July 09--CHESAPEAKE -- The teasing started when Michael Copon was in elementary school. He was a chubby child, and classmates called him "Egg Roll" and "Hawaiian Punch" because of his Asian appearance.
"I was always the heaviest," Copon said. "The last to make it on the mile. The one who couldn't do a pushup or pullup."
He's 30 now, a hunk with bulging biceps. An actor, Copon is a former Power Ranger who also appeared on the teen TV drama "One Tree Hill", as well as "CSI: Miami," "Hawaii Five-O" and "Scrubs."
Copon shed the extra weight long ago, but he still carries the memories of being picked on. Those childhood experiences -- and his stepfather's suicide nearly two decades ago -- fuel his passion for his latest project: an anti-bullying campaign he calls "I Am Me."
"I want to promote positivity," Copon said.
At the heart of the effort is an original movie he wants to shoot in Hampton Roads. Copon has created a short film to promote the project and is raising money for the full version through the fundraising website Indiegogo. The film's message, according to Copon: "Embrace who you are."
"I think it's a message we've got to get out," said Jeff Bunn, a School Board member who has befriended Copon. "A lot of times, kids, they don't know how to handle" bullying.
A Chesapeake native and 2000 graduate of Deep Creek High School, Copon said he's also come home to fulfill his dream of opening a studio. The 27,000-square-foot space is under construction in Greenbrier. There, he'll record music and host acting and dancing classes. The studio will house a green screen for video productions involving special effects.
During a recent tour, movie posters featuring Copon were propped against a hallway wall. Inside one room, a picture collage displayed photos of Copon with celebrities, including reality-TV star Kim Kardashian.
Copon pointed out the soundproof room for recording music. "We can pretty much fit a full band in here," he said.
In another room, Copon picked up a blue Power Ranger action figure -- meant to resemble his character on "Power Rangers Time Force" -- and pressed the button on its back. He joked about the recorded voice, which was high-pitched and nothing like his own.
Later that afternoon, Copon talked more about the film, which will show the impact of bullying from multiple perspectives. It's a tough topic, he said, but "someone's got to do it."
"I've actually had a great response from my Hollywood peers," he said.
Copon explains the film's concept by launching into dialogue and setting the scene. He envisions an opening where viewers are introduced to a boy who has been verbally and physically abused by his alcoholic father. The pair have an encounter one morning before the boy heads off to school.
The movie transitions to a second storyline: a child on a school bus being bullied by the boy from the first scene.
"This movie's going to be like 'Crash' because all the stories are going to be intertwined," Copon said.
His ability to raise money will determine when the film is completed, but Copon said he wants to start shooting in the fall for release late next year. He needs at least $120,000 -- ideally $500,000 -- for the project.
The hope, Copon said, is that it will serve as a launching point for anti-bullying discussions in schools. Already, Copon has taken his "I Am Me" message to two Chesapeake middle schools, where he spoke to students last month.
Bunn, the School Board member, attended both presentations. The students listened closely, he said, and seemed to take the message to heart. Bunn recalled a student with special needs who approached him after one of the assemblies. The girl said she had been bullied in the past.
"She said, 'You know, I'm going to be OK now,' " Bunn said. "Right then, I knew we were doing the right thing."
Copon's personal story of success despite hardship is "inspirational," Bunn said, and it teaches students they can overcome bullying. He would like to see the celebrity visit more schools this fall.
"It's just exciting that he wants to come back to our region and make a difference," Bunn said. "He's an incredible young man."
Hattie Brown Garrow, 757-222-5562, email@example.com
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