Before "Bandslam" came along, Maryland-bred actor Gaelan Connell's biggest role was Michael Darling in Irene Lewis' 2002 Center Stage production of "Peter Pan."
"I got to fly," he whoops. "It was really cool. They had pirates and people flying across the stage and it was very magical. If you can imagine me at age 13, a much smaller me with even bigger hair. ..."
Connell stops and laughs at the "surreality" of it all. He's gone from levitating in his jammies to playing the character in "Bandslam" who wins the trust of Aly Michalka and the heart of Vanessa Hudgens.
He finds it all "crazy," but he's handling it. He can't wait to see if "the movie scores Fresh on rottentomatoes.com!" He reports on his success with a genuine, I-can't-believe-it's-happening-to-me enthusiasm.
In "Bandslam" - a combination of "High School Musical" and "School of Rock" that opens nationwide on Friday - Connell masters a tricky mix of naivete and smarts to bring off the leading role of young Will Burton, a shambling rock maven. Will pulls together a sizzling band and gives them the Samuel Beckett-like name, "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On."
I Can't Go On, I'll Go On could also sum up Connell's pre-"Bandslam" attitude toward acting. A 20-year-old who was born in Washington and grew up in Silver Spring, Connell appeared in Lasse Halstrom's "Chocolat" at age 10 and John Waters' "A Dirty Shame" four years later. But by the time he worked for Waters he had set his sights on becoming a filmmaker.
He enrolled in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts as a filmmaker, not an actor, figuring he wouldn't have to worry about wild hair on his head or bags under his eyes behind the camera. But when he grokked onto the script to "Bandslam" and won the attention of director Todd Graff ("Camp"), he jumped at the opportunity to partner with Hudgens, who plays a stubborn individualist called Sa5m (the 5 is silent), and Michalka as Charlotte Banks, a cheerleader turned singer-songwriter.
On the phone from a New York media tour last week, Connell reported that he was renting a house in Los Angeles and fielding offers that are coming his way from his new high-powered agents at CAA. But he downplays his burgeoning coolness quotient. He's self-deprecating about his own off-screen music-making. "I was in a band called Exist, which is on the soundtrack, and recently we changed our name to Sweet 16," he says. "But I feel like every teen actor since 1989 has done a movie and done music, too, and that's not exactly what I'm trying to do." He simply finds it "therapeutic" to play "obnoxiously loud music."
He partly credits luck for his career leaps. In an unusual first act for American show-biz success, his parents "put me in a French immersion school when I was first growing up" - and that's where "Chocolat" casting director Suzanne Smith went looking for "American kids who had a French accent to speak English in a French movie." In fifth grade he found himself in France, working for Hallstrom (director of "The Cider House Rules") as part of an all-star cast featuring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
Connell says that he had always been more of "a soccer kid" than an actor. But the experience of "Chocolat" stuck with him, partly because his character's odd name, Didi Drieu, became a schoolyard taunt, and partly because he enjoyed the actor's "ability to be someone else - and to entertain other people while you're doing it. I mean. who knows? Maybe some day I'll get to play a cool kid."
Connell spent 10th grade at the Conservatory at Baltimore Actors' Theater and is proud to say he kept attending Orioles games after the Nationals came to Washington. At a young age, Connell knew, "When in Baltimore, do a John Waters film." He won the chance with "A Dirty Shame" and played "Horny Kid," a son watching a crab-cooking show on TV with his folks - until a prostitute pounds on the door and asks who wants to have sex with her.
"I think at the time I wasn't so sure what I was getting myself into and I think my Mom was less sure about it. But it was great; John Waters is a legend. Two things: He was wearing two different-colored elf shoes, the kind with a hook in the front and a little bell on it. And then - he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to go to NYU-Tisch, and he said it was 'a great school, set your sights on that.' It was actually a fairly normal discussion! The great thing about walking around Baltimore is that as you go through a different neighborhood it's like you're walking into a different John Waters movie."
Although he entered NYU as a filmmaking student, he kept one foot in acting, even doing a part in "Law and Order" - the New York actor's equivalent of a Baltimore actor doing a Waters film. When the script to "Bandslam" came his way, he thought "it was pretty cool. Some of the characteristics of the character probably hit too close to home, him being awkward and nerdy. But skip over that part!"
Actually, Connell says he auditioned four or five times for a couple of different characters until producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas "looked at Todd Graff and said, 'He's kind of weird, why don't we let him try out for Will?' " They'd cast another actor, but they flew Connell to Austin, Texas (where the film was shot), on the eve of production. "The whole thing was so crazy. I didn't really have that much time to think about it. I was in Austin and found out they would stick with me and did a little nerd dance and called my mom and called my dad and started filming the next day.
"It was crazy, to go from being at NYU to hanging out with these two superstar women. And you have assistants on the set and it's nuts - people driving you everywhere and getting you breakfast - it's scary. What's so crazy about the movie is, I can see they're marketing it as 'High School Musical 4,' but it's so much edgier, much more of a throwback to John Hughes' movies. You don't have 'McLovin' in one corner and the super-hot girl in the other. This film is for the 95 percent of the rest of us who are kind of popular and kind of not popular and have friends all over the place."