‘Growing Up Smith’ stars have ties to local theater productions

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Brighton Sharbino (from left), Roni Akurati, Anjul Nigam, Jason Lee and Hilarie Burton, in a scene from “Growing Up Smith.” | Photo Credit: Michael Chandler

Chicago native Roni Akurati, who grew up in Lake Zurich, credits the time spent honing his acting in such local productions as “The Jungle Book” and “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre (where he played Tiny Tim) as “teaching me so much about what it takes to be a good actor.”

“Learning to listen and being able to concentrate well” were important lessons he learned at an early age, he said, on Chicago stages, which also included the Civic Opera House and Gorilla Tango Theater.

“Growing Up Smith,” starring Akurati as an Indian boy named Smith, growing up in a small American town in 1979, closed the Asian-American Showcase at the Gene Siskel Film Center last year. It is coming out Friday at the AMC South Barrington theaters.

The 10-year-old boy attempts to both embrace his new country’s lifestyle but still maintain ties to his native land’s culture and traditions. The film also stars Jason Lee as the “good ol’ boy” next door neighbor to Smith and his family.

Along with developing an affection for Kentucky Fried Chicken and “Saturday Night Fever,” Smith also falls in love with the daughter of Lee’s character. All of this deeply upsets Smith’s father, who decides the boy is losing touch with his Indian roots — and so forces him to return to India to live with other relatives.

It will be 19 years before Smith will return to the town he once knew as a pre-teen.

Along with starring in the film as Smith’s father, Anjul Nigam co-wrote the screenplay and explained that much of it is “based on stories from my own life — my own family, who experienced similar circumstances to what the characters experience in the film.” Nigam himself has often worked in Chicago theater — including the Goodman, where he appeared in a production of “The Merchant of Venice” back in the ’90s.

The older actor joked that “it took so long to get this movie made — originally I was supposed to play the role of Smith! Now I’m too old, even to play the older Smith!”

Akurati, now 14, admitted he’s glad he was born several decades after the time frame of “Growing Up Smith.”

“I don’t think we have as much trouble today both honoring our heritage and being happy to be Americans,” he said. “You have to understand that, back in the late ’70s, especially in small towns in the U.S., many if not most of those people had never even seen an Indian person — except maybe on TV or in the movies.”

Nigam agreed and explained that the underlying theme of the film was inspired by his own family.

“I came to the States in 1967, brought here at 2 years of age by my parents — as were my two older brothers. My father was on a sabbatical to do some research [at a university in Connecticut]. My parents initially only planned to stay for six months and then go back to India. But when my father was offered a permanent position, he got a green card and we ended up staying.”

As for assimilation, Nigam laughed as he noted, “My parents were stuck in the India of 1967 and some of that rubbed off on [me and my brothers]. … Whenever we would go back to visit family in India, we would find our relatives and friends back there were more Westernized than we were!

“Hopefully, when people see our film — and America is a country of immigrants — many of them will relate to that age-old challenge of holding on to the culture of one’s homeland, but also realizing the American dream.”

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