Boy Wonder 

Local actor Hays Wellford scored a hit at Sundance with “Cop Car,” but there’s even more in his talent bag.

click to enlarge Hays Wellford was called a “breakout star” by Sharon Waxman’s the Wrap entertainment and media news website for his role in “Cop Car,” a Sundance film which Variety described as a “lean, mean bit of B-movie fun.”

Ash Daniel

Hays Wellford was called a “breakout star” by Sharon Waxman’s the Wrap entertainment and media news website for his role in “Cop Car,” a Sundance film which Variety described as a “lean, mean bit of B-movie fun.”

Where is Hays Wellford, an 11-year-old Richmond actor, on the six degrees of Kevin Bacon scale? Having shared a lead credit with Bacon in the recent Sundance Film Festival hit, “Cop Car,” is he one degree away or part of the same degree?

Wellford plays one of two 10-year-old boys who come upon an abandoned police vehicle and take it for a joy ride, unaware that its owner is a dangerous and corrupt local sheriff played by Bacon. The film, which co-stars Shea Whigham, of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and Camryn Manheim, of “The Practice,” was enthusiastically received and picked up for distribution by Focus World. Wellford and the other young actor, James Freedson-Jackson, were cited for their naturalism and camaraderie on screen.

Suddenly, with more than a dozen film and television appearances under his belt, the Bon Air native is on the radar of many agents and directors. It’s unsurprising to Jon Watts, the director of “Cop Car,” who chose Wellford through an audition tape and Skype.

“Hays was great at this,” Watts says. “It seemed like he was really thinking about what he was saying and not just reciting lines he had memorized the night before. … He always had an interesting take on the scenes and it was a lot of fun for me to let him try out his crazy ideas.”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Wellford, a relative novice, has natural confidence in the film world. His mother is local artist and designer Carter Carpin. His father, Armistead “Army” Wellford, is an actor, writer and musician from the legendary Athens, Georgia, band, Love Tractor, along with Bill Berry, who eventually left to form R.E.M.

An old movie aficionado, Army Wellford introduced his son to Turner Classic Movies at an early age. The young boy requested and thrived on these “gray” movies. When he was 5, Wellford started to do imitations of the Invisible Man and the Mummy. Now, in addition to Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, his favorite actor is Humphrey Bogart.

“We definitely thought it unusual in this day and age for a young kid to be into black and white films,” his mother says. “But we just chalked it up to him being an old soul and a bright kid. … We definitely didn’t think of him as extroverted.”

Fortunately, Wellford’s second-grade teacher, Tanya Hughes, asked about acting for him. The teacher explained that the boy was introverted, not shy, and there may be a need for an outlet for expression. He was different in the classroom when they did plays or similar activities, his mother says. Soon she was driving up Interstate 95 for auditions in New York.

“I think we were excited for Hays but not 100-percent sure of what to believe in terms of his talent,” his mom says. “I sort of opened it up to the universe and said, ‘If it wasn’t meant to be, please start setting out some road blocks.’ But it seemed that every couple of months or so another project would come his way. Sure, he didn’t get everything he auditioned for but just when I thought maybe that’s the end of the line, he would get another call.”

When “Lincoln” began filming in Richmond, father and son went for auditions. Wellford tried out for the part of Lincoln’s son, Tad. He recalls telling casting agent Avy Kaufman that Lincoln “predicted his death in a dream, is on the five-dollar bill and was a loving father and husband.” He didn’t get the part but ended up in Kaufman’s pile of résumés, and a week later requests for commercials started coming in.

“We took our time, making sure he really wanted to do this and maybe had a shot at it,” his mother says. “I know so much of it is luck and how do you explain that to an 8-year-old: the frequent rejection and the complexity that goes into the casting process?”

Regional casting agent Anne Chapman introduced Wellford to local filmmaker Kevin Herschberger, known as a master of historical re-enactments, who used the young actor in a film for the Boston Tea Party and Ships Museum and “The Heart of the Civil War” for PBS.

When asked if he ever suffers stage fright, Wellford says it depends on “the intensity of the scene,” but it seems as if it’s no big deal. A handsome young man, he seems bemused by the attention and says only two or three of his friends at Robious Middle School even know about his career. Or that he took his homework to Sundance and got to meet “Star Trek” actor Chris Pine.

Wellford has acted in five short films and is in two upcoming features — the independent “Before the Snow” and the horror film “Carver.” But he appears more enthusiastic about the art of filmmaking, directing and editing then he does about acting. Already he’s directed a short, as-yet unedited film, “Mike Randy and the Forgotten Orb,” starring his neighborhood friends. And at the age of 11, he’s written three feature screenplays. S

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