PROVIDENCE – Peter Hedges, the director of “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,’’ auditioned thousands of boys to play the naive young lead in his sentimental Disney film, which opened on Wednesday. But when he finally found his perfect Timothy — 12-year-old CJ Adams from Rhode Island — he was hesitant to cast the boy. He wasn’t worried about Adams’s ability to carry the movie; he was worried about changing the course of Adams’s youth.
“I know this is going to sound melodramatic,’’ the director said. “When we cast him I burst into tears because I thought I could ruin this boy’s life. I thought about his parents, I thought about the brother who he adores. You only get to be a kid once, and I want CJ to have that. I didn’t want to be the person who took that away from him.’’
Hedges, who has worked on the kid-focused films “About a Boy’’ and the big-screen adaptation of his novel, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,’’ knew enough about child stars to realize he was flipping a coin on Adams’s future. There was a chance he could help the boy down a glittering path similar to the career of Natalie Portman or Leonardo DiCaprio. He could also unwittingly send him into the Danny Bonaduce territory of child stars gone bad.
It was that pressure that led to tears, he said, and also to his decision.
“This is an exceptional kid,’’ said Hedges, who was ultimately convinced that the family’s level-headed perspective would keep the young actor grounded. “It was difficult, but I think I did the right thing.’’
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green,’’ is a feel-good fable of a boy who materializes in the muddy backyard garden of a couple unable to conceive. He possesses all of the qualities they are looking for in a child, but in the film’s twist, he has ivy-like leaves growing out of his shins. “Green’’ could transform the chestnut-haired Adams into a break-out kid celebrity. At the very least, the film, which also stars Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton, has already served as a stepping stone for offers.
“I’m ready for more,’’ Adams said last week at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence as he sipped frozen lemonade. “It’s really like a family thing because my mom helps me out, and my dad helps me out, and we have an agent who gives me movies to try out for.’’
Despite the Hollywood premiere and a press junket of 150 interviews to promote the film — 70 of which took place in a single day — Adams seems very much a normal boy. After answering a few questions at the park, he appeared slightly more interested in an insect crawling across a picnic table, and in the movements of a nearby squirrel. He is happy to talk about the movie and is unfailingly polite, but also happy to talk about playing with his friends.
Adams, who has never had an acting lesson, is in the process of reading scripts (he consults with his mother) and auditioning for films. Because these parts are not yet confirmed, he is light on details, although he confesses he’d love to be in a superhero movie.
Like Hedges, Adams’s parents are intent on protecting the boy’s childhood. They have no plans to move out of Rhode Island, and they let their son choose his own movies. They will juggle their lives as necessary, but they stress the importance of staying in New England and say that it’s possible for Adams to act and continue to live in Rhode Island.
“The thing we really like about living here is that we get away from everything,’’ says Donna Adams, who works at CVS corporate headquarters in Woonsocket. “We feel like we go back to normal life when we get back from New York or LA. With movies, you can space it out, too. You do that intense movie filming, and then you take a break for a year.’’
Hedges feels particularly protective of Adams because he was the one who set the boy’s career in motion. While scouting locations for the 2007 Steve Carell movie “Dan in Real Life’’ in Rhode Island, he put out a call for kid actors. Out of those hundreds who auditioned, Hedges was captivated by the then 6-year-old Adams.
“I’m told that after I saw CJ I said, ‘I could watch that kid every day of my life.’ He’s a remarkable kid who has this fantastic insight,’’ Hedges says. “Sometimes you get the feeling he understands more about things than you do.’’
As Hedges dispenses these compliments, they sound deeper than platitudes dropped to promote the film. It seems there is a genuine affection between the two. They bonded thanks to Adams’s curiosity over the movie-making process. He called Hedges “Mr. Peter’’ (and still does). Hedges says by the end of the shoot, Adams was yelling “cut’’ and “action.’’
It’s a career that almost didn’t happen. When he was first told about the 2007 audition, Adams said he wasn’t interested. When his older brother explained that it meant Adams would eventually be on a DVD, he leapt at the the chance. He was cast in a small part as Carell’s nephew.
After “Dan,’’ Adams didn’t show any additional interest in acting, and he went back to school. “I was just a kid then,’’ he explains with a serious face.
“I just felt like he was too young,’’ his mother says. “I felt that he probably wasn’t ready to continue in the industry. We had a blast, and we made a lot of friends in the area on that movie, but he didn’t quite understand it all. He was only 6.’’
The decision to continue was left up to the CJ (that’s short for Cameron James). But performing is second nature in the Adams household. His 15-year-old brother Austin acted with the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence for six years. His mother performs in local choral groups. The patriarch of the household, Matt Adams, is a New York Times best-selling author and golf expert who hosts a show on SiriusXM satellite radio.
But after that four-year break, Adams decided he was ready to go back into film. He may have developed a friendship with “Timothy’’ director Hedges, but that didn’t mean Adams had a lock on the part. Not only was Hedges worried about the possibility of suffocating Adams’s childhood, he was not certain that Adams was the best boy for the part.
He reasoned that there was no way a boy from Rhode Island who had showed up at the random casting call for “Dan in Real Life’’ could be the right person now. So he kept auditioning more boys, and Adams always ended up as a finalist. As Adams worked with his mother on the part, his interpretation of the role improved, and the boy who enters seventh grade next month landed the part.
“He fit this part because there’s nothing about him that feels precocious or annoying or cloying,’’ Hedges says. “He’s disarming in that way that exceptional kids are.’’
Adams said he had fun rubbing elbows with the celebrities during the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles last week, but he was more excited for another event back home at a theater in Rhode Island.
“I get to have a screening for my friends,’’ he says. “And I won’t have to dress up.’’