Growing up in New Zealand, Julian Dennison would watch superhero movies with his pals, convinced there was no way he could ever fit in alongside the hunky, sculpted heroes tearing up the big screen.
“They were all super muscly, super fit, super cool dudes who were very chiseled and basically looked like they had been molded out of clay,” the 15-year-old Deadpool 2 star tells ET. “I never saw any characters who looked like me or any kids onscreen who were a bit chubbier.”
Not surprisingly, the young talent had to pinch himself as he walked on set in Vancouver, Canada, dressed as mutant superhero Russell Collins, aka Firefist, to work alongside Ryan Reynolds and Josh Brolin in the highly anticipated follow-up to 2016’s blockbuster Deadpool. Both nervous and excited, the moment marked the beginning of a whirlwind transition from New Zealand to Hollywood, which has since seen him cracking jokes on Good Morning America, becoming buddies with Reynolds and his gorgeous wife, Blake Lively, landing further work and proudly showcasing a rarer superhero look to millions around the globe.
Yet, Dennison admits he had no idea what acting entailed when he and his twin brother, Christian, attended an open audition at his Lower Hutt elementary school for a 2013 film called Shopping. When he landed a lead role in the drama, he decided it would be fun to take it and despite having been a shy and quiet child, he quickly became “hooked” on filmmaking.
A role in the award-winning Australian children’s flick Paper Planes followed, but it was New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople that he says changed his life. Portraying rebellious but loveable kid Ricky Baker, who goes missing in the bush with his foster uncle (played by Sam Neill), the film became the biggest box office hit of the year in Dennison’s homeland, where he suddenly started getting asked for photos at school and recognized on the street.
Waititi went on to direct 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, and now, Dennison is following in his Hollywood footsteps. “Taika’s super crazy. He’s like a 12-year-old kid in an adult’s body,” Dennison laughs. “It was a cool experience and a lot of my humor is molded from Taika. Doing Hunt for the Wilderpeople opened so many doors, so I owe a bit of my career to him. I don’t like saying that because he’ll probably claim he did enough as it is! But I definitely learned a lot from working with him.”
It was while watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople during preparations for Deadpool 2 that Reynolds was struck by Dennison’s talent and immediately emailed Waititi to get the lowdown on the Kiwi teen. “I saw Taika’s film and was like, ‘Who is this kid and what voodoo did you put on him to make him this good?’” Reynolds told the New Zealand Herald. “Taika said, ‘He just is that good.’”
Thanks to Waititi’s glowing recommendation — Dennison was the only actor they considered for the part, Reynolds revealed to the paper — the young actor was on a plane to Los Angeles for a meeting with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch. “We didn’t know we were meeting with Ryan as well. He just walked out wearing this Christmas sweater and we started talking about the film,” Dennison recalls.
With Dennison in mind, Reynolds then wrote the role of an orphan infused with supernatural abilities and uncontrollable rage, whom Deadpool and his team set out to protect from time-traveling mutant Cable (Brolin.) Leitch, Reynolds and an acting coach helped Dennison overcome his nerves and get into the mindset of the angriest character he has ever played.
“Everyone, especially Ryan, helped me become this character,” Dennison says. “Working with him was so fun. You can’t keep a straight face because he’s so funny that you can’t not laugh around him. He’s a great guy, and Blake Lively, his wife, is really lovely too. He’s got a really nice family who are all super down-to-earth.”
One thing Dennison didn’t have to worry about while taking on his biggest role yet was the challenge many foreign actors face chasing their Hollywood dreams: perfecting an American accent. Thrilled he got to keep his New Zealand accent, the Maori actor admits that at times he took it too far, inadvertently slipping Kiwi slang into his lines, like adding “G” (similar to “bro”) to the end of phrases.
“I used to say things like, ‘Yeah G,’ a lot, so I had to learn not to say it,” he says. “I still talk to my mates like that, but it got annoying on-set, so they made me stop. It was really special that I got to use my accent in the film, though. That means I can do it in any potential future films!”
Time will tell whether those future projects include a third Deadpool film, but Dennison confirms there are “fun” unannounced projects on the horizon, which he will juggle with completing his schooling after the fun grind of Deadpool 2 obligations die down.
He was thrilled to have his parents and Christian join him for Monday’s night’s world premiere in New York City and credits his family for being incredibly supportive as he faces the exciting new doors Deadpool 2 is opening. And, as he walks through them, three simple words of wisdom from Reynolds remain on his mind.
“He said, ‘Just be yourself. You can’t make it in this industry if you’re not doing that, because then you’re representing someone else. So be yourself and don’t forget where you come from,’” Dennison says. “I’m just this kid from New Zealand, to be honest. My life has changed, but I’m still that same kid and I don’t think that will ever change.”
He may call himself a “kid,” but when it comes to his evolving acting career, Dennison hopes the “child star” label isn’t one which will stick with him professionally. “What’s with the whole ‘child actor’ and ‘teen actor’ thing?” he questions. “You’re either an actor or actress or you’re not. I don’t get it! I want to be taken seriously as an actor.”
Labels aside, Dennison’s thrilled to be portraying a character who will help youngsters around the globe reevaluate what a superhero does, should or could look like.
“Deadpool is a quirky universe, which is all about being outside of the box, unlike a normal superhero film,” he says, adding that he’s always been confident and comfortable with his body image. “For me, personally, it’s really cool to play someone who other can people finally look at it and see that a bigger person can portray this awesome character.”