By LYNN BARKER
Front Row Features
CLEARWATER, Fla.—After commenting on how hot it is here, actor/singer/songwriter and talented pianist Harry Connick Jr., sits down to speak about his decision to return to his role as marine biologist Clay Haskett in the family-friendly film “Dolphin Tale 2.” The multitasking 46-year-old entertainer is working on his next album and touring with his band as well as picking up acting gigs.
Connick Jr. loves mentoring young musical talent and, although he enjoyed his two-season stint as a judge on “American Idol,” he felt like something was missing when he wasn’t allowed to do any true coaching. He was able to use his mentoring skills on “Dolphin Tale” teen actress Cozi Zuehlsdorff, a budding musician.
In “Dolphin Tale 2” Connick Jr.’s, character is faced with the death of one of his beloved animal rescues and struggles to make sure brave star dolphin Winter isn’t removed from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where the motto is “Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release.” The film also stars returning actors Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.
Winter, who lost her tail in a crab trap and was provided a clever prosthetic replacement, has become, in reel life and real life, the inspiration for countless children and adults facing or living with the loss of a limb. Connick Jr. is one of her biggest fans.
Co-star Austin Stowell, who reprises his role as Kyle Connellan in the sequel, says that Connick Jr. was the cheerleader on set.
“One night, it was late and cold out after a very long shooting day,” he recalls. “Harry got everybody doing a stomp and thump rhythm routine and it took everyone’s mind off the fact that we were cold and tired. I felt like I was a camper, a little kid thumping on the table. He’s a great guy.”
In a hotel suite overlooking the sparkling Gulf of Mexico, Connick Jr. spoke about returning to the wholesome film franchise.
Q: How does it feel to be back in Clearwater making another of these films?
Connick Jr.: Driving past the aquarium last night I just realized how much of my life has been spent here. It’s just an incredible area.
Q: What kind of response did you get from fans after the first “Dolphin Tale” and did that effect the way you played Clay in the sequel?
Connick Jr.: If people didn’t like the first one, I would have come back and done it again anyway for lots of reasons. It was a great filming experience working with (director) Charles (Martin Smith, who also helmed the original) who is just a brilliant guy and a pleasure to be around, working with the rest of the cast and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; all of those things really contributed to it being one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. People really like these movies and, as you go through your life in the entertainment business, new people are being born, growing up and becoming teenagers and young adults and a lot of people who came to know me through “Dolphin Tale” don’t know that I do anything else. It’s not a bad thing. It’s cool.
Q: You’re not leaving the singing and recording behind?
Connick Jr.: No, not really. I’m still making records and touring. “Dolphin Tale” reached a lot of people but maybe those people don’t go see me on tour or buy my records or watch much TV. I’m not doing any more acting than I was doing 20 years ago, but it ebbs and flows with how people are introduced to you.
Q: This movie shows a lot about our interdependency with animal life. What is it you personally take from “Dolphin Tale 2?”
Connick Jr.: When I’m training and don’t want to do another set, my trainer says “No mind. Just do it. You’re going to get through it. You’re not going to die. Don’t think about it. Just do it.” And there’s something about Winter; she’s not a human being so she doesn’t think like we do but it is what it is. This is what life gave her and she just deals. What are you going do? Life is really like that, as we know. There are certain things that are wonderful about life and there are things that are not wonderful. You have to accept things with grace and dignity and move through them, and that is something you are reminded of when you see Winter. I call it DWI. Deal with it!
Q: What is your preparation process for playing someone you’ve already played?
Connick Jr.: I did a considerable amount of research the first time around to know who this guy was. The second one was much easier. What was strange is that it was the exact same set of circumstances. Even the volunteers at CMA were pretty much the same: same set, same city, same cast. On the first one, I interviewed marine biologists, marine veterinarians, anything I could to give myself ideas. I watched how they looked. I was talking to my wife (model Jill Goodacre) and she said, “So, you really want to wear those clothes and wear your hair like that?” I said, “Yeah, I do because that’s who these people are. They’re scientists and they’re not really interested in anything but learning about these marine creatures.” The second time around was a lot easier.
Q: When did you know they were going to make a sequel?
Connick Jr.: One of the producers said, “You know we’re talking about doing another one.” I actually laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then I read the script and wow, Charlie is really smart. In some ways, it’s better than the first one.
Q: Did you get to interact with the dolphins more this time?
Connick Jr.: I was in the tank with Winter and that was cool. Swimming with dolphins and really interacting with dolphins like Winter was a completely different thing. When you are actually working one-on-one with Winter, it blows all that other stuff away.
Q: Are you working on new music?
Connick Jr.: We haven’t even gone in the studio yet. We’re just kind of putting the ideas together recently. Things just kind of leapfrog. When I’m on a movie set, there is a lot of down time and you can get a lot of stuff done in your trailer or in a hotel. I’ve written entire records on a movie set and, when the movie’s done, you go into the studio and record and, when you finish that, it’s time to promote the movie and then tour, so it just kind of works together.
Q: Your career took a new turn when you worked on “American Idol.” Some people were concerned about a jazz artist joining the show. What was it like to express yourself and work in a capacity like that?
Connick Jr.: It was great. I think no matter what genre of music you play, you rack up a few years’ experience and you have your own point of view. No matter who it is, whether a pop artist, country artist or whatever, it’s not difficult to critique and help shape a performer. Let’s face it, I’ve been here for a while and have quite a bit of experience and I’ve always been a huge fan of the show and it was a great opportunity. Basically, the job is sitting there listening to music and tell people what you think about it so what’s not to like? I loved it. It was really fun.