It was her preschool graduation, and 5-year-old Mimi Kirkland had something to say: She was going to be an actress.
Her parents, Kirk and Gina Kirkland were floored. “We had no idea,” Kirk Kirkland said.
That was three years ago. On Valentine’s Day, Mimi’s neighbors and classmates can see the spunky Raleigh native in her film debut: Nicholas Sparks’ “Safe Haven.”
The film, the eighth novel by New Bern-based author Sparks adapted for the big screen, is a love-story thriller set in Southport. Widower Alex (Josh Duhamel) and a mysterious Katie (Julianne Hough) are looking for second chances – Alex, a second chance at love; Katie, a second chance at life. Mimi plays Lexie, Duhamel’s on-screen daughter.
In real life, Mimi is the stereotypical little girl who struggles to sit still. The 8-year-old is a middle child with two sisters, Colie, 9, and Kate, 5. During a chat six days before heading to California for the film’s Hollywood premiere, she said her favorite color is specifically “light pink.” Her favorite food, at least for now, is steak.
“Yes! I know! I really like steak!” she insisted to her surprised father. “It’s really good – and apples. I like steak and apples.”
She’s a second-grader at Underwood Elementary. “It’s hard,” she said.
“It’s the toughest year,” her father jabbed.
“I knooooow,” she sighed, completely serious.
Yet when it comes to acting, Mimi enjoys working hard.
After hearing their daughter’s preschool announcement, Kirk and Gina Kirkland supported her goal just as they did with their other daughters’ love of dancing and music. It wasn’t long before Mimi got her first role in a commercial.
“As a parent, you have to find what that talent is and encourage them to do well,” Kirk Kirkland said. “Her sisters don’t want to be actresses. They are fine with what they are and what they’re doing.”
Her first two years of acting brought a few commercials, from the North Carolina State Fair to Biltmore Estate.
But what really helped her, Kirk Kirkland said, was her December 2011 experience in Raleigh’s “A Christmas Carol” with Ira David Wood.
“I think that was primarily where she learned patience and direction,” he said, drawing a giggle from his daughter. “That’s one of the things the (‘Safe Haven’) director Lasse Hallström said, that she was very patient and took direction.”
“Safe Haven” was initially just another script in a constant cycle of memorizing and submitting digital auditions. “We never thought anything of it,” Kirk Kirkland said.
But in June, after several callbacks to Wilmington, they found out Mimi had gotten the role. She’d been auditioning in front of Hallström – a Swedish director known for acclaimed films like “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules” – without realizing it.
“I had no idea – but I didn’t say that because it would be rude,” she said.
The six weeks spent on set last summer were filled with highs and lows. “I had no idea it was even six weeks,” she said. “I thought it was like five-million-hundred weeks.”
Behind the scenes, she had a blast, from making the cast school trailer sign read “fun trailer,” to boogie boarding with Duhamel. Everything was filmed in Southport, just three hours from Raleigh; Mimi, Duhamel, Hough and fellow child-star Noah Lomax bonded like a real family, Kirk Kirkland said.
Not everything was easy for Mimi, however, from keeping names straight to changing emotions at will, to being ready as early as 5 a.m.
“There were times she didn’t want to do a certain scene, and I had to make the call,” Kirk Kirkland said. “I called the scene, ‘You can’t do it. She’s too tired.’ Somebody had to be there to say she can’t.”
The film’s content was also a concern. “Safe Haven” is rated PG-13.
“All of her filming was family scenes, etc. One-on-one scenes with Josh, one-on-one scenes with Julianne or Noah,” Kirk Kirkland said. “We’re just going to make sure during the movie that they have their ear muffs and blinders on at certain times.”
The energetic Raleigh girl will spend the next month roaming the streets of Hollywood with her father – who will home school her – auditioning during Hollywood’s “pilot season.”
“The one question my wife and I have for her after every audition … after every scene, we say, ‘Are you having fun?’” Kirk Kirkland said. “As long as her answer is yes, we’re fine with that.”