Victoria's Olivia Martin catches acting bug at a young age

Times Colonist movie writer Michael D. Reid is covering the Victoria Film Festival. Go to timescolonist.com./VFF for daily updates. Ratings are out of five stars.

When Olivia Martin faced the cameras for the first time to play Abigail, a cancer-stricken youngster in The Devout, she was just doing what comes naturally, her mother says.

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“To Olivia, it was just one more fun thing to do, and she said ‘Can I do that again, mommy?’ ” recalled Angie Martin. The proud mom and her husband, Shawn, will join their daughter, writer-director Connor Gaston, producer Daniel Hogg and two of the film’s stars, Gabrielle Rose and David Nykl, when the film makes its hometown première during the Victoria Film Festival at Cineplex Odeon Thursday night (7:15).

The astonishing naturalism of the young actor, who is now in kindergarten at Hillcrest Elementary school, is a highlight of Gaston’s promising feature debut, a low-key but moving crisis-of-faith drama set in B.C.’s Bible belt, where a Christian family struggles to come to terms with their terminally-ill daughter’s fate. While Gaston, 26, apparently didn’t intend to demonize religious beliefs, his intimate, small-scale drama will never be confused with one of Hollywood’s “Christian” pictures.

Gaston’s stirring family drama inspired by real events is more a metaphysical meditation, dramatizing as it does a humble father’s firm belief that his daughter was an astronaut in a previous life.

While her dad’s obsession rocks the tightly-knit community, it’s dramatized in an understated style likely to provoke discussion about the afterlife.

Although Gaston had worked with children before, he had never directed a four-year-old with no acting experience and admits he had concerns before realizing just how up to the task Olivia was.

“On the first take of the first scene she’s in, I could feel the stress coursing though her veins,” he recalled. “She kept grabbing the boom mike and I said, ‘Omigawd, what have I done?’”

Any initial trepidation was soon allayed, however, as Olivia’s performance validated their decistion to cast her in the first place.

“The script was originally written for a boy,” Gaston said. “Then we found this little girl who was so incredibly natural and had such screen presence. So we decided to rewrite the script for her.”

After receiving an email inviting Lambrick Park Preschool students to be interviewed for a montage in which 10 children talk about their past lives, Olivia’s parents agreed to let her go for it.

“I said to myself: ‘I don’t know this kid,’ ” said Angie with a laugh as she recalled how she nailed in one take a line that the filmmakers asked her to say during an initial assessment.

“She had 70 lines in the movie and she memorized them before we even started filming,” said Angie, whose daughter, who is also an avid dancer, gymnast and swimmer, treated acting like any another activity.

Her mother spent every day on set at locations from East Sooke to the Saanich Peninsula, including the Robin Hood Motel, Michell’s Farm Market and St. Michael & All Angels’ Church.

She admits it felt strange asking her daughter at times to “go and see your mom and dad” — Daryl and Jan —the parents played by Carrick and Liebert.

“Every day I was within a metre of her, lying beside her,” she said. “Every scene in the movie I know where I was hiding.”

Angie, who has multiple sclerosis, theorizes that Olivia’s exposure to health issues experienced by her own family helped her performance.

After being misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her grandfather learned he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, for instance.

Gaston said the ease with which Olivia established her rapport with her grownup co-stars was all the more remarkable considering they only met the day before shooting began.

“We didn’t have the time or money to do any rehearsal,” he said. “The actors were very patient, very professional and then she just nails her line, and I felt very relieved and proud. “Yeah! Look what she can do!' ”

Since filming wrapped, Olivia has grown four inches and lost several teeth, her mother said.

“I told Connor and he said: ‘It’s a good thing that didn’t happen when we were filming,” she said with a laugh.

Olivia, 5, has also been signed by an agency.

Says her mother: “She wants to do this more and more.”

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