, so I said yes immediately,” she says. “I get to dance a little bit in the movie and it’s been fun to sort of learn all the dances of 1934, like the Shorty George and the Lindy Hop and the Shim-Sham. It’s a little blast back into that time period.”
Dylan Smith, who plays Frederick Burke, calls his role in Kit Kittredge “a dream part.” “Playing a bad guy is always lots of fun, plus it’s a children’s movie, so there’s room for real colorful imagination. Then there’s the monkey, whose name in the movie is Curtis. I had to work very closely with the monkey.”
Curtis proved to be a temperamental co-star “There was a memo to the cast and crew, outlining all the dos and don’ts with monkeys,” remembers Smith. “Don’t wear a hat around the monkey. Don’t find yourself in a confined space with the monkey. Don’t stare the monkey in the eyes, and no sudden movements around the monkey.” The first day of shooting with the monkey, Curtis, Stanley Tucci and Smith were in a car backing up, remembers the actor. “The monkey’s in a confined space. Stanley’s wearing a hat. He had to turn the car around to back the car out, and when he turned around, he was facing the monkey, wearing a hat, staring at him in the eyes. He panicked slightly, hit the horn and the car sort of jilted back. So it was smooth sailing after that; nothing else really could go wrong.”
Wallace Shawn, who plays the editor of the Cincinnati Register, brings some first hand knowledge to the role. The well-known character actor is the son of William Shawn, legendary editor of The New Yorker. “I think being a journalist is a great thing to do. If you want to be a reporter, and you want to be a good reporter, you have to be willing face the reality of the world, which can sometimes be upsetting. But it is a great deal of fun to be a reporter because you get to meet all kinds of people and ask them things you would never dare to ask them if you just met them in the street or on an airplane or at dinner. You get to ask them whatever you like really, until they throw you out.”
In addition to the distinguished cast of professional actors, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl marks the film debut of four very lucky and talented young girls. Jordan Rackley, Elisabeth Perez, Erin Hilgartner and Brieanne Jansen were selected from more than 2,400 fans during a nationwide talent hunt for four “real American girls” to play Kit’s next-door neighbors and classmates.
“We held the open auditions at our three American Girl Place stores,” says producer Ellen L. Brothers. “Two days each in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. We received thousands of emails and letters from girls saying they would love to be in an American Girl movie. The number of girls who showed up exceeded our expectations. They waited hours and hours just for the opportunity to audition.”
Jordan Rackley, who plays Lillian, came to Chicago with her best friend Haley for the audition. She had previously appeared in community theater productions of “Peter Pan,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Annie” in her hometown of St. Louis. “One of my aunts was born during the Great Depression,” says Rackley. “So it’s kind of neat because I feel like this is probably what she felt like in these clothes and stuff. And I feel really different when I’m in them.” Normally poised, Jordan admits that when she got the call to be in the movie, her scream of excitement was so loud her dog barked in celebration, too.
Elisabeth Perez, who plays Eleanor, another one of Kit’s classmates, is ten years old and lives in Napa Valley, California. Even before being cast in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, she had written and staged her first play, which was based on the life of Helen Keller. Perez had plans to be a professional actress and was thrilled to launch her career with such a special project. “It has been a dream to be in a movie and even more of a dream to be in an American Girl movie,” says the youngster. “When I was five, my Aunt Mary gave me my first American Girl doll and when I was even younger, my older sister Madeleine read me the books.”
Just eight years old when she was cast as Kit’s next-door neighbor Florence Stone, Erin Hilgartner lives in Ithaca, New York. When she saw the lines at the open call in New York, she was afraid that she wouldn’t get a chance to audition. “But they saw every single girl who was in line,” she says. Hilgartner says she enjoyed “absolutely everything” about being in the movie—travelling to Canada, all the special treatment she received from the hair, makeup and wardrobe departments and meeting all the famous Hollywood stars. Now, she can’t wait to see herself on the big screen.
Eleven-year-old Brieanne Jansen surprised everyone in her family when she decided to audition for the movie. After being caught in a frightening hostage situation with her family seven years ago, Jansen had been understandably reluctant to put herself in new situations. This experience has renewed her self-confidence. “I’ve learned that being myself is the best way to be,” she says. “I was picked for this role because I didn’t try to be something that I’m not. I learned that I can dream as big as possible because dreams do come true.”
“With kids who haven’t acted, you sometimes get something remarkable,” says director Rozema. “Something way better than kids who already have these expectations of how to present themselves. They all brought a passion for American Girl and they took the work very seriously. It was an absolute joy for the entire cast and crew and I think they will all be very happy when they see themselves in the movie.”