Local teen stars in feature film
Canby teen Embry Johnson last summer acted the role of the title character in the independent feature film "Prodigy," which was nominated in multiple categories at the International Christian Film Festival and is set to release later this year.
The film falls into the genres of family drama/thriller/science fiction and is written, produced and directed by Nathan Leon of Visionary Film Productions, based out of Omaha, Nebraska.
"It's a father-son story wrapped in a larger apocalyptic tale," Leon said. "The film is part sci-fi thriller and part family drama. It's also a cautionary tale and explores how we might all benefit from mending broken relationships with our families. The movie dives into how people deal with experiences that are beyond the realm of scientific explanation."
For the setting of this tale, Leon opted for Oregon's scenery—filming in Bend, Detroit Lake, the Aurora rest stop, Wilsonville, Sherwood, Carlton, Gates and more.
"Oregon has the epic and surreal landscapes that we were looking for," Leon said. "There was a variety of terrain that made it easy to tell a traveling on the road story. Some of the forests had an almost supernatural quality in the way light would pierce through the trees in the early mornings. This complemented the through-line of a young boy with supernatural abilities."
That boy is Embry in the role of Caleb.
Embry began his acting career at the age of nine by participating in community plays including "Anything Goes," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and more with Canby Community Theatre; "High School Musical" and "Beauty and the Beast" with Allegro Musical Theatre and several school plays.
"After he had done a few of the community theater plays, he had mentioned wanting to do TV or film," said Dezmoree Johnson, Embry's mom. "I joined a few different casting sites or Facebook groups…so when things matched up, I would send in a picture of him."
Embry eventually signed with Puddletown Talent.
But landing his role in "Prodigy" came about in a special way. Dezmoree kept seeing similar emails in her inbox, and she kept ignoring them.
"Then finally it drew my attention because it said, 'The director wants Embry to audition for this role,' " Dezmoree said. "So I opened it up, and it wasn't just a bulk email. The director, who was Nathan for 'Prodigy,' had seen his picture on one of those casting websites and reached out to have him audition."
Embry then filmed scenes and sent the footage to Leon before meeting Leon at a coffee shop in the Portland area. By the time they left the coffee shop, Embry had the role.
"Embry has a natural ability that I don't think can be taught," Leon said. "We saw it in his audition tape and were blown away. We saw a lot of kids for the part, and Embry was our first choice from day one. He has a calm demeanor and a wisdom beyond his years that fit the character perfectly. I'm sure we will be seeing more of him in future films."
Along with Embry, Hailey Henry, who played the role of mother figure Maya, is also from Oregon. The lead actor Cory Kays, who plays the role of Embry's father Erik Black, comes from Missouri.
Embry said the best part of his experience was the people he encountered.
"Definitely meeting all the different people that have worked on different projects and that are in the same business," Embry said. "They had a lot of good advice for me."
But Embry hadn't met any of the other actors until the first day of filming. Instead, he was given an address in Sherwood, where he and his mom got into a van with others to be transported to the filming location. Then, in one of the first scenes, Embry got a bag put over his head and was dragged up a hill. Through it all, Dezmoree noted, Embry was flexible (she also noted he was safe and felt safe).
Filming lasted just 30 days in total.
"Embry was a pleasure to work with," Kays said. "We had several lengthy days together on set, and he was always a trooper. If you're ever looking for a companion to run through the woods with, Embry's your guy."
At the International Christian Film Festival, the cast and crew were among actors like Sinbad, Ray Liota, Kirk Cameron and more. Embry was nominated for best supporting actor, Henry was nominated for best supporting actress, Kays was nominated for best lead actor and the film was nominated for best picture.
While none of them came away with a win, Embry expressed that the experience of attending the festival and seeing the film for the first time was valuable and memorable. And as a bonus, the winning supporting actor, Patrick Vann, sent Embry a message.
"Wanted to tell you you did a helluva job in your film man," the message read. "I'm hoping to see more from you."
The exact release date is not yet finalized, but "Prodigy" is set to come out late in 2018 and will be available through major outlets like Netflix and Redbox. Dezmoree is hoping to host a premier at Canby Cinema 8.
" 'Prodigy' is a father-son adventure story with plenty of surprises," Kays said. "It's definitely outside the box."