Known for her films and her role as the young Emma Swan in “Once Upon a Time,” 11-year-old McKenna Grace is a fast-rising, shining star in Hollywood. Her latest film “Gifted,” in which she co-stars with Chris Evans (aka Captain America from the Marvel movies), only confirms it.
In fact, her performance in “Gifted” is so impressive that many have taken notice, including her co-stars Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, and Jenny Slate, all of whom recently praised Grace.
In Gifted, which arrives in theaters this weekend, Chris Evans (“Captain America: Civil War”) plays Frank Adler, the uncle of child genius Mary Adler, played by McKenna Grace (“Once Upon a Time”). Frank, a single man raising his child prodigy niece Mary, is drawn into a custody battle with his mother.
It’s a fascinating mix between “Good Will Hunting” and a child custody drama. Mary is essentially a one-in-a-billion math prodigy who could easily be the next world famous, history-making mathematician. But Frank’s mother Evelyn (played by Lindsay Duncan, “Alice in Wonderland,” “Birdman”), is an academic who is obsessed with the “millennial problems” of the math field. She wants to take custody of Mary and use the child’s genius for her own ends. Frank just wants Mary to have a normal, happy childhood.
What really makes the film work is the warm, believable chemistry between Chris Evans and McKenna Grace. Although any regular moviegoer will be familiar with this kind of storyline, the Grace/Evans chemistry makes you genuinely care about Frank and Mary as the circumstances spiral out of control and threaten to tear them apart. One of the scenes was especially tear-jerking, and McKenna Grace’s exceptional performance had much to do with that.
I recently had the joy of interviewing McKenna by phone, and one thing became clear: she has a genius all her own and some serious acting chops for an 11-year-old, but, like Mary in the film, she keeps her life balanced and embraces all the normal joys of childhood:
I read that Chris Evans was a really big fan of yours, and he had very nice words about your performance. How did you enjoy working with Chris?
It was so cool. He is so much more than just Captain America, but he’s a superhero to a lot of people in real life.
What were some of your favorite moments while you were making “Gifted?”
Probably the Halloween party we had. That was so much fun. I went trick or treating in Georgia, and I met Paula Deen and I went to her house, it was awesome! I went trick or treating and got candy from her house. The party was really great fun, and there was karaoke.
Oh wow, that would be fun!
Was that with the whole cast?
Yep. All the cast, and all the crew.
Did you all dress up in costumes?
Yes, I was the black cat.
What was Chris Evans?
I don’t think he dressed up.
He went as himself.
What was your experience like on-set? Did you get to goof around at all or was it all serious?
Oh my goodness. We were all like family. So of course there was time for goofing off. We had fun, we sang, we danced. It was wonderful.
What did you like about playing your character Mary?
Fred, of course. [The awesome one-eyed cat in the movie.] The script was amazing, and all of the characters were amazing, and Mary is, oh my goodness, she’s like a little firecracker of emotions, and I think that she was just a really great role. I really wanted to portray her.
What did you have to do to get ready for playing Mary?
I watched tons of movies. Some of which the director Mark told me to watch, and then some of which I just thought would help me. Mark had me watch “Paper Moon,” and “America,” and then I watched “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “I am Sam,” and a lot more.
Was there one that stuck out to you that was the most helpful?
“Paper Moon.” Mark and I had our own little secret language on-set that had to do with those movies. Like he’d say, “Paper Moon, McKenna. Paper Moon.” And then I would know to do it more angry. It made it easier that way.
Wow, that’s a really interesting way to do it.
Yeah, it was wonderful.
What was the hardest thing about playing Mary? If there was something–not that every role has to be difficult.
Mary wasn’t that difficult of a character to play. She was really fun!
How did you get into acting?
Well, I wanted to be like Shirley Temple, and I also wanted to be on the Pee Wee Herman Show. So I begged my mom for a long time, and she finally got me into acting class, and the acting teacher said, “Wow, she really likes this.” And then, my mom said, “Yeah, I told you she likes this.” And the acting coach said, “I know everyone says they like it, but she really loves it.”
What other things do you like to do besides acting?
I love to rollerskate, I love ice skating, I love going to the movies, eating ice cream, doing DIYs, sleeping [laughs], hanging out with my family, and playing with my dog.