As Hollywood discovery stories go, Chris Roark’s is not quite as dramatic as is the legendary one of Lana Turner, but it’s still pretty good.
Turner was the 16-year-old high school student who ditched typing class one day in 1937, sat down at a soda fountain counter on Sunset Boulevard, was “discovered” by a Hollywood big shot and soon became the famed Sweater Girl femme fatale of 1940s and ’50s movies.
Roark was a small but gifted running back at Alter High School who graduated in 2007, became a no-frills walk-on player at Ohio State, labored in obscurity for the Buckeyes and ended up selling phones on commission for Verizon.
“That’s when I got an email saying they were shooting a movie in Canton and they were looking for experienced players so they could make it look authentic,” Roark said. “The message had mainly gone to the guys who had been walk-ons at Ohio State because the scholarship guys were playing in some form or another at the next level.
“So I drove up for a one-day audition just hoping to be a guy in a background shot.”
The movie – called Underdogs, directed by Canton native Doug Dearth and starring D.B. Sweeney and Richard Portnow – is about a small-town football team in rural Ohio that beats the odds.
Once on set in Canton, Roark said Jeff Sanders, a Hollywood stunt coordinator, pulled him aside and said, “Hey, these guys really like you … You have ‘The Look’ and they want to give you a role. You’d be a character in the movie.”
Roark said he doesn’t quite know what “The Look” means — “I think it’s that I still can pass for a high school kid,” he laughed — but he was enticed by the offer:
“I play a running back on the team and my first day there my character gets thrown out of practice. I never had any acting experience — I didn’t know anything about blocking and angles and lighting — so I just winged it. But afterwards one of the main kids came up and said, ‘That was really good. I could actually see the anger when you got kicked out. Where all have you acted before?’
“I had to laugh. I said the only acting I ever did was when I was growing up and my friends and I made backyard films.”
Roark, by the way, was joyfully recounting this story the other day by phone from Los Angeles.
He just moved there three weeks ago.
The night before we talked, he had filmed a commercial for Powerade. A day later he was shooting a scene for the popular TV show CSI.
He’s also had minor parts in another movie, is scheduled to be in an upcoming sitcom and has done a couple of other commercials, including one with Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III that was supposed to air today — Super Bowl Sunday — but was pushed back once RG3 was injured in the playoffs.
“I don’t know where all this is going to take me or how it’s going to end up,” Roark said. “It feels kind of like it did when I first went to Ohio State — it’s all up in the air and nothing is promised — but I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Roark said he’s going to attack it the same way he did when he beat the odds as a 5-foot-9 unrecruited ball-carrier turned wide receiver and made the Buckeyes:
“You believe you can do something, you actually go after it. You don’t just sit around and talk about it or go on Facebook or watch TV. And if you keep working at it, it can become a reality.”
‘Acted’ as a kid
Roark said the seeds of this Hollywood adventure began when he was growing up in Springboro.
“Kids being kids, we’d make movies on our own and I just loved doing that,” he said. “Back then my mom’s nickname was Cammie Camcorder because she would film everything my brothers and I did. So there was always a camera laying around.
“I’d get my friends together and we’d write scripts and then act them out. One summer we made a movie, kind of a Mission Impossible-type film, and it actually was an hour long. We put sound effects to it. We have music and credits and went all out.
“My friend’s mom had a camcorder that didn’t have a cord to it, so we used that one. We filmed car scenes on the road, shot in housing developments and did action scenes in the woods. My friend’s basement was unfinished, so that became our studio and we could make it look like a back alley or whatever we wanted.”
Once he got to high school that side of him “fell by the way side,” he said:
“I guess I became more what society expected of a kid then. I studied, played three sports year round and had a social life. The right side of my brain turned off a little bit, except for playing music, especially the guitar. I’d write songs and play and that kept the flame flickering a little bit.”
Although he could have played football at a smaller college, he set his sights on OSU. Two years in a row he showed up for the cattle call walk-on tryouts and each time he failed to make the team. Undaunted, he continued to work out and on his third try he became a Buckeye.
A walk-on’s road is not as nicely paved as is the one scholarship athletes traverse each day. No one pays your tuition or board. You can’t eat at the players’ training table unless you pick up your own tab and most walk-ons don’t get to travel to away games with the team.
In three seasons with the Bucks, working just as much as anyone else on the team, Roark got into one game. He played one series, three plays, against Akron in the first game of his senior year.
And yet off the field he was one of the players OSU leaned on the most. He visited cancer hospitals, children’s hospitals, VA hospitals. He gave presentations at schools and would film videos sent to the troops.
As Ohio State had discovered, Chris Roark had “The Look.”
Time for a move
While involved in the filming of Underdogs, Roark met Ryan Gunnerson, a Loveland High graduate who enjoyed a stellar receiving career at Division III Capital University and was interested in becoming a movie stunt man.
They ended up taking acting classes from Kevin McClatchy of the OSU theater department and from there, with the help of Sanders, they both got more work.
They went to a casting call for Foxcatcher, the Bennett Miller-directed movie that’s based on the true story of John du Pont, the heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, who was a paranoid schizophrenic and ended up killing Olympic gold medal wrestler Dave Schultz, whom he had befriended.
The movie stars Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller and Vanessa Redgrave. Roark plays one of the Team USA wrestlers and has a scene with Tatum.
He then landed a part in the upcoming sitcom Diver City, which is being shot in the Dayton area, and he has begun picking up work in various commercials.
Three weeks ago Roark and Gunnerson, at the suggestion of Sanders, packed up and moved to L.A.
Roark said he and Gunnerson got rid of most of their stuff and loaded what was left into Roark’s black 1996 S-10 pickup truck, which has 190,000 miles on it. On the drive to the West Coast, they stayed with friends along the way, but once in L.A., they knew no one.
They at least had a contact, though, thanks to former OSU running back Maurice Hall.
He suggested they contact Robin Thomas, who unbeknownst to them was the senior vice president of strategic research for Disney/ABC Domestic Television. Realizing their plight, she and her husband let them stay in their guest home, Roark said.
“All of a sudden our neighbors were like Jennifer Lopez and Brittany Spears, people like that,” Roark chuckled.
“Everybody talks about how L.A. is tainted and this is a really dark industry, but we’ve found nothing but good, helpful people who have gotten on board with us.”
After accepting the Thomas family’s hospitality for a few days, Roark and Gunnerson finally found a place of their own and began to pursue their dream.
“This isn’t just a ‘hey, look at me type deal,’ ” Roark said. “Both Ryan and I are deep into our faith and if we make it here, we see that we could have a platform for influencing people in the right way. We’d like to help others and show that people are really good at heart.”
On the right path
On their first day at their new place they put that thought into practice.
“One of the guys at the little café downstairs from where we moved gave us a bag of pastries for free,” Roark said. “After that we wanted to do something good for someone so we took those pastries in my truck and started to drive down the street.
“That’s when we spotted a guy begging on the corner. We pulled over and gave him the pastries. He saw my Ohio plates and it turns out he was from Xenia. What’s the chance of that?
“He just couldn’t believe two kids from basically his hometown had pulled over and given him something. I mean it really touched him. He just loved it. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He just lit up like a Christmas tree.
“And right then, even though, like I said, I don’t know where this is gonna lead, I knew we were on the right path.”
In Chris Roark’s case sometimes that means you have “The Look” and sometimes you give it to others.
Either way, it makes for a pretty good story of Hollywood discovery.
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