What would it be like to play a version of yourself on screen? Plenty of reality stars blast into our living rooms as "themselves" each night, but they usually come across as cartoonish -- larger than life caricatures with traits and idiosyncrasies heightened to absurd levels. They don't often seem real at all.
But In Mike Ott's affecting new film, "Littlerock" -- an award-winning indie drama about two Japanese siblings stuck in the eponymous town in Southern California -- a handful of performers have been plucked from obscurity to make their screen debuts. Many have even kept their real names and back-stories. The result is an honest, uncomfortable, and all too real look at the ways we perceive outsiders, and the mysterious barriers of language.
Among the film's standouts is a formerly unknown, 23-year-old California native named Cory Zacharia, who practically walks away with the film as a deeply sensitive and slightly off-putting local -- also named "Cory." He might just be giving the most achingly earnest performance of the summer.
After returning home from a week-long promotional blitz in New York City where "Littlerock" had its premiere last week, Ott told HuffPost that Zacharia was "the most interesting actor" he'd ever worked with. And during months of international Q&A sessions and interviews about the film, he has found that many audience members seem equally intrigued; Who is this guy? Where did you find him?
Turns out, Ott met him back in 2008 while shooting a documentary called "Kid Icarus," which followed the development of a student film. Zacharia had come in to audition for the film-within-a-film, and Ott grew obsessed with him "in kind of an unhealthy way," he joked, and began following him around with a camera.
"Instantly, our documentary became focused on Cory," he said. "He was just walking around the set, licking his lips. He was so charismatic -- I could watch him do anything."
So when Ott was in the early stages of planning for "Littlerock," he brought Zacharia and Atsuko Okatsuka (the lead actress and co-writer of the film's story,) out to the California desert to do some test shoots. The resulting footage further encouraged Ott to place Cory and Atsuko's relationship at the film's emotional center.
But was real-life Cory -- who was actually picked on a lot by other kids growing up for his slightly effeminate demeanor -- worried about playing a vulnerable version of himself onscreen, especially one that is the butt of many of the other characters' jokes?
"I think it all felt pretty natural and comfortable for me," he told HuffPost from his home in Lancaster, Calif., just 20 miles outside of Littlerock. "It was like my real life, except in the movie I'm hanging out with a Japanese girl. That's the difference. So if anything, it was fun. As long as it's fun, I feel like it can't go wrong."
Zacharia does admit that before he started shooting the film, he asked director Ott why they had to use his real name.
"Mike said if I didn't use my real name then he'd give me a smaller part," Zacharia said. And it wasn't clear whether or not he was joking.
That blurred relationship between fiction and reality gives the film some of its most heart-wrenching scenes. After Cory meets Atsuko and her brother for the first time at a Littlerock motel, the three of them sit under an overpass and discuss his modeling aspirations and dreams of moving out to Los Angeles. Atsuko asks -- through her brother, the requisite English-to-Japanese translator -- if Cory would stand for her, and show himself off.
"Let me show you my walk, okay?" he asks. And then, without a hint of irony, he does his runway walk.
The whole uncomfortable thing is pulled straight out of Zacharia's own life.
"When I was 17 I went into Ford's Models, and they said I was too [old] for the kids or teens, and they thought I was too quirky looking to be a man model," Zacharia said. "I just always thought that was kind of a funny story. So did Mike."
After the success of "Littlerock," Ott said he liked the idea of expanding the same world and using the same characters over multiple films. He cites Kevin Smith as one of the only directors in recent memory who re-visit the same characters more than once.
Ott's next film, which he shot late last spring, will follow the character Cory as he attempts to reconcile with his absent father -- something else Zacharia actually dealt with in his own life.
"I recently met my father for the first time, last Thanksgiving," Zacharia explained. "I met him in the hospital. He wasn't feeling too well at the time. So when you see the movie, a lot of those real emotions and feelings and expressions [will be] as real life as possible."
Like his namesake in "Littlerock", Zacharia hopes to move to Los Angeles and pursue the acting life full-time. As soon as he can save up enough money, anyway.
"You don't think something like this will ever happen to you," Zacharia said, as earnestly as his alter-ego. "You see the emotion in a character and it's like, 'Woah... that's how it really is.' "
"Littlerock" won the Gotham Award for "Best Film Not Playing At A Theatre Near You" in 2010. WATCH the film's trailer below: