Bethany Hamilton; AnnaSophia Robb

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Pro surfer and actress who portrays her in the inspirational film Soul Surfer discuss faith, sharks and overcoming fear.

Bethany Hamilton was born into a family of surfers and hit the boards early in life. At age 13, she survived a tiger shark attack, which left her with a severed left arm. Determined to return to the sport, Hamilton realized her dream of turning pro in '07. AnnaSophia Robb splits her time between high school and acting. Since her film debut at age 9, she's nailed 10 leading roles and worked with A-list actors and directors in such films as Because of Winn Dixie and Race to Witch Mountain. Robb portrays Hamilton in the inspirational new film, Soul Surfer.


Tavis: Bethany Hamilton is a professional surfer who made headlines around the world when she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark back in 2003 when she was just 13, losing her left arm in the ordeal. Not only did she survive the attack but remarkably, she’s resumed her professional career and remains a world-class competitor.
In the new film about her story, “Soul Surfer” – love that title – Bethany is played by actress AnnaSophia Robb. The film also stars Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, and so here now some scenes from “Soul Surfer.”
Tavis: I started a moment ago, Bethany, by saying that you’ve resumed your career. I think the obvious question for a lot of people is why – why get back on that board again? Why get back in the water ever again?
Bethany Hamilton: Well, I grew up in Kawai, Hawaii, and surfing was just a huge part of my family and my life, and I’m just so passionate about it. I guess my passion and love for surfing just overpowered my fear of sharks or not being able to do it, because for me I was kind of scared of sharks but then I was even more scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Then once I got back out there it just – all that fear kind of just disappeared once I got up on my first wave.
Tavis: I’ve often wondered which one you found the most challenging – finding your balance again to get back on the board, or getting over the fear of getting back in the water.
Hamilton: Both were very challenging. I guess determination just kind of took over me and I just really worked hard at it. I worked hard to overcome that fear by just – I go out there to have fun and try not to look down in the water and be constantly worried what’s underneath, more just focusing on the next wave that I’m going to catch.
Tavis: I assume, with all that technology allows us to do these days, you could, if you wanted to, wear a prosthetic arm. You choose not to, I assume, since you don’t have one on today. Why not wear a prosthetic arm?
Hamilton: Well, when it first happened I did get a prosthetic arm, and there’s a scene in the movie and it’s kind of funny, because it’s kind of – I don’t know, it’s kind of a quirky scene where I ended up not liking the prosthetic arm that much. In real life I kind of did like it, but it just doesn’t meet my lifestyle and I’m happy with the way that I look and I don’t feel the need to have an arm to be beautiful. So I just kind of shook it off and figured out how to do things with one arm.
Tavis: Before I go to AnnaSophia, when you say it doesn’t fit your lifestyle, what do you mean by that, the arm?
Hamilton: Well, I’m just always in and out of the water, I’m running around, I’m just an active person, and then plus my arm is really short, so it’s hard to find a prosthetic that will really be beneficial to help me. So I don’t know.
Tavis: AnnaSophia, the obvious question that came to mind for me when I saw parts of the film was how an actress plays a role like this with your arm, I assume, tied behind your back the entire time. It’s hard enough acting with two arms and two legs. How do you do it with an arm wrapped behind you somewhere? How did you do this, by the way?
AnnaSophia Robb: Well, the prosthetic guys, they took a mold of Bethany’s arm and then they modeled it to fit my size. So then I wore a prosthetic every day that looked just like stumpy, and I wore a green sleeve and I just would put my arm behind my back and you could see it sort of it’s pretty much gone.
Then we’d have to do multiple takes where my arm was lifted up. We’d call it a pit plate. Then another take where I was out of the scene so that the CGI guys could put in the background when they were taking my arm out. So it was a really long process, but that’s one of the things in the movie that’s really great, is it’s not distracting. It’s not something – I was a bit concerned about it, if I was going to see it or if it was going to look weird, and it looks just like that.
Tavis: What do you take away from a project like this, where you’re playing someone who does, in fact, have an arm, and I ask that because I remember being in school, obviously many years ago, and an exercise with a friend of mine, we blindfolded ourselves for like half a day to try to get an understanding of the experience of what it’s like to be blind.
Hamilton: Right.
Tavis: After just an hour I was undone. I couldn’t even finish out the half-day exercise because it troubled me so much that I couldn’t see for even an hour. So you’re an actress and you’re playing a role, but what do you take away on a personal level from having the feeling of being one-armed for a good part of that filming?
Robb: Well, I guess – Bethany does more things with her one arm than I do with my two. She helps me carry stuff when I’m fumbling around. So I think what it mainly made me realize is that you can conquer all things, and that Bethany doesn’t look at it as a disability.
She looks at it as this kind of catalyst that she can share her story and inspire people, and I guess what it made me realize is that it depends on the individual and what they do with their circumstances. It could be just a challenge or this unfortunate event. You can turn it into a positive thing or you can just go, oh, this is ruining my life, this is so hard, why am I not like everyone else? The beautiful thing is is that she’s not like everyone else.
Hamilton: Looking at my life, it’s like you’ve seen – it seems like such a terrible thing, and so many people are like, why would God allow something like this to happen to a 13-year-old girl that has these dreams that are just beautiful, and then all of a sudden it just seems as if it’s shattered.
But looking at my life now, so much good has come out of it and I’ve been able to encourage people through my story. I’m still a pro surfer to this day and I travel like six months of the year just competing and going on surf trips. Then with the movie coming out, it’s just been incredible.
Tavis: Since you raised it – that is to say God and your faith – faith is an important part of this movie.
Hamilton: Yes.
Tavis: Obviously an important part of your life and your family’s life. Tell me the role that faith has played in this process of getting you to where you are today.
Hamilton: Well, when I was about five I gave my heart to Jesus Christ, and since then it’s just been a stronghold in my life. Really, through the shark attack and all the hard times that my family and I went through, it gave us unity and perseverance to push through all this crazy stuff that we never knew was going to happen.
Just being able to have a good outlook on life and have a positive perspective on things has really been really encouraging to share with other people.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago that many people have asked you over the years how God could allow something like this to happen. Again, that’s your statement about what other people have asked. Let me ask you honestly, you and your family, whether or not at a certain point in time you questioned God.
If you did, I’m okay with that because in the bible, since we’re talking about the bible here, when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, he doesn’t want to go to the cross. He’s begging, Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me. I do not want to go to the cross.
So Jesus Christ himself is questioning God, so I think it’s okay to do that sometimes to get clarity, get understanding. I say all that to ask whether or not if at any point in time, given even the strength of your faith, you questioned God, why did you allow this to happen to me?
Hamilton: Yeah. God really just gave me a sense of peace through everything and I was able to just go to him. I did question him, but my question was more like God, why did you allow this to happen and what can we do now? What are we going to do from here? Not just dwell on what happened and just have a pity party or whatever. So it’s been just an amazing journey.
Robb: The amazing part is that in the movie, we actually had to tone it down, because Bethany in the hospital, she was up, going, like I’m ready to get back in the water, I want to continue, I’m not going to make this a bad thing, which most people when they’re – they’re like, no, this is the time, you’re in the hospital, you should be feeling bad for yourself.
So in reality, she’s sitting there going, reading the script going, “I was actually doing okay. I was playing with balloons.” We were like, “But we have to make it a little bit stronger so you have that arc.”
Tavis: We need some grief here, Bethany.
Robb: Exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: Just a little bit of grief. (Laughs) When AnnaSophia suggested a moment ago, with the use of this word, “catalyst,” that this was, in fact, something that was a springboard for you, it’s been a catalyst for what in your life?
Hamilton: I guess just it’s given me so many opportunities just to go on amazing trips. Like I went to Thailand with World Vision and got to encourage – help this young group of kids especially just overcome their fear of the ocean after the tsunami. It was just an amazing opportunity. Just writing my book and making a documentary and now “Soul Surfer.”
It’s just reaching so many people and more than I ever could have imagined. It’s been amazing just to be able to really touch people in ways I never would have thought of myself.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated by actors who have to play roles of people who are alive, and Bethany is very much alive.
Robb: Yes, very much.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) How do you embody all of this when the person’s on the set watching what you’re doing?
Robb: Well, I remember when I came down, before we even started preproduction. I went straight to Kawai and surfed with Bethany and I had her book, and I had –
Tavis: Had you surfed prior to playing this role?
Robb: I had had a two-hour surf lesson with my dad in California, and if you surf, you know that is not really anything. (Laughs) So I went down to Kawai and I had her book, the “Soul Surfer” book, and it was just, like, tripled in size because I had annotated it and sticky notes and questions and I just wanted to study her and get into her mind and just become Bethany and do my best.
Then I realized that she’s a real person. We became real friends and good friends, and that the key to it was just hanging out with her and just getting her vibes, this kind of surf vibe, and also I guess developing a love for the ocean, which is at her heart. That’s what she puts out and because of surfing and training – we trained for six weeks before we started filming – I just have such a love for the ocean.
Obviously I’m not going to be a pro surfer or even close to that, but I love getting out there, I love paddling, and I think it’s a love for something greater than yourself. Surfing’s a moment where you’re focused on one thing, and it’s not even what you’re doing, it’s what the Earth is doing and the ocean around you.
Tavis: Great place to close. So, Bethany, how is the professional career coming along?
Hamilton: It’s going really good. With the movie, it’s been a little bit of a distraction, but –
Robb: Just a little.
Hamilton: – I’m kind of excited to, like, get the movie out there and move on with my surfing and keep just doing my best to become the best surfer that I can be.
Tavis: Well, it’s a great distraction. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt have both been guests here. I love Helen Hunt, so when you see her again, tell her I said hello.
Hamilton: Yeah, we will.
Tavis: We love her around here. The movie’s called “Soul Surfer,” the story of Bethany Hamilton, starring Ms. AnnaSophia. Good to have you here.
Robb: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you. All the best on the project.
Hamilton: Thank you.
Tavis: And get back in the water as soon as you can.
Hamilton: Yeah.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm