News Column

Local actress Sydney Penny talks "Perfect Summer" and perfect roles

July 7, 2013

YellowBrix

July 07--Whether she's portraying a crazy jealous Internet vixen in a Lifetime movie or a widowed mother who's opening up to new love while her son struggles to find his place in the world, Wilmington-based actress Sydney Penny says she's happy to do it all.

Facts

When to watch

"The Perfect Summer" airs 7, 9 and 11 p.m. July 13 and 14 on the UP cable network (formerly GMC).

That is, as long as the character she's playing has some meat.

"Every role has its own challenge. As long as the character has some depth -- isn't just 'mom, person who wears apron and bakes cookies' -- there are unlimited opportunities," Penny said during a phone interview from her Wilmington home. "It doesn't mean that just because I'm not in my 20s anymore that it wouldn't be fun to play a cougar or a tiger or any of those other labels. So let's just say I'm for it all."

In her latest role, Penny appears alongside Eric Roberts ("The Dark Knight") and Louis Mandylor ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") in the locally filmed UP original movie "The Perfect Summer," which premieres at 7 p.m. July 13 on the cable channel formerly known as GMC.

Penny plays Alyssa, single mom to Jake (Adam Horner), a shy high-schooler who has trouble fitting into their new digs when Alyssa uproots them to the small beach town where her estranged father (Roberts) lives.

The transition is a rocky one made more complicated by an emerging relationship between Alyssa and her boss (Mandylor) and her past troubles with her dad, Penny said.

"Somebody described the story as basically 'Karate Kid,' but with surfing," she said. "So it's a fish-out-of-water tale about a young man trying to find his way in a new place where he doesn't fit in and has to learn new skills. And of course there's a girl (Raleigh native Katie Garfield) involved who he wants to get closer to. Then there's the added element of the family -- three generations -- trying to reestablish their relationship."

Penny says that she began to think about the details that make up Alyssa's personality as soon as she saw "Perfect Summer's" script.

"For me, often times in these movies there's the 'mom,' who doesn't really ever need to have a name or anything and she's just the one saying 'What's the matter, honey?' " Penny said. "But what I immediately loved about this script is that there was a real character -- a real person there -- and she has her own concerns. And she ends up having her own discovery of what her life is becoming. So that to me was exciting."

Penny, a California native, might be best known as "All My Children's" Julia Santos, who was disfigured by debris in a tornado and raped by a drug dealer before being shot at a wedding on the ABC soap opera in 2008. She's also played Bernadette Soubirous in a pair of movies about the young visionary from Lourdes and had a prominent role as a prospector's daughter in 1985's "Pale Rider."

This year, fans will spot her in "Dark Canyon," a Western she shot in Arizona, and "Heart of the Country," a locally filmed drama directed by Wilmington native John Ward that's slated for an August 20 release, Penny said. Although the actress didn't get her start in the Wilmington film scene until the late '90s, Penny has been a proponent of the local film and TV production industry ever since. She moved to Wilmington in 2005 and lives with her husband, Robert Powers, and their 6-year-old son.

"Whenever I have the chance to speak with people, I say, 'Let's make sure that projects are being created here and filmed here," she said. "The best way to do that is to start from the very beginning. When we have young filmmakers who arrive here and are hungry to learn and make movies, let's give them opportunities. Let's find a way to create a funding channel, so that when they want to make a movie, they can make it here as well. I have no magic answer to that, but when I talk to anybody, I try to get them to bring projects here and let them see for themselves our wonderful locations and crews and everything else that Wilmington has to offer."

Local filmmaker Eric Tomosunas, CEO of Swirl Films, the Wilmington-based company that produced "The Perfect Summer," called Penny to see if she was interested in participating.

"It's usually, 'Would you like to come to Canada? Would you like to come out to L.A.?' And this time it was, 'Would you like to go right down the street and shoot a movie?'" Penny said. "Being on set, I felt like I was among family, because I'd worked with some of the crew before, and I knew some of them when they were kids -- it's such a tight community. Since the crews are here so often, they run like a well-oiled machine. I feel a sense of pride, I suppose, because it's homegrown."

Directed by Gary Wheeler ("Somebody's Child," "The Heart of Christmas"), "The Perfect Summer" also stars Jason Castro, a finalist in the seventh season of "American Idol," and Hollywood newcomers and North Carolinians J.D. Banks and Justin Barnhill. The family-friendly film shot at Aussie Island Surf Shop at Wrightsville Beach and at Carolina Beach and Fort Fisher, among other local spots.

Cassie Foss: 343-2365

On Twitter: @WilmOnFilm

Penny and her thoughts

Local actress Sydney Penny talks family films and finding the "magic combination" of roles.

On Swirl Films and UP's family-friendly programming:

"You'll find diversity in UP's projects and you'll find the same thing when you visit the sets -- the crew is diverse -- more so than many of the productions I've ever worked on, which I love because I look around and I se it as a reflection of every other part of my life. As far as UP is concerned, I was really excited to work with them because, kind of like the original Hallmark Channel directive, they're brand is similar to that -- it's for families and it's fun. It's for kids, but it's also something parents and grandparents can relate to and I think that's a wonderful thing. They're inclusive rather than exclusive at UP, which I think is cool. The more people who watch the channel, the broader and bigger projects they can license, so the quality of entertainment gets better and better."

On producing:

"I think by nature I'm sort of an introducer. I like to introduce people who I think are talented and creative to each other and that's kind of a natural function of being a producer. I like to find talent in all areas -- crew, acting, producing, writing, directing -- and see if I can't help people find others who can further their goals and careers and expand their experience. And hopefully, along the way, I can also participate and expand my own experience."

On her "Perfect Summer" co-star, Eric Roberts:

"The funny thing about Eric Roberts playing my dad is while that's totally feasible if you sort of move our ages around just a little bit ... but years ago we were trying to work it out to do this movie together and I was doing 'All my Children' at the time I guess, and I couldn't get away. And in that one I would have played his girlfriend, so that would have been strange. So I take that as an example as when something doesn't work out, you should just never wonder why, because 20 years later, it shows you why that was the case. This time, it was so I could play his daughter."

On finding success as a middle-aged actress:

"This is just beginning to happen to me that I've really long moved out of the 'ingenue character' and into the supporting leading lady category, which is a really murky area. That's a category that basically includes everyone from 35 to 85. So I'm going to be here for a long time. But yeah I can play the mom of a 17-year-old. I mean, my son is 6, but I have nieces and nephews that are in their 20s, so it didn't feel uncomfortable."

On finding the right roles in Wilmington:

"The odd thing for me is that I'm often right for roles, but they cast in L.A. and many of the roles that are cast locally are for smaller roles, which is not really something I'm going for. So I would almost have to go out to L.A. in some cases to audition to come here and work. It's sort of a funny loophole ... I've been fortunate to see it all and work all over the world and have a fabulous career. It's been my only job -- it's been the only thing I've done since I'm 6 years old. So what I feel now is just joy and gratitude to do what I do and continue to meet new people. And to be able to do it in Wilmington is just icing on the cake. This is home."

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