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Set Visit: Enter the mythical land of Sam Raimi's 'Oz the Great and Powerful'
Take a peek behind the curtain with stars James Franco and Michelle Williams
A little farther on Dorothy met a most beautifully dressed young Princess, who stopped short as she saw the strangers and started to run away.
Dorothy wanted to see more of the Princess, so she ran after her. But the china girl cried out:
"Don't chase me! Don't chase me!"
She had such a frightened little voice that Dorothy stopped and said, "Why not?"
"Because," answered the Princess, also stopping, a safe distance away, "if I run I may fall down and break myself."
"But could you not be mended?" asked the girl.
"Oh, yes; but one is never so pretty after being mended, you know." - Frank L. Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
The China Girl dances lightly on the ground in front of us, every delicate movement of her miniature body manipulated by the strings of a God-like puppeteer standing over her. I get down on my knees and watch her there in her Lilliputian blue dress, smiling as if she can see. There is a beautiful fragility to her pale porcelain skin and her big, sensitive eyes. In the instant she claps her tiny hands together, she becomes real. She becomes a living thing.
"I play two characters," says Joey King, the spunky 12-year-old actress whose credits include "Ramona & Beezus" and the 2011 rom-dramedy "Crazy, Stupid, Love." "In Kansas, when Oz is in Kansas, I play a little wheelchair girl. I meet Oz while he’s doing a magic show. She asks him a favor that he can’t return, really. Then I play China Girl, which is my main role. I play a little two-foot tall girl. She’s really cute. She’s really sassy. Oz just kind of takes her in and becomes an adopted father to her."
In case you hadn't picked up on it, King is the voice and face of China Girl; the body will not be hers but rather a creation of Raimi's visual effects team. The marionette described earlier is provided merely as a reference point for the other actors, including Franco, whose character befriends hers in the course of his epic journey.
"I have to go into a booth for filming because they’re filming my face in the booth," she told us. "Because [my character is] only two-foot tall, I can’t really be out there squatting so I have China Girl’s body and my head’s on her. It’s very interesting. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s not like a voiceover and it’s not like being on set. It’s really different."
Unlike a great many child actors I've encountered, King doesn't speak like an adult; she's squirmy and inelegant and gawky, endearingly so. She's funny and doesn't know it.
"I’m really happy that I get to work on it," she says of the film. "I would have been so bummed if I didn’t get hired to work on it. I’m so glad I am! The set is so friendly and cool and I’m the only kid on set. It’s very different working with all adults. I have a swear jar so that, if they have a potty mouth, I make them pay. That’s what it’s like being on set with adults."
Ok, a kid actor with a swear jar - not exactly unprecedented. Except King's has been given a name.
"The piggy bank’s name is Dirty Word Deanna. I try to make people pay up as frequently as I can because she gets hungry," she says. "[First assistant director] K.C. [Hodenfield] has a down payment, so he's good for awhile. He put in 20 bucks."
Cynicism comes easy if you spend enough time hanging around Hollywood movie sets, but unlike her more seasoned collaborators, King hasn't yet encountered the potentially-crippling weight of disillusionment. I like that about her.
"It was really fun getting to film in a circus," she tells us of shooting the Kansas scenes. "They turned a studio into a circus and it really looked like a circus. They had all the tents set up. It was really, really fun filming in a circus scene. I think Oz is pretty amazing, though, and I love filming in Oz. There’s the yellow brick road. Everything is there. Glinda’s palace. The Emerald City."
This being a Walt Disney production, one reporter half-jokingly inquires if she'll be receiving a lifetime pass to the company's Anaheim park for all her hard work and dedication.
Answers King: "I love Disneyland, but my favorite is California Adventure. I love the big rides. I love Tower of Terror, which I just went on a couple of weeks ago. I was so scared, but I had so much fun. I love California Screaming [and] Soaring Over California. I love Disneyland because the teacups are so awesome. But California Adventure is the best. So I am hoping they give me a pass!"
Later we watch over the monitors as King rehearses inside the booth. From this vantage point she nearly gives the impression of a neon-clad, pre-pubescent Betty Boop - all exaggerated facial expressions and fluttering eyelids.
All of this is preparation for the filming of a scene that will see Oscar meeting the China Girl on the yellow brick road. The puppeteer (name: Phillip Huber) takes his place on set with the marionette, and as Raimi yells "action" the extras spring into motion, moving to and fro carrying baskets and sacks and other assorted items.
With the cameras rolling, Franco - sullenly loitering about in his top hat and tails between takes - approaches the China Girl and bends down to speak with her as Huber meticulously controls her every move. In the booth, King mimes wildly, acting out every line with an aplomb to be envied. There is no subtlety to this China Girl, but such is the Land of Oz. As I stand there watching, the distinctive scent of peanut brittle wafts past my nose.