Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
[Please note: Minor spoilers lie ahead.]
The first time we catch the sweet, young Jia (Kaylee Hottle) on screen in the monster movie, Godzilla vs. Kong, we’re not sure if she’s in danger. We’ve just watched Kong wake up from his morning Skull Island slumber before taking his morning waterfall shower. Then, here comes island native Jia from out of the woods, carrying a homemade doll offering for Mr. Kong. She could get squashed like an ant, but we quickly realize that Kong and Jia have a special connection, seeing eye to eye in ways others will not. This, in the first scene of the film.
Jia, who is deaf, seems to intuitively know things about this rather sensational and soulful simian. And on this morning, she wants Kong’s team of handlers — which includes Jia’s adoptive mother, scientist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) — to know that he’s quite, well, pissed. Partially because she can sense it, and partially because he just javelined a tree trunk into the roof of the Skull Island containment facility where he’s being kept. You know, a subtle clue to say the least.
There’s also the fact Jia can actually communicate with Kong using American Sign Language (ASL), a new entry into Kong lore and a twist in the saga. In perhaps the most poignant scene in the film, which brought tears to my eyes even in the re-viewing, Kong is shackled to an aircraft carrier in the pouring rain. He’s in the process of getting transferred to the Arctic Circle where he will presumably lead a venture to hollowed out Middle Earth in efforts to save humanity.
That’s when Jia wanders out from her cabin on the ship in the storm — followed at a distance by Dr. Andrews — and proceeds to touch fingertips with Kong in a classic Hollywood moment.
The following conversation happens in sign language.
Dr. Andrews: What are you doing? It’s not safe out here.
Jia: Kong is sad.
Dr. Andrews: That’s because he doesn’t understand. We want to help him.
Jia: He doesn’t believe that.
Dr. Andrews: How do you know?
Jia: He told me.
A confused then stunned Dr. Andrews looks up at Kong who proceeds to sign back to the two of them. Maybe the first time Kong has ever interrupted a conversation using any form of language.
Hottle’s sweet-natured performance and touching scenes with Kong himself are a genuine breath of fresh air. Kong films — including the original in 1933 and remake with Jessica Lange in 1976 — always had a beauty and the beast component. They were essentially a love story starring a tragic antihero. But this child-to-badass-beast connection is more innocent and brings a heart to what would otherwise be another monster movie filled with intense CGI-fueled fights and endless big-city destruction I doubt even the new infrastructure bill could fix. Having said that, the Godzilla/Kong battles are pretty awe-inspiring in scope, even on a flat-screen at home.
Given most of Jia’s scenes happen without sound (just hollowed-out bass sounds, thumps and distant roars) to bring us into her state, we’re reliant on Hottle’s facial expressions and signing to say it all. And she does, really well! The juxtaposition between the sweet, sensitive young girl and the menschy monster is the definitive beating heart of the film.
You just wish there were more scenes between the two of them.
Nine-year-old Hottle is a Georgia-born actress of Asian/Pacific heritage and is currently enrolled in the Texas School for the Deaf. She has acted in several commercials over the years in things such as the Glide app public service announcement in addition to 10 Deaf Children: One Powerful Message, a call-to-action designed to shine a light on the deaf community and its continuous fight for equality.
According to several reports, the quest to cast Jia in Godzilla vs. Kong was not easy. As producer Alex Garcia mentioned in one of the film’s press releases, Hottle was eventually found outside of traditional casting channels and was essentially discovered by the film’s casting director, Sarah Halley Finn, who immediately knew she was the right fit for the part. And man — was she right.
Godzilla vs. Kong is Hottle’s first feature film and/or TV role to date. And now, having slain her first beast of a monster movie, one thing is certain: it won’t be her last.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.