With the release of the bio-pic ‘Soul Surfer’ (my review HERE) about Bethany Hamilton, the inspiring pro surfer who at the age of thirteen suffered an horrific attack by a tiger shark in 2003 which took her left arm, I met with now 21 year old Bethany at London’s Soho Hotel for a chat about the movie and her extraordinary life. Curled up on a hotel room couch she was patently tired after a day’s worth of press, but the Hawaiian native’s relaxed, sun-kissed demeanour was chatty, interested, and interesting.
Q: So let’s jump right in, how did the movie actually come about?
BH: Well, originally we wrote the book, and then we made the documentary ‘Heart of a Soul Surfer’, and then the idea of a feature film… my manager at the time kept throwing it out there, and I was like ‘ok, yeah sure’ but didn’t really think it would happen. I met with producers here and there but things didn’t really come together until two years ago, then I met the director and loved him, and then things just slowly fell into place.
Q: So it’s been quite a long journey to get it to the screen.
BH: Yeah, it’s been about five years, it felt like forever though.
Q: How involved were you with the actual production?
BH: Well the whole family and I were very involved. My Mom and I cast AnnaSophia (Robb, who plays the young Bethany), and Malina (played by Sonya Balmores Chung), Alana’s brother, and a couple of other small characters. Then everything from scriptwriting, to being on set. I did a lot of my stunt surfing, everyone in my family had a cameo throughout the film, and then even into the editing room and picking out music.
Q: So it was pretty full on.
BH: Yeah, the last couple of years I’ve been basically involved in the making of the movie.
Q: Well I suppose if you’re handing your life over to a bunch of people you want to make sure it’s done properly.
BH: Yeah definitely, I wanted it to be as good as it could be.
Q: Talking of casting, how long did it take to choose AnnaSophia Robb, did you go through a lot of different actresses?
BH: No, actually it didn’t take that long. We actually came up with her, watched all her movies and liked her… There were a few other names but we just felt she suited it the best. I mean we suggested her but that doesn’t mean she just got the part. She had to meet the director (Sean McNamara) but he really liked her so that was cool. She did a great a job, and I really like her.
Q: As far as I understand she’s a fair bit shorter than you so there must have been some technical difficulties sometimes.
BH: Yeah for sure, the stunt surfing was hard to make look real.
Q: Going beyond AnnaSophia it must be slightly strange to see your family portrayed by actors, particularly when they’re well known like Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid.
BH: (laughs) Yeah, it’s funny, but I think my parents were stoked with their characters. I think everyone suited their roles really well so it worked out great. It definitely feels a little weird, and doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s us, but it worked out.
Q: Can you watch it just as a film?
BH: No, not really, I watch it from a critique standpoint. It’s my life, I can’t help critique it to death. Even though I’m really happy with it at the same time.
Q: Going post-accident, there are moments in the film where you’re unsure if you’re going to continue surfing, and then you go to Thailand to help with the tsunami recovery. How integral was that in your mental recovery?
BH: Thailand was an incredible trip, but in my real life it didn’t really depict a turning point in my surfing. I was still infatuated with surfing when I went to Thailand. But it was just really cool going there and encouraging people through my story. I think if anything it helped me realise that sharing my story can really impact other people in their lives. It was awesome helping them overcome their fear of the ocean.
Q: Faith is obviously an important part of the story, both in your real life and in the film, but is it more than religious faith, also faith in your friends and family and most of all in yourself?
BH: Well, my faith in God is a huge part of my life, and yeah He has blessed me with an amazing family, and group of friends. In the Bible he tells us to think positively about ourselves, to not be down on ourselves. So I just try to live the way He wants me to, and make the best decisions I can.
Q: There also seems to be a wider spirituality that’s to do with the ocean itself.
BH: Yeah, I love the ocean, and I love surfing. It’s something so special and unique, and surfing is unlike any other sport. Skateboarding is amazing, you get the adrenaline rush, but you don’t get the feel of the ocean, of doing its own thing. Totally surrounding you. Definitely a unique thing, it’s a blessing, and a huge part of my healing process I would say.
Q: One of the things I liked about the film was that there’s no demonising of the shark, or sharks in general. Was that important to get across, that the ocean is the ocean…
BH: Yeah, I think sharks are beautiful creatures, and I don’t think we should stop going in the ocean because of them. You drive down the road and you get in an accident, but most people end up driving down the road again. Surfing is you’re going into their home and it’s just a natural part of life.
Q: Films are by their very nature condensed versions of reality so I have to ask, how long did it actually take you to re-learn your surfing technique, because it’s pretty amazing (having also seen real footage).
BH: Well I started surfing less than a month later, it happened in October, and my first competition was in January so it was pretty quick. I just surfed a lot and worked hard at it, and figured it out. I guess it probably took a good year to really feel totally natural about it.
Q: And you’re still surfing competitively.
BH: Yep, I’m still a pro surfer and that involves competitive surfing, but also free surfing. I like big wave surfing as well. There’s a lot of different aspects of it that I love. I probably spend about six months on the road travelling, and surfing. It’s awesome, I love it.
Soul Surfer is out now in UK cinema’s. Read the review here