Disney star Duty on faith, film, and fun in Culver
Kenton Duty, age 18, may be best known to audiences as "young Jacob" on the popular ABC television show, "Lost," or as European exchange student Gunther Hessenheffer on the Disney Channel comedy series, "Shake It Up!," but here in Culver he's been shooting scenes for the upcoming film, "Little Savages," where he plays one of the lead characters, Todd Savage. He's also played the role of friendly visiting ambassador to a number of local youngsters who have begged for an autograph or photo, and always been met with smiling agreement.
That's no coincidence.
"People always ask, 'Is it ever annoying when fans come up to you?' But to make somebody else smile," says Duty, "when it's as easy as talking to them and smiling in return -- or holding a door open. It's my personal mission every day to make however many people I can, smile."
His approach, and his choice to work on "Savages" (which he calls a "cute family film with good morals...which is the criteria I normally look for.") is reflective of strongly-held moral and spiritual beliefs which he's lived out by way of various causes, including Disney's Friends for Change (an environmental charity initiaive of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund), the Starlight Children's Foundation, the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, St. Jude Children's Hospital, and a host of endeavors against school bullying.
"Morals are a big basis of who we are as a person," he told the Culver Citizen. "As an actor, you have to push yourself (towards) different moral boundaries where your character is as a person. So as an actor, you explore those grey areas where character is formed. One reaosn I love my job is that I...get to experience different walks of life."
In "Savages," which films throughout this month in Culver, Duty plays the eldest brother of a clan of good-hearted (fictional) youngsters from Culver with the last name Savage. In the film, Duty's character is smitten with the Tiffany, played by fellow Disney star Katherine McNamara, the older sister of main character Albie (played by another well-known actor, Noah Lomax). However, Tiffany initially ignores the Savage family, taken as she is with bully Billy Bronson.
And while "Little Savages" avoids any direct references to Christian doctrine, as alluded to by its faith-based production company, Bearfruit Films, themes of Tiffany's and Billy's moral awakening accompany other moral messages in the movie.
That's just fine with Kenton Duty, who says he received a call from his agent with a film offer for his role as "a nice guy, an older brother, which made me go, 'Ah, this will be something fun to work on.'"
"I have certain morals I follow (which are) Christian based," he continues, "so working on a Christan-based film -- I love working with this company because it's good, clean fun and humor. My fans have come to know me as the kind of person who wants to be a gentleman. They'll very much enjoy watching this film, and they'll see more of the nice guy they haven't gotten to see in my past works."
Asked how his faith gels with life in Hollywood, Duty aknowledges the movie industry in general is "definitely not known for faith.
"I choose my friends wisely," he says. "I don't have a large friend group; I'm not a social butterfly, if you will."
However, Duty says he works not to create "a chasm" with work acquaintances with whom his morals clash.
"I want to lead by actions rather than words," he notes. "I've see that help change a lot of people in my life, either for good or bad," and he explains "acting helps me understand how (people's) character is built."
Duty says "Little Savages" deals with themes of forgiveness as well as the culpability of those influenced by role models who make poor moral choices.
"The bad guys in this film are being led by a one-dimensional bad guy with an agenda. One of our main villians being the son of this guy, he's very much succombing to (bad moral choices) and his friends are succombing to it from him. That's why, at the end, it's the dad's fault. Tiffany's let back in (to the Savages' inner circle because) they're a very forgiving group of kids who see the honesty in people -- they're open books."
Duty recognizes many Christian genre films are "not known for being masterpieces," though "there have been exceptions to that." He cites faith-based movies like "Courageous," which he thought was "a great film."
Like "Little Savages," that movie, despite its faith-based origins, was not "Christ, Christ, Christ," Duty points out, "So viewers are not going in with a guilty conscience. Chrsitian based film companies can show a moral change, but they don't have to be 'God, God, God,' all the time. It can be subtle."
If Culver has enjoyed the presence of Kenton Duty and his fellow youthful cast members, is the feeling mutual?
"I love how it's a lot slower than Los Angeles. I come from Texas, so (small town life is) very enjoyable.
"Everybody (in Culver) is extremely nice and sweet, and they're sincere about it. I try to teach the kids who look up to me to be sincere and be nice."
He says the "Savages" stars have enjoyed Lake Maxinkuckee, the people of Culver, and "the weather is amazing."
"A few of the guys said, 'Let's go to the lake today,' or, 'Let's do some night swimming!' I'm down. They're just loving the fact that we can be sponteneous. We have fun -- we toodle around in the golf carts! And everybody's very accommodating.
"If I brought somebody who's been L.A. raised, they would not recognize the sincerity (of Culver)...the honesty, kindness, and warmth that everybody here gives off."