NEW YORK - The story of Chloë Grace Moretz, who went from being an ordinary little girl in Georgia to a rising film star, could very well be the subject of a Disney Channel series.
In an era when teenage icons are regular tabloid fodder, Moretz’s determined work ethic and air of innocence make her the kind of role model parents crave.
The 14-year-old is currently starring with Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,’’ which opened Wednesday. The film, based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’’ tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a Paris train station, where he dodges a child-hunting station agent (Sacha Baron Cohen). In his quest to unlock a secret left to him by his father (Jude Law), Hugo encounters Georges (Kingsley), a bitter old man who runs a toy booth at the station. As Hugo doggedly works toward solving his own mystery, he befriends Georges’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Moretz), who is also an orphan. The two find Hugo’s secret is linked to something deeply buried in the life story of Georges.
Moretz says she was determined to win the part of Isabelle as soon as she read the script.
“She was an inspirational character - she’s like me in a way,’’ says Moretz, curled up, shoeless, in an easy chair in a New York hotel room on a recent Sunday afternoon. “She is very strong and adventurous and she loves to dream - she has a huge imagination. That’s what the movie is about: having a dream and being driven, like me.’’
This breezy confidence is disarming, particularly from an adolescent. Moretz, dressed in a soft yellow skirt and charcoal gray top, seems devoid of the angst and preoccupation that often consumes teenagers. Perhaps it’s because, ever since she got into acting, things have been breaking her way.
Moretz’s ascent to fame began when she was 5 and moved from Atlanta to New York with her mother and two of her four older brothers. Her brother Trevor, who is now her acting coach, was studying acting and enrolled in the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan.
“He would do monologues all day long and I would soak up everything,’’ she explained. “I would spew them to anyone who would listen and my family thought it was weird, but I guess I always had a natural inclination to act.’’
In fact, it was Trevor’s coaching that helped Moretz perfect her English accent, which Scorsese mistook for genuine, according to Moretz. “I went in and completely fooled him into thinking I’m a British actress,’’ she says, proudly.
Kingsley says Moretz was “wonderful to work with,’’ and says he was delighted by her skill in portraying an English girl.
“Her English accent was flawless and that was a great joy,’’ Kingsley says during a recent telephone interview. “She worked hard on the rhythms and the tones and, instead of her imitating an English accent, it became part of her character. It was very charming.’’
Although he didn’t have as many scenes with Moretz as he did with Butterfield, Kingsley says he and Moretz made sure they were clear about how their two characters connected.
“We had a really good talk at the beginning of the shoot and pinned down what the relationship between Isabelle and Georges would be,’’ he says. “She remained ever-faithful to that.’’
He cites one scene in which his wife, played by Helen McCrory, worries about his health, urging Isabelle and Hugo to avoid upsetting him further.
“When Mama Jeanne (McCrory) says, ‘He’s very frail,’ it was beautiful the way Chloë met me as if I were made of glass, as if I would break,’’ Kingsley says. “There is only so much I can do as an actor, but if my colleagues are telling the same story around me, it’s absolutely marvelous.’’
Such high praise from Kingsley is likely to make even the unflappable Moretz blush, at least a little. She says she was initially slightly intimidated at the prospect of acting with a giant of Kingsley’s caliber, but soon grew comfortable. The same is true about working with Scorsese, she says.
“When I first went in, it was nerve-wracking thinking not only did I have to act in front of Martin Scorsese but I also had to try not to mess up my accent,’’ she says.
Moretz confesses that she was not terribly familiar with Scorsese’s work before she began working on “Hugo.’’
“I hadn’t seen a lot because they’re very adult, but I had seen ‘The Aviator’ (2004),’’ she says. “Now I’ve seen more - ‘Gangs of New York’ (2002) and ‘Raging Bull’ (1980).’’
Surely no Scorsese tutorial would be complete without “Taxi Driver,’’ his 1976 film about a mentally unstable Vietnam veteran, who rages against New York’s smut and sets out to save a teenage prostitute, played by Jodi Foster.
“Nooo,’’ Moretz says, shaking her head and rolling her wide blue eyes. “My mom won’t let me. We were going to and then she said, ‘hold on.’ She watched the first few minutes of it and said, ‘You’re going to have to wait until you’re 16 or 17. And here we are, still waiting.’’
Here we are, indeed. Her mom, Teri, is present during this interview, as she is during all of her daughter’s appearances. Trevor, Moretz’s teacher, and her publicist also serve as regular chaperones.
“I take them everywhere,’’ Moretz says, gesturing at adults who sit silently against the wall. “They’re concerned about me and the issue of fame. They keep me grounded and they keep me safe and they keep me normal. I think that’s the biggest thing - keeping me normal.’’
Part of staying normal is engaging in wholesome activities with family and friends. “My whole family is going ice skating in Central Park later - Asa [Butterfield] is coming too,’’ she says. “I haven’t done it in a long time and I’m really excited to get some good photos and videos of that.’’
When she’s not participating in (and documenting) “normal’’ activities, Moretz is focused on her career. Last year she appeared as a vigilante in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,’’ and as a vampire in “Let Me In.’’ Coming up, she plays a major role in “Dark Shadows,’’ Tim Burton’s film with Johnny Depp, scheduled for released next year.
Like most actors, Moretz has roles she’d love to play some day and, true to her upbeat outlook, she is not afraid of thinking big.
“I’m very much an overachiever so my dreams are very large and they might sound crazy, but who would have predicted that I’d be working with Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton?’’ she says. “So I have to dream big or go home.
“I love ‘Wuthering Heights,’ so that would be a movie I’m dying to do,’’ she continues. “And I love ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ So they’re very big dreams but, as I said, I’m an overachiever.’’
Her ambition is not limited to her screen work. Moretz, who left traditional school after third grade, says she loves working with her personal tutor because one-on-one learning is more effective than classroom learning.
She says she studies hard and does well, which was confirmed by a nod from the teacher sitting in the corner.
“I have to [work hard] because some day I want to go to Columbia University and major in psychology and minor in art history,’’ she says.
Could Moretz really be as perfect as she sounds? “I’m a teenager - I push boundaries sometimes,’’ she concedes.
Sounds like the perfect level of antics for a wholesome family film. Or a Disney sitcom.
Judy Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.