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'Bandslam' Star Doesn't Play at Acting Anymore

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009

Gaelan Connell has a new apartment, and it has him fretting.

The gawky, curly-haired 20-year-old from Silver Spring has a starring role in the latest tween megamovie, "Bandslam." And in it, he holds his own against some of the genre's biggest stars, "High School Musical's" Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka of Aly & AJ.

But it's Connell's new pied-a-terre -- in West Hollywood! The cliche! -- that has forced him to acknowledge what "Bandslam" could mean for his career: "I have an apartment in L.A. now, because I guess I'm now kind of going to do this movie thing," he says sheepishly, by phone from his new home.

Before this apartment acting had been just a hobby for Connell. "Bandslam," which follows a group of New Jersey high-schoolers vying to win a recording contract through a battle-of-the-bands competition called Bandslam, is only Connell's second movie role. But he is in every scene.

It's surprisingly unlike the cloying teen fare people have come to expect. Writers Todd Graff and Josh A. Cagan have instead grafted the sardonic wit of "Juno" onto a glossy, "HSM"-style romp. When a group of Bandslam competitors offers a sneak preview to shrieking fans in the school cafeteria, a character describes the scene as a "Nuremberg rally produced by MTV."

"It's really kind of like a John Hughes movie," says Connell, whose last name is pronounced kuh-NELL. "There's a lot of edge to it. . . . I think it surprises people."

And in the great cinematic tradition of nerd heroes such as Ferris Bueller, Connell's character, Will Burton, is an indie-rock-loving new kid at school who gets drawn into the Bandslam maelstrom.

Connell's previous foray into movies was nearly 10 years ago, when a casting director walked into his French immersion class at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville and tapped him to play young Didi Drou ("Imagine a smaller me with much more hair, " he says) in the movie "Chocolat."

After the film wrapped, he continued acting as a hobby, winning roles in high school plays and playing Peter Pan in a production in Baltimore. After graduation from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Connell enrolled at New York University's prestigious Tisch School -- not for acting but for filmmaking. "I have a little bit of a 'fro going on, so I thought I may as well get behind the camera," he jokes.

Nevertheless, when he heard about the "Bandslam" audition, Connell, who plays both guitar and cello, turned up to audition for Will.

"I kind of got thrown in it," Connell says. "I woke up, and I'm in Austin, shooting this movie. It's like day 5, and I'm kissing Vanessa Hudgens."

Ahh, yes, that kiss -- the one that sent bloggers into hysterics long before the movie was released. Who is this guy -- totally not Zac -- coming between the most celebrated couple of our time?

Zac Efron was cool, Connell assures us, and so were his co-stars. "It's crazy. It gets really overwhelming," he says of the celebrity life. "But these girls are so cool and down to earth about it. Once you really break through the bubble, they're more than normal."

As for him, he hasn't quite reached their level of Zen. "The last three weeks, I've felt like the main guy in 'Almost Famous,' " he says. Last week, he expressed hope he'd be far from the bustle of West Hollywood on the first night the film is screened.

"I think I'm going to go home to the Majestic in Silver Spring and see it on opening night. I think it's still nice to be home."

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