(Photo: (l) James Francis Kelly III, Sylvster Stallone, Milo. Photo Credidt: John Bramley (c) 2006 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC., COLUMBIA PICTURES INDUSTRIES, INC. and REVOLUTION STUDIOS DISTRIBUTION COMPANY, LLC. ALL. RIGHTS RESERVED.
By Madelyn Ritrosky
Later this month, the fifth and supposedly final sequel in the Rocky saga makes its big screen debut.
The film, titled Rocky Balboa, is being touted as the crowning conclusion to the 30-year span of films about the guts-and-glory boxer created and personified by Sylvester Stallone.
According to producer Charles Winkler, Stallone “wanted it to end on the right note a story that could make you a believer again.”
Another producer, William Chartoff, assures us that “though Rocky Balboa is really the last sequel, in many ways it’s the most like the original.”
And 17-year-old James Francis Kelly III is set to make his film debut in this final Rocky installment. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him. When I asked if he’d seen the completed movie and how it shapes up to the original 1976 film, he said Stallone “wanted to bring it back to what people fell in love with” and that “it’s everything it’s hyped up to be, and more.”
Kelly has been interested in acting since he was about four years old and loving the Power Rangers. When he told his mother he wanted to act, she enrolled him in a drama summer camp where they lived in San Diego. He later spent a summer at the Lee Strasberg Institute, studying with an adult class at the age of nine.
His first professional acting jobs were roles in two TV pilots that never went anywhere. Kelly has a few regular TV credits to his name, including appearances on 7th Heaven and Profiler. However, in the upcoming Rocky Balboa, Kelly has landed something more substantial. He plays Steps, a troubled teenager given a chance, by Rocky, for a new direction in his life.
Kelly said the nationwide, open casting call for the part was met by thousands of hopefuls and auditions. When he was asked to meet with Sylvester Stallone a few days after his audition, they had an hour-long meeting. Kelly said Stallone wanted to make sure he was “right mentally” for the character, to see what he “could bring to the role.” At the end of that meeting, Stallone congratulated him and officially offered him the part.
The character of Steps in Rocky Balboa marks Kelly’s transition to more adult roles, which he welcomes because he was finding little success auditioning for teenage roles over the last several years. Directors like to cast adults (18 and over) who can play teenage parts (under 18) so they can get full workdays on the set. However, in Kelly’s case, he was younger while looking older 16 looking 20, or as he said, “I was 10 and I looked like I was 16” which more often than not hindered his chances. Although he was 16 when Rocky Balboa was shot in December 2005 to February 2006 in Philadelphia and Las Vegas, he is now 17 and a high school senior.
In high school, his football prowess has earned him attention from college football recruiters. Not surprisingly, he would like to pursue both acting and football: “There are so many avenues I could take right now and I don’t want to limit myself. God has blessed me with ability to do all this… the sky’s the limit. And who says I can’t do both?”
He also devotes time to cultivating his Native American roots. Kelly is African American and Irish American as well. He spent the last two summers at a Crow reservation in Montana for his “right of passage” and earned his formal Native American name of Cawaysashe.
Stallone has said that the inimitable Rocky represents a “universal dream to try to rise up and take your best shot at life.” Given that theme, it is fitting that Kelly’s Native American name means “he who does not give up.” When I asked him what goals he has for working in the entertainment business, he was clear: “I want to be influential. Because I’m Black and Native American, I want to do what I can to help us get out of certain stigmas.” He does not want to give up that possibility, and that’s a noble goal.
So keep your eye out for James Francis Kelly III as a supporting actor in the final chapter of the Rocky series, Rocky Balboa. It opens in theaters on December 20, 2006.