A teen singer and actress from Hamilton is the star of a film out today that is one of the first movies to be released in theaters since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Gianna Harris, 15, plays the role of Emma Biggs in Mighty Oak, a story about family, reincarnation and finding oneself. The film is directed by Soul Surfer’s Sean McNamara and was released by Paramount in North America. The film is showing in select theaters and drive-ins around the country, starting Friday, June 5. It is Harris’ first role in a feature-length film.
It’s the culmination of a process that started for Harris 18 months ago. Harris found out she had landed the co-starring role of Emma just a few days after sending in an audition tape in January 2019. The audition process was relatively short, Harris said, because the movie was searching to fill her role fast.
Soon Harris and her regular traveling partner—her mother, Linda—were on a flight to San Diego for filming on Jan. 29, 2019. It was eye-opening for Harris, who only started pursuing acting about two years ago.
Acting first became a part of her life when she was chosen to take part in the first national tour of School of Rock in 2017, her Broadway debut. Playing a leading role on the six-month tour, Harris “was thrown into acting very, very fast,” she said.
Through her crash course in the national show, she discovered her interest in TV and film acting, along with her long-time love of singing.
Her excitement for the new film hasn’t changed her original vision of her career path, as a singer, but has opened her up to considering a life filled with both passions.
“I’ve been a singer the longest and that is what I want to do,” Harris said. “And I do love acting and I hope that I have a singing career to the point where I can be like, ‘Hey, I want to be in a movie now.’ And I could do a movie. I want to do both but I’m really focused on singing right now because that’s my passion in life, that’s what I want to do. I want to pursue singing.”
Harris also has appeared on TV, in the Thanksgiving 2018 episode of Sesame Street with Leon Bridges.
Harris trained and auditioned for larger acting roles but had never booked one before Mighty Oak. She starred in a short film that was released in 2019, The O’Clocks, but found the set for a full-length movie to be very different.
“I like change,” Harris said. “I like experiencing things new, so it wasn’t really difficult, it’s just a new way of how to do things. Just a new experience and I love that so much. Learning new things.”
Both Harris and her mother were excited to see San Diego and take on this first-time experience. Harris spent about a month filming in February 2019 and was brought back for about two weeks in June that same year to film surfing scenes.
It was hard work, and her days consisted of a lot of back and forth, she said. Hair and makeup would take roughly 45 minutes. Since Harris was playing a kid, her looks were kept simple and natural-looking.
Time on set varied between days, depending on how many scenes were to be filmed. One scene could get wrapped up in two hours but multiple scenes in different locations led to six to eight-hour days—although never more.
Harris was kept on a tight timeline since they attempted to complete each scene with the minimal amount of takes. When she wasn’t filming, Harris had tutors on-site to help with her schoolwork between takes and to ensure that they were working within the child labor laws.
In most cases, scenes involving children were kept towards later in the day to allow them time to finish schoolwork.
Harris’ past TV and theater work helped her in filming Mighty Oak but also highlighted the differences in acting for a film.
Instead of a live audience reacting to a Broadway play, Harris was on a set where cameras were up close and little actions would look huge on screen.
“It was definitely a different experience,” Harris said.
Adapting to her surroundings didn’t bother her though. Tackling new challenges is all in the day of a life of a performer.
“It’s just fun to be able to play a different person and be a different person for a while,” she said.
After returning home for about three months, Harris arrived back on set in June 2019 to learn how to surf and film the movie’s water scenes.
Her days would consist of two to three hours in the water with a surfing instructor and filming. As fun as it was to take her first shot at surfing, it was equally as tiring.
The rest of the movie was finalized quickly, with its release coming just one year after Harris shot her last scenes in June 2019.
Now home in Hamilton with her family, Harris keeps busy with acting and vocal classes. Harris does not attend a traditional school in Hamilton, instead taking courses through an online school called Acellus Academy. This gives her additional time to work on her performing skills.
She has worked with acting coach Christina Wright for almost three years and acting coach Tracey Moore for about a year and a half. Her vocal coach, Troy Bell, produces a R&B girl group, Enjoithejrney. Harris is a part of the group along with other female singers from New Jersey.
Harris takes classes at The Broadway Star Project, a company located in New York City and created in part by her parents Ron and Linda and one of her best friend’s parents, Coty Manriquez and Eduardo Jimenez-Ponz. Through the company, kids can take acting, dancing and singing lessons and classes.
She dreams of playing Celie in the Broadway play The Color Purple, although she’d be happy with any role in the play, as it is her favorite musical.
She also would love to be in The Wiz, and if either of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog or Moana were adapted into live or Broadway versions, Harris sees herself involved with those as well.
Mighty Oak is showing in select locations in North America for the time being with quarantines still in effect. The Harris family plans to see the movie at a drive-in theater when they can coordinate the trip.
Harris is looking forward to seeing the film but joked that it will be odd to see herself playing a role on the big screen for the first time.
Her character in the movie, Emma Biggs—a close friend of the titular Oak Scoggins—shared many traits with Harris. Emma sticks up for Oak a lot throughout the film. Standing up for others and for what’s good is something Harris feels strongly about as well.
“I don’t feel like I ever was playing a character when I was playing her because it definitely was me,” Harris said.
The movie follows a music manager who loses her brother and lead vocalist in a tragic accident. Years later, a young guitar prodigy Oak Scoggins, played by Tommy Ragen, appears to have the same spirit as the manager’s late sibling.
Harris was excited to be working with many of those involved with the film – both on the production side and acting.
Director Sean McNamara was a big part of Harris’ thrill. Getting the opportunity to learn from and work with actors who she had grown up watching on TV was just an added bonus.
Harris recalls watching her co-stars Carlos PenaVega in the TV series Big Time Rush and Alexa PenaVega in Spy Kids. Getting the chance to work with Broadway actor Rodney Hicks, who played Harris’ father in Mighty Oak, was another great experience.
Harris also was thrilled to hear the film had been purchased by Paramount.
“I really wanted this to be a big thing, and I wanted a lot of people to see it because it is such a touching story and people really need to hear it,” Harris said.
The film being pushed out to a wider audience is just what Harris wanted to see for the feel-good film.
“I hope it shows people to follow their dreams and their passions and to say, ‘You may not know who you are right now but give it some time and you’ll figure it out,’” she said.