Most actors find their inspiration to perform in a childhood idol, beloved relative, or classic play. For Rob Brown, it was his phone bill. ”At the time I had a cellular charge of, like, $300, and I owed my mother the money,” says Brown, 16, explaining why he heeded an open casting call for Finding Forrester last February. ”So I figured I’d go there and get my picture taken and I could be an extra.” At the audition, director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) noticed that Brown, an A student and wide receiver at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep school, seemed custom-made to play Forrester protagonist Jamal Wallace, a Bronx high school writing prodigy and star basketball player who befriends a reclusive author (Sean Connery). Three weeks’ worth of callbacks later, Brown’s easygoing yet authoritative presence allowed him to foot that bill.
On the set in Toronto, Brown, whose only previous acting experience was in a third-grade production of Pocahontas, found himself in the company of four Oscar winners: Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, and Matt Damon (who has a cameo). ”I really am not that familiar with all these actors,” admits Brown, who’s never seen any of Van Sant’s earlier films and says he was more starstruck by his on-screen brother, rapper Busta Rhymes. ”I was kind of nervous at the [script] reading. When I saw Anna, I was like, ‘S — -, I recognize her now!”’
He’s apparently skilled at keeping things in. In his low-key performance, Brown never even smiles until the end of the movie. ”I did think about not being too big. We worked on that a lot, me and my coach,” says Brown, who lives with his mother, a substance-abuse counselor, and has an older brother and a baby sister. ”Watching movies, you do see people who are too big. It just looks corny.” Slouching in a leather chair in Sony’s New York offices on the eve of a big math test, he says, ”I have all the respect in the world for actors. It’s really not that easy, man. You can’t just show up.” Though, he confesses without a hint of slyness, ”sometimes I got away with showing up.”
Brown’s newest challenge will be balancing his anonymous New York existence and his new presence in Hollywood. ”It’s very white and it’s very weird,” says Van Sant, who persuaded his agent to sign the newcomer. ”But he’ll find out on his own.” Perhaps, but Brown says it’ll be a while before he follows up Forrester. ”I haven’t been auditioning hard ’cause it’s junior year,” he says. ”I just want to stay in school and get to college.” Unlike budding author Jamal, though, Brown is more of a science guy. ”I like Yale,” he says. ”I want to go, but I don’t know if I can get in.” He’s already got a killer application stuffer.