Finding a career in film wasn't even on the radar for Kayla Smalls when she started attending Duanesburg High School.
Like many teenagers, she liked watching movies and didn't mind seeing an occasional play. But acting wasn't an extracurricular activity the somewhat shy Smalls considered before tagging along with her older brother to an audition in Schenectady two years ago.
"Drama never ever appealed to me," she said with a shrug.
The part was for a bi-racial teenage boy and the morning audition drew hundreds from around the Capital Region. Smalls waited patiently all day for her brother to read his lines, when someone suggested she hang around for a little while to try out for the part of the boy's younger sister.
There were only a couple lines for her to read. Still, they were enough to give Smalls the jitters as she stood in front of the movie producer.
"It was really nerve-wracking," she said. "And because I was the first one there, I was the first one to read lines."
The audition didn't seem to go well and Smalls pretty much forgot about the experience. Then about a month later, she got a call from Derek Cianfrance.
The director of "The Place Beyond the Pine" wanted to meet with her and several others he had selected from a pool of hundreds. A week later, Smalls was cast into a speaking role in a major motion picture.
"I was outside helping my day with something and my mother started screaming," she recalled of the day she was given the part. "I thought something was really wrong. I was scared for a second."
And so started Smalls' bizarre brush with Hollywood. One that began with a film shoot in Schenectady in August 2011 and culminated with her seeing herself on the silver screen during the movie's debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Smalls plays Vanessa, the daughter of Romina, a working class mother played by Eva Mendes. She's also the half-sister of Jason, a troubled teen played by Dane DeHaan.
She was given the script in August and read through it a few times. But when it came to filming, just about everything she read went out the window.
Most of the scenes they shot were improvised. Even the traits of Smalls' character were recast somewhat from how they appeared in the script. "He kind of switched the script to match my personality more," she said.
Then filming ended and Smalls went back to school. She would occasionally get Twitter messages from DeHaan or e-mails from Mahershala Ali, the Hollywood actor who played her father in the film, but the rest of her life returned to normal.
That was until about a week before Toronto. Cianfrance reached out to the Smalls and invited her family to the debut — something that came as an unexpected surprise.
Smalls walked the red carpet with her grandmother, Susan LaTour. Afterward, she attended a chic party for the cast, where she and her grandmother got to meet the film's superstars, including Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling.
"It was really fun just to be around everybody —being a part of something like that," she said.
The overall experience resonated with Smalls, now 16, who is determined to seek out a career in filmmaking. Though not sold on acting, she's now attending film workshops in New York City each weekend in the hope of parlaying her youthful experience into a production career.
"I don't think acting is my calling, but I definitely want to work in the entertainment industry," she said.
Can’t bear to watch
Amazingly, Smalls still hasn't seen her performance yet, despite having watched the film in Toronto and again during a premiere in Manhattan last month. Every time her part comes on, she turns away — too shy to see herself on the big screen.
“I plug my ears and close my eyes,” she said.