‘Growing Up Smith’

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Fourteen-year-old Chicago native Roni Akurati talks about his new film and his future aspirations

As a young boy growing up in a Chicago suburb, Roni Akurati can relate to Smith Bhatnagar, the character he plays in “Growing Up Smith,” a coming of age comedy. “Smith and I are both optimistic,” Roni says about the similarities and differences between him and the character. “We both have Indian parents that are strict, especially about school. However, Smith’s parents are much stricter than mine, and they put a lot of pressure on him,” the 14-year-old Chicago native said.

“Growing Up Smith” tells the story of Smith Bhatnagar, a 10-year-old adjusting to life in America in 1979 when his family moves in order to live the American Dream. All he wants to do is watch “Happy Days,” play with his “Star Wars” figurines, and hang out with the girl-next-door.

But things are not that easy when he has to deal with his overbearing father (Anjul Nigam) pushing his Indian heritage on him every second of every day. When Smith falls in love with his next door neighbor, Amy, and finds himself assimilating towards Western culture and drifting from his Indian heritage much to the dismay of his parents.

But as the film’s tag line says, Smith realizes that it is better to stand out that fit in.

The film has already been highly praised at film festivals winning awards such as the Best Picture Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2015 and Best Narrative Feature at the CAAMfest 2016.

Akurati says although the film shooting was for just five weeks, it was “incredible experience.” Talking about his he got the role, Akurati recalls that he was in India while the film was being cast. In order to do his audition, Akurati had to do a series of video calls with the director and producers. A couple of weeks later, Akurati said he flew to Los Angeles to do a screen test with Brighton Sharbino who plays Amy. “That was the final audition before I got cast,” he said.

“My favorite part about playing Smith is how optimistic he is and how he is sometimes clueless,” Akurati says, when asked about his favorite parts of the film. Akurati says that the scene where he goes hunting with Amy’s father (Jason Lee), is among his toughest to act, as hunting was something he’d never experienced before.

Before booking the film, Roni performed as Mowgli and Tiny Tim in the Goodman Theater productions of The Jungle Book and A Christmas Carol.

“With theater, everything is in one go and you do the same thing over and over again. There are a lot of rehearsals because on stage, everything has to go well,” Akurati compares the two. “However, in film, we often rehearse just before filming. We do it over and over until it becomes perfect and the director has all the angles he wants. After that, you never repeat that scene.”

Akurati was introduced to acting by his mother who signed him for a summer acting program. He said he enjoyed it so much that his mother was very encouraging and signed him up for more classes.

“My parents are incredibly supportive but they also make me remember my culture and what I have to do in order to continue acting,” he said. “I set my goals naturally and they are usually very broad goals. I have set and reached for goals such as wanting to star in a movie.” He sees himself being full-time actor in the future, he told Desi Talk.

Apart from acting, Akurati is also a stand-up comedian. He was introduced to the craft, the same way he was to acting, by taking a class. “I wrote my first set and when I performed for the first time, I was nervous,” he admits. “But, performing for the first time is when I remember wanting to really do stand-up for the first time.”

“Currently, in Los Angeles, Akurati attends the Lee Strasbourg acting school and also goes to school where he is a sophomore. He says he visits his family who still live in Chicago on holidays.

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