Local actor to appear in Cuba Gooding, Jr., film 'Carry Me Home'

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Mon., Nov. 4, 2013
Local resident Josh Burkart appears briefly in the upcoming movie, 'Carry Me Home,' based on the life of John Newton, who wrote the hymn 'Amazing Grace.' Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
Local resident Josh Burkart appears briefly in the upcoming movie, 'Carry Me Home,' based on the life of John Newton, who wrote the hymn 'Amazing Grace.' Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

It’s a long way from the high school musical to the big screen, but local resident and aspiring actor Josh Burkart will have at least a brief moment on the silver screen in the coming year. A new movie telling the life story of John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote the familiar hymn “Amazing Grace,” includes Burkart in a bit part, portraying a drummer in a funeral procession.

The film, from writer/producer Tim Chey, is expected to open in theaters in 2014, but the trailer is already in release. Burkart is visible at the right of the screen, leading the funeral procession, at 1:37 in the trailer, which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MB9oromkCvQ. Portions of the film, shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey, who was responsible for “Apollo 13,” “Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future,” was filmed on location at Mystic Seaport. Other scenes used the reproduction of the 19th-century slave ship “Amistad,” filmed from above.

Burkart, who works as a personal assistant for his mother, Lorna Burkart, in the family’s Primerica financial services office, was bitten by the theater bug back at Griswold High School. Starting off as an ensemble player in GHS’s spring musicals, by senior year he scored a plum role as Lumiere, the enchanted singing candelabra, in “Beauty and the Beast.”

“That was so much fun,” he said. At the same time, Burkart played in the GHS band and sang in the choir and chamber chorus, even helping start up a drum band.  He credited GHS music teacher Ray Churchill, who directs the school’s musical productions, with nurturing his interest in the performing arts. “He saw my music and acting career going somewhere,” he said.

Since he graduated, Burkart has performed in productions at Bradley Playhouse in Putnam and at Swamp Meadow Community Theater. It was through an e-mail from Bradley that he first learned about auditions for “Carry Me Home.” The initial notice said that the production company, RR Communications, had chosen a number of historic sites in eastern Connecticut as locations for a film and was casting locals as background actors – a paid position.

“It was a good opportunity since they were filming in Connecticut,” he said. “Thousands of people showed up for the audition.” He filled out his form, left a photo and resume, and didn’t hear anything for several weeks.

Finally he got a phone call from the movie’s casting director, who told him he’d gotten a part. He was told that “a major contributing factor was all the acting I’ve had under my belt… and because of my hair.” He was instructed not to cut his shoulder-length locks, so he will have the 18th-century look the director was after.

Burkart portrays one member of a small theatrical troupe. “They devise a fake funeral to help the slave family move through the area without being seen,” he said. The brief scene required three days of shooting, some of which took place in East Haddam and some at the Essex Steam Train station.

Burkart said he was in some additional shots, including a dinner scene and a scene in which the actors in the theatrical troupe bow onstage at the end of a show. Short clips from these scenes also appear in the trailer.

“I was able to see how movies are made and how simple it is,” he said. “It’s completely different from being onstage and in the moment. In movies, you can make so many mistakes, and they just take the best of each [take].”

What’s less simple, however, is the number of people behind the scenes and the repetition involved. Even for Burkart’s brief one- to two-minute scene, “we did it 15 or 20 times, shooting that one scene over and over.” The fact that scenes are often shot out of sequence also makes assuring continuity a tricky business, he said. Days were long, sometimes starting at 4:30 a.m.

Because it was important that his hair look the same in every scene, “they had to stick mousse on my head to make my hair straight,” Burkart said. He also wore a bandana “that prevented my hair from getting out of place. People thought I was going onstage acting like I was wounded,” but that was not the case. For the actual filming, the bandana came off.

But Burkart said that mingling with the other actors was the best part of his experience. People from all over the nation and even the world were working together on the film, he said. “It’s amazing to me how people who just met each other can act as if they’ve known each other forever,” he said.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., is the headline actor in the film, which tells two parallel stories: one of an escaped slave family of the 19th century fleeing to Canada along the Underground Railroad, and another told in flashbacks, detailing the story of Newton’s conversion from hard-hearted slave trader to committed Christian.

Gooding portrays the slave family’s father, and Burkart said it was especially exciting to see him in the flesh. “Cuba was really nice. I love him in ‘Radio.’ I love the way he acts in that one,” he said.

He also met Terrance Mann, one of Broadway’s original “Cats” and, in a poetic coincidence, an actor who had portrayed Lumiere in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Burkart hopes to do more local theater in the future. “Acting was always my passion. I always loved the adrenaline rush it gives,” he said.

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