Winston-Salem actress hits the water in Dolphin Tale

by Mark Burger

Austin Highsmith wanted the role of Phoebe in Dolphin Tale so badly that she was absolutely certain she wouldn’t get it. This despite the fact that she was a trained swimmer and the role was that of a marine therapist, which would require her to be in the water a considerable amount of time.

At her first meeting with the filmmakers, they emphasized that aspect. Highsmith remembered thinking: “Can I just show you my lifeguard certification?” Although the meeting went well, “I was sure I’d never get it,” she said.

Then came the second meeting. Role landed. Mission accomplished. “When the producers talked, they seemed to be talking to me like I had it,” she recalled with a laugh. “I thought to myself: ‘It’s this easy? Do you want me to pay you?’” She calls Hollywood home now, but Highsmith originally hails from Winston- Salem, and she was feted in a red-carpet celebration at the Grand 18 earlier this week, joined by family and friends for a premiere screening of Dolphin Tale (see review, Page 33), in which she plays the role of Phoebe.

Dolphin Tale is the true story of “Winter,” a dolphin that had washed ashore off the coast of St. Petersburg, her tail enmeshed in a crab trap. Taken to nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium, doctors and therapists (including Highsmith’s Phoebe) attempted to restore the dolphin’s health, but when Winter’s tail had to be amputated due to infection, it appeared as if the cause was lost.

But, as marine mavens the world over are aware, a prosthetic tail was developed that allowed Winter to swim. Trial and error came into play countless times, both for Winter and her human friends, but in the end, Winter survived and thrived.

The human cast of Dolphin Tale includes Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Frances Sternhagen, Richard Libertini and Ray McKinnon. Nathan Gamble plays the youngster who first discovers Winter washed ashore and Cozi Zuehlsdorff (in her screen debut) plays marine doctor Connick’s daughter, the two forming a fast friendship she plays herself.

There’s an old show-biz adage about not working with children or animals, “and here I am doing both,” joked Highsmith. “And it was a joy.”

Indeed, in many scenes that’s the real Winter that Highsmith is working (and swimming) with. “I was taught her behavior, and she definitely learned mine,” she said. In some scenes, however, she worked with a synthetic version of Winter “which weighed a lot!” As for youngsters Gamble and Zuehlsdorff, “they are amazing actors and they’re both smarter than I am,” she laughed.

For Highsmith, Dolphin Tale was not only an acting opportunity and the chance to tell a story “that meant a lot to all of us,” but also marked a sizable leap into the bigscreen big leagues. Having done a number of low-budget films (including Circle of Eight, Room 3 and Breathing Room), this was big-studio (Warner Bros.) time., replete with big stars and big perks.

“I had such a wonderful time,” she said. “It was the most happy set ever.”

Working with the likes of Freeman, Kristofferson and Connick was “such fun,” she said, recalling that Connick and Freeman would spontaneously break into song between scenes.

“Here’s Harry Connick Jr., musical genius, harmonizing with Morgan Freeman, a legend and genius at everything. Moments like those, you wish the camera had kept rolling.”

is also an actor (American Graffiti, The Untouchables) “was such a blessing,” Highsmith said, “because he definitely understood our plight a little bit more.”

These are “busy, crazy times” for Highsmith, she said. A week after her Winston-Salem homecoming, she’ll attend the film’s premiere in St. Petersburg, Fla. where it was filmed, and then jump right into a stage production of Stephen Metcalfe’s The Tragedy of the Commons at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, which Highsmith co-founded. Film and television offer their own challenges and rewards, but Highsmith said there’s nothing like acting on stage.

“It’s vital, in my opinion,” she said. “I started on stage, and that’s where I get the most exercise. I just like telling stories.”

Highsmith has had good fortune in her small-screen endeavors as well, appearing in such popular series’ as “Castle,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” an upcoming guest role on “Private Practice,” and a recurring role on “Big Love,” where she appeared opposite Oscar winner Sissy Spacek.

“It was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done,” she recalled, “because Sissy Spacek is the reason I became an actor. When I saw her in Coal Miner’s Daughter, that was it for me.”

At this stage in her career, each role in each project is an opportunity to learn and to soak up more experience, Highsmith observed. There’s a measure of luck involved, but as her father once said: “The more practice I get, the as they work to save Winter. As for Winter, That director Charles Martin Smith luckier I get.”