"Family" is a familiar refrain for actress and pop star Selena Gomez. What little downtime she has, she says, she likes to spend "sitting on the couch, watching movies, eating junk food, just relaxing with friends and family" or reading (current book: Sundays at Tiffany's by James Patterson. "I'm kind of a hopeless romantic when it comes to reading," she says).
When she's nervous or anxious, she turns to her mom for advice. She plays the serious and sweet older sister in her new movie, the supremely family-friendly Ramona and Beezus, (based on the classic novels by Beverly Cleary) which hits theaters on July 23. And she's not ready yet to turn away from the younger fans who still love her as Alex Russo on Disney's The Wizards of Waverley Place. "I'm still just a kid myself," she said in an interview yesterday. "I wouldn’t do a role I don’t feel comfortable doing or that my audience wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing."
Her co-star Joey King isn't worrying about reaching out to an older audience just yet, either. Her 11th birthday is at the end of this month, and she's reveling in the similarities between herself and her character, the pesky kid-sister Ramona. "I have a big imagination like Ramona, and the same personality like Ramona as well," she said over the phone. "And I have sisters, just like Ramona, and I have pets!"
The movie draws from seven of Beverly Cleary's eight iconic Ramona Quimby books -- though not Beezus and Ramona, the first in the series, which was published in 1955. "We needed more mature story lines, and wanted to cast an older Ramona who could carry the movie," says director Elizabeth Allen in a statement. "Ramona in Beezus and Ramona is age 4, and having a 4-year-old carry the movie did not feel realistic." (In the movie, Ramona is 9.) Joey began reading the books after she was cast as Ramona, but Selena read them back in elementary school, and making Cleary proud was one of her goals. "We all did our homework and worked really hard to be true to the characters. I think this movie is going to be a fun family experience." The characters have been favorites since they were introduced in her first book, Henry Huggins, in 1950, and they stand the test of time.
"We did not 'modernize' the stories," Allen says. "Beverly Cleary never time-stamped the books and intended for most of them to play a year apart, rather than the decade she took between writing each one."
So, even though some of the Ramona books are more than 50 years old, the modern-day actresses could relate to their parts. Ramona is "not afraid to let loose, not afraid to fail, and she pursues her dreams," Joey says. In a storyline that will ring true for many in this day and age, the family faces financial problems that Ramona wants to help solve. "She's just trying to be a good kid and help out with the family, but her crazy antics get her in trouble," Joey points out.
Both actresses cop to having to conquer feelings of fear, nervousness, and anxiety. Talking on the phone just hours before presenting an award in Miami, Joey says, "I get nervous all the time. I'm kind of nervous about tonight! My mom says having a feeling inside of you is better than no feeling. I get over it, I say 'Hey! This is what I love to do, and it's fun!' I just need to get over my fears. I kind of like that feeling."
"What helps me is to use those feelings," Selena adds. "When I get really nervous I like to talk about it or ask my mom what to do."
The bigger lesson for kids dealing with adversity, Selena says, is that "Everything happens for a reason, and within each problem there's a lesson you can learn." Don't be afraid that people will laugh or make fun of you, follow your passion, and keep your family close. "At the end of the day, family is all you've got," she says.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.