In most ways Nathan Gamble is like any other Tacoma-area teen. He plays video games with his buddies, follows the Seahawks with a rabid fever, and was recently issued his driver’s license.
But one thing sets this 16-year-old apart: He stars in multi-million-dollar Hollywood movies.
One of those films, 2011’s “Dolphin Tale,” co-starred Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson. It pulled in $95 million at the box office. Its sequel, “Dolphin Tale 2,” opens Friday (Sept. 12) nationwide.
Gamble is no bit player in the “Dolphin Tale” series. The story is built around his character, Sawyer, and that of a dolphin, Winter, that has to have its tail surgically removed. The family drama follows the development of a prosthetic tail that was created for the dolphin. Judd plays Sawyer’s mother.
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A natural blonde, Gamble’s hair was dyed brown to match Judd’s hair for both films. Gamble seems to have a knack for temporarily acquiring a famous parent.
At age 6, he played Brad Pitt’s son in the critically acclaimed “Babel.” He played Gary Oldman’s son in the Batman film “The Dark Knight.” He played Owen Wilson’s son in “Marley & Me,” and Donnie Wahlberg’s son on the CW drama “Runaway.”
Dozens of other film and television shows fill his acting resume, including “NCIS,” “Private Practice,” “House,” “Ghost Whisperer,” “Good Luck Charlie” and “Without a Trace.” A guest appearance on “CSI” will air sometime in October. In that last role, he graduated from son to suspect.
A STAR IS BORN
Gamble lives in the Tacoma area with his parents, Greg and Christy, and his sisters Danielle, 24, and Laura, 12.
Laura has never known a time when her brother wasn’t in the movies. Not so for Danielle.
“For her, it was a little different. She’s the older sister,” Greg Gamble said. Danielle was an actor and model before Nathan and inspired him to become one.
Danielle had some trouble adjusting to her kid brother’s increasing success. Then she discovered having a Hollywood brother gave her extra clout in high school. Later, on the set of “The Dark Knight,” she had her picture taken with star Christian Bale.
“After that, Nathan was all right,” Greg said. “That was on her Facebook page for a long time.”
Greg and Christy, actors themselves, ran a drama camp at Green River Community College and at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, the family’s church in Federal Way. It was there, at age 5, that Nathan first acted.
Nathan’s first commercial job soon followed — a Microsoft corporate video. He played Bill Gates’ grandson.
Nathan, just 6 at the time, was more interested in going to the beach on the day he auditioned for “Babel” director Alejandro González Iñárritu alongside Elle Fanning, Greg said.
Soon Nathan and his mother were in Mexico filming with Pitt — who was just “some guy” to Nathan. “I had no idea.”
Meanwhile, Iñárritu was afraid that Nathan’s stage actor parents would coach him to overact. “I want this kid to be natural. Tell his parents not to give him any acting tips,” Greg recalls Iñárritu saying.
It’s advice Nathan has kept, he joked. Though he works with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, he doesn’t seek advice from them.
“I’m the kind of person who just watches what they do. Specifically Morgan Freeman — the way he prepares for his work, the way he interacts with cast and crew,” Nathan said. “I’ve soaked up so much information watching these great actors.”
Nathan’s breakthrough role came in Joe Dante’s “The Hole,” a supernatural thriller released in 2009 to good reviews. He played one of the three main characters — children who uncover a haunted crawl space in their basement. In one scene, Nathan fights off a possessed clown doll.
Nathan cites “The Hole” as one of his favorite movie-making experiences, especially the doll scene.
At age 11, he made the 2011 film “25 Hill” with Corbin Bernsen. Nathan played the son of a soldier killed in action who bonds with Bernsen, who had lost a son. It was first time he had carried a movie.
“It was really stressful because I had never done that before. I had about 1,000 crying scenes and scenes where I was talking for three pages straight,” Nathan said.
ESCAPE FROM HOLLYWOOD
The Gambles say they’ve stayed in Puget Sound during Nathan’s 10-year career because they’ve never wanted to be part of the Hollywood scene.
“It’s a company town. That’s all they’re focused on. It would be hard for our family to not be focused on just one thing,” Greg said.
“We know what it’s like,” Nathan added. He did spend some extended time there at age 12 while filming “Hank,” a short-lived ABC comedy. He was a series regular, playing Kelsey Grammer’s son.
Nathan stayed in school for the first three years of his screen career — when he wasn’t shooting. “They were great about letting him go for a month or two at a time,” Greg said.
His schoolmates took Nathan’s appearances and disappearances in stride. It was the adults who would pester him for insider scoops on celebrities.
“Over the years, it’s been the adults that have been more challenging to Nathan,” Greg said. “When we’re back here, we want to be isolated from Hollywood. In LA, you’d never escape from it. All your friends would be in the business.”
“Absolutely,” Nathan concurred. “It’s a breath of fresh air. I can really live both lives without having to mix them.
“Ever since my career has taken off from ‘Dolphin Tale,’ you really get to see who your true friends are. You see how they reacted before and how they react afterwards,” Nathan said. “Oh, so that’s how you think of me now? But that’s going to happen.”
Two of his local friends are lifelong church buddies, Brad and Nate Means. “You only really need two or three best friends, and I have that,” Nathan said.
He responds to fan mail and photo requests and interacts with his admirers through social media.
“I’m now on Twitter. Against my will. I try to respond as much as I can,” Nathan said.
“When he first started on Twitter, he was just tweeting about the Seahawks,” Greg said. “Finally, his manager had to say, ‘Your 8- to 12-year-old girl demographic doesn’t really care that much about the Seahawks.’”
But ask Nathan about the Seahawks, and he will literally spin in circles. He’ll then bring out his smartphone to show anyone in the vicinity a photo of him with quarterback Russell Wilson. He met Wilson at the Kids’ Choice Sports Awards in July.
“It was the greatest day ever,” Nathan recalled — especially when Wilson told him he had seen “Dolphin Tale.”
Nathan recounted the story while wearing a Seahawks jersey and baseball cap. The new Toyota Tacoma pickup he drives has Seahawks logo decals covering nearly the entire length.
Nathan just completed the California High School Proficiency Exam that allows him to work as an adult — and the long hours that go with that. That makes him more hireable.
Despite his success, Nathan still has to audition for roles.
“Dolphin Tale” “does get him some publicity and marketability but he still auditions for 10 things and nine of them you never hear back. And the one you do doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. Hollywood is bad at feedback,” Greg said.
“If you want to be an actor you really have to be passionate about it, and you have develop a tough skin,” Nathan said. “You’ll be told to change your appearance, to change your name. You have to accept rejection and move on.”
The majority of the money Nathan makes goes to a trust he can access when he turns 18. The remainder goes to pay for an agent, manager, accountant, lawyer, publicist and other expenses.
And yes, Nathan’s heard all the child actor horror stories.
“With those kids … it all boils down to parents. I have some of the best parents in the business. They keep me very grounded, and I can always ask them for advice because they’re really smart people and they know what they’re doing.”
He’s also aware of Hollywood’s fickle nature and that his acting career could fizzle out. If that happens, it won’t sour him on Tinseltown.
“I would definitely have a role in the industry,” he said. He likes to write and edit. Nathan and Greg co-wrote the script for this year’s drama camp.
Nathan refers to “Dolphin Tale” as “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Though both “Dolphin Tale” movies are based on true events, Nathan’s character was manufactured for the films. “I like to say Sawyer is everyone who has been inspired by Winter,” Nathan said.
During the wrap party for the first film, dolphin trainers got a call that a baby dolphin needed to be rescued. That dolphin, named Hope, became the subject of the second movie.
“This is another true story, which is really bizarre,” Nathan said. “Can you think of a sequel to a true story that’s also a true story?”
Along with two of his co-stars, Nathan is a spokesperson for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, where the real Winter lives.
Gearing up for the premiere, Nathan has been on press tours to Toronto, Chicago and Miami. He’s attending a screening for injured servicemen and women at The White House. But he’s mostly looking forward to the premiere in LA.
“I’m bringing my family and some friends so I’m really excited.”