When we last caught up with Durango native and actor Pearce Joza, he’d just finished his role as a werewolf in Disney’s “Zombies 2” and was working on a project about epilepsy. That project turned into the short film, “Under the Lights,” which he’ll bring to Durango Arts Center on Saturday afternoon.
For Joza, 19, who now splits time between Los Angeles and North Carolina, bringing the film to the DAC theater is a homecoming .
“I do have a long history with the Durango Arts Center. I’ve been wanting to do something with them for a good while,” he said. “And I felt like this was a good opportunity to come back and I saw all the awesome new kids who are working there and putting on plays, and I just love seeing kids who want to create.”
“Under the Lights” is the story of Sam, a teenager who has epilepsy. Desperate to feel like a normal kid, he goes to the prom, even though he knows the lights will cause him to have a seizure.
The film is written and directed by Miles Levin, who has epilepsy. It also co-stars Alyssa Jirrels.
Joza, who does not have epilepsy, said taking on the role of Sam could have been a daunting task had he not had a solid support system.
“Not only was there Miles, but there was the entire Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California on my side as well as the national foundation who put me in touch with nurses and doctors, individuals with epilepsy. I got the privilege to tour the epilepsy center at a massive hospital in San Francisco with a doctor who’s an epileptologist,” he said. “There was a lot of research that went into my character, and I think that’s part of what makes the short so good, and I would not have been able to do that without all the people backing me up.”
What: Screening of the film “Under the Lights” with Q&A after with star Pearce Joza.
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Durango Arts Center, 802 East Second Ave.
Tickets: $10, available online at https://bit.ly/3Bq90oQ.
Even with all the research, Joza said playing Sam was a challenge because he wanted to do the best job he could representing a community of which he is not a part.
“I think the biggest challenge of all was to make sure that I don’t do a disservice to this community. As an individual without epilepsy, it is my duty to portray this community as appropriately as possible and as respectfully as I can because the whole reason is, of course, to raise awareness,” he said. “I think that film is such a powerful medium to be able to get the word out about just about anything, and I think if you can create an interesting story, you can really capture people’s attention. So I think that it was a combination of creating an interesting story while keeping a respectful performance.”
“Under the Lights” has also made an impression on the film festival circuit, having earned these awards:
- Special Jury Prize, Rhode Island International Film Festival (Oscar-qualifying festival).
- Best Short Film (Trigger Warnings), Savannah Film Festival.
- Best Humanitarian Short, Sedona Film Festival.
- Audience Award Best Dramatic Short, Woods Hole Film Festival.
- Best Cinematography, Santa Fe Film Festival.
- Best Director Nomination, Burbank International Film Festival.
- Best Film and Best Director nomination, New Hope Film Festival and won Best Alternative Film at this same festival.
Joza said the emotional impact the film has had on audiences so far has been part of the reason he wanted to be a professional actor in the first place.
“When I started acting, I think I wrote down on a napkin in a restaurant in a movie theater, I think it was the first place I ate in Los Angeles. I wrote down that when I acted, I wanted to make people feel something, whether it was sad, happy, angry, whatever. I wanted to affect an emotion upon a person after watching my work,” he said. “I think that I want somebody to walk away with an idea that comes from the emotion that they saw on screen – not just an idea, but a feeling. I want them to notice the film, if that makes sense. I want them to have an experience which leads them to different pathways of thought. If they are involved in the epilepsy community that’s wonderful, and hopefully it will bring them joy to see that other people who are not in the epilepsy community are recognizing that this is a situation that’s happening in the world and it’s put to the wayside way too often; its funding is very low. It’s always a social justice fight, and I think that’s an important piece of the movie.”
Along with screening the film at DAC, Joza will also be on hand for a Q&A session after the movie.