One of the old ways to get discovered by Hollywood was to be in the right place at the right time — like sipping a malt at a drugstore soda fountain when a talent agent came in to buy cigarettes.
Keji Jale, 13, and her brother Okwar, 15, didn’t get plucked from their lives in Kansas City that way, but they still ended up on the big screen. The teenagers and their dad, Elikana, are featured in “The Good Lie,” a movie starring Reese Witherspoon about Sudanese refugees resettling in, yep, KC. (The film is out on DVD this week.)
We first talked to the Jales shortly before a red-carpet premiere of the film here in September. When we checked in with them last week, both kids expressed an interest in doing more acting. “I loved it,” Keji says of playing young Abital in “The Good Lie.”
She went from performing in church plays to scoring one of a handful of child roles in the Warner Bros. movie. (She and Okwar play the refugees as kids fleeing the violence of civil war in South Sudan.) She was hired after auditions in Kansas City.
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Keji (pronounced KAY-gee), an eighth-grader at Barry Middle School in the Platte County School District, says she’ll probably take drama in high school. These days, she’s loving science class and basketball.
Okwar was a late casting decision. When dad Elikana, himself a Sudanese refugee, took Keji to Atlanta for rehearsals in the spring of 2013 (Atlanta subs for KC in the movie), producers still hadn’t found their Theo, one of the younger Lost Boy roles. They ended up selecting Okwar after going back to videotapes of auditions in Kansas City.
The child actors not only had to keep up with their schoolwork on set, they also had to learn to speak Dinka before heading to South Africa, where their scenes were shot.
Elikana, meanwhile, had no idea he’d end up in the movie, but producers cast him in two minor roles: as a friend of the main characters in a refugee camp, and as a dying old man the kids run across after leaving South Sudan.
“I’ve been told many times that I should be a movie star,” the gregarious Elikana, 42, says.
“This is only by Americans,” he adds, and before he had children.
Keji says that when “The Good Lie” opened in Kansas City, she and about 15 friends, plus some of her teachers, turned out at the AMC Barrywoods.
“Right after the movie, they all started clapping,” she remembers.
Okwar, a sophomore at Platte County High School, is focused on school these days, including getting ready for indoor track. But asked if acting will be a one-and-done thing for him, he shakes his head. He’d like to make more movies, he says.
“It wasn’t my thing to act,” he says. “It’s something I just fell into.” But he might sign up for drama club next semester.
“The Good Lie” is a drama with some funny moments, but Okwar’s forte might be comedy and action, Keji says: “He’s always about a bunch of action stuff.”
Okwar has seen “The Good Lie” three times. The first time, at a pre-release screening in July, he was focused on his own acting. It was only later, such as at a premiere event in Nashville (which included Witherspoon, who plays a KC career counselor), that he could appreciate the movie as a whole.
Elikana and wife Della have six kids. The four older ones all auditioned.
Elikana, an employee of Kansas City’s public works department, is “open to any acting,” but he really wants to write a book about corruption in South Sudan. He mentions a second cousin, a businessman, who was killed “because of envy and nepotism.”
His book could then be turned into a movie, he says.
And would he make sure his kids get parts in his movie?
“Absolutely,” the proud dad says.
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