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Ian Michael Smith: A big thinker

When Ian Michael Smith got his first chance to try out for a movie, his parents said "no way." And so did he.

"Our hospital got a fax from this movie called 'The Mighty,' saying everyone shorter than a certain height could test for this role," he was explaining to me. "But dwarfs have been portrayed badly and really kinda mistreated by the entertainment industry, so we turned them down. But then my parents read the book, and it was a great book. So I tried out but I didn't get the part."

That was for a movie based on the best-selling children's novel Freak the Mighty, which when it comes out this autumn will star Kieran Calkin, brother of MacCauley, in what is no longer a role for a dwarf.

"But then the casting director called back," Ian said. "It was the same casting director for both movies. They said they'd shown the producers my tape and they liked it: 'You wanna try out for another movie?' Which was surprising, because earlier I had thought it was cool but it would never happen again."

You had no plans to become an actor?

"No. And now I'm in the movie biz."

And he's on a coast-to-coast press tour for "Simon Birch," an uncommonly affecting new movie in which Ian Michael Smith plays the title character, who is 11 years old, weights about 35 pounds, stands a few inches over three feet, and believes he must have been selected by God for some special task.

Smith's family comes from Chicago's western suburbs, where his dad Steve is a management consultant, and his mother Gayle is a former high school band director. When Ian was three, he stopped growing and was diagnosed with Morquito's syndrome, which will limit his height but allows him a normal life span--and more than normal interests, judging from his press kit bio, which says he's into every possible after-school activity.

"The press kit is the cut-down version," Ian said. "I've had to cut stuff down a lot because one year I had no free time at all outside of all the activities."

What did you leave out?

"Oh, Cub Scouts and stuff like that."

In the movie, Ian plays Simon, a dwarf whose best friend Joe (Joseph Mazzello) is also a misfit in their little New Hampshire town. Joe's mother (Ashley Judd) refuses to tell anyone who his father was; Simon not unreasonably observes, "I don't understand why she doesn't just tell you. You're already a bastard; you might as well be an enlightened one."

Simon talks like that, and so does Ian, who is startlingly bright and composed for his age, and articulate on the subject of dwarfism. When I tell him that, he explains: "People with dwarfism as a rule find out everything about it. If you haven't heard of, like, everything about your kind of dwarfism you probably don't even know you have dwarfism."

During the Chicago stop on the movie's press tour, Ian and his parents, and young Joseph Mazzello and his mother camped out at the Four Seasons, and I talked to them all at once. He was being followed around, Ian said, by a TV crew doing a story on a day in his life.

"Like on Oprah's show once they followed a grown-up dwarf around in everyday life. And everyone in the dwarf community said that was great for dwarfism; it kinda made dwarfism known."

What do people misunderstand about dwarfism?

"They don't know we can lead normal lives. It used to be if you were a dwarf you couldn't get work anywhere but in the entertainment biz. So we're trying to show that we can work elsewhere and stay away from showbiz a bit. Like right now we can go into business anywhere, but it used to be that people would say, 'If I hired you my boss would fire me.' But not anymore."

I asked Joe Mazzello what he found out from Ian about dwarfism.

"Well, Ian basically told me all there is that I needed to know. I wanted to be his friend and I didn't really like talking about that kind of stuff because I just wanted to kinda put that aside and just be normal friends."

Since Mazzello has been in a lot of high-profile films like "Jurassic Park," I asked Ian if he'd seen him before--if he was a movie buff.

"No, not really. Actually before this I'd never heard of Joe."

Joe, who was sitting next to him, grinned.

"You hadn't heard of Jim Carrey either," he said. Carrey plays Mazzello's character as a grown-up.

"Yes, I had," Ian said.

"Ian had to ask the director, Mark Steven Johnson, who Carrey was. Ask Mark, he'll tell ya."

"Yes, I had heard of Carrey," Ian repeated calmly.

"Jim Carrey was cast in the middle of the movie," Joe said, "and Mark came up to me and told me about it and I was all excited. Then he went to Ian and said, 'Ian, Jim Carrey's gonna be in this movie!' Ian goes, 'Who?' He didn't know who he was."

"That's a lie!" Ian said, bouncing up. "That is a lie. A complete lie."

He and Mazzello seemed to be doing this as a routine.

"Everyone on this movie knows it's the truth," Joe said. "I'd heard of him because I read the book 'Ace Ventura'," Ian said. Hello? I said. You found out about Jim Carrey by reading the book?

Ian said he was more of a reader than a moviegoer: "The only movies I know anything about are 'Star Wars'."

"You strike me as having a director's personality," I said.

"I do?"

You wouldn't have any difficulty ordering people around.

"I don't think so either, in that regard," he said.

How is this going to change your life? I asked. Are you looking for other roles?

"No, I'm not really looking for anything right now. But I'm definitely gonna keep being in plays and stuff."

Do you have a different career path in mind?

"Yeah. I've wanted to be a lawyer since second grade. We had a mock trial over a book called Superfudge, about whose fault it was that a toddler falls off a jungle gym and loses his two front teeth. I was one of the lawyers and I won."

Have you always been the smartest kid in class?

"Yeah, I guess," Ian said thoughtfully, "I've been the one who reads the most. But not the smartest-in-math guy, though. There's a guy--he eats math, he drinks math, he sleeps math."

"There's a kid in my school like that," Joe said. "He was on like the math team and he like always won first place in national."

"Continental Math League," Ian said.

"I don't know; I wasn't a part of it," Joe said.

"I'm guessing it's Continental Math League," Ian said firmly.

So you're on track to be a lawyer? I asked.


What kind of law?

"I have no idea. Maybe movie law."

Now that's really swimming with the sharks, I said.

"Sounds like it," said Ian, brightening at the prospect.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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