Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Pingayak on the set of ‘Big Miracle.' Sweeney played an Inupiaq boy from Barrow named Nathan in the Universal Pictures film. Pingayak played his grandfather Malik. - Photo from 'Big Miracle' official site

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Young Alaskan takes on 'Big Miracle' role

February 24th, 2012 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

At the tender age of 10, Ahmaogak Sweeney was at camp in Colorado when representatives from the film Big Miracle first began to seek him out. His mom, Tara, had tried to get Sweeney into the initial round of auditions but was told there wasn't room for him. She told her son "Sorry, we weren't able to get you in," and sent him off to camp.

But a few weeks later, when they were struggling to cast the role of Nathan - an Alaska boy who helped in the 1980s effort in Barrow to save three stranded whales - the casting crew revisited the emailed photo of Sweeney and called Tara back.

Though he wasn't due back from camp for a few weeks, Tara mailed her son a script with a sticky note that essentially said, if you still want to try out for this movie, learn these lines and don't show the script to anyone at camp.

After that, it was a "series of missteps," Tara said. Sweeney finished camp, he studied his lines, and came home to Alaska. Though many weeks had passed since the first auditions for the Nathan character, the studio hadn't found anyone, and continued to encourage Tara to bring in her son. They were on the verge of doing a national search, Tara said, but were making every attempt to cast an Alaska Native in the role.

"The day of the audition I was deathly ill, my husband was gone, and I almost didn't drive him in," Tara said. Her husband was running Lisa Murkowski's reelection campaign at the time.

But they did make it in. And Sweeney's school play experience and intrinsic charm paid off.

"I was nervous in the first one, I had little time to remember my lines," Sweeney said. "I got a callback and it was still more nerve-racking."

Nerves aside, Sweeney soon joined a number of other Alaska residents who would appear in the film. That includes John Chase of Kotzebue and John Pingayak of Chevak, who played Nathan's grandfather in the movie.

Filming took place over about two-and-a-half months, mostly in Anchorage, where Sweeney got to know celebrity actors Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.

"It was really fun, no doubt," Sweeney said. "I figured out that John and I have a lot in common when it comes to sports and stuff. We both like Boston teams and can't stand New York!"

The Sweeneys live in Anchorage, though Tara is from Barrow and is the Vice President of External Affairs for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. She took most of the two months off from work, as life revolved around the world of film, she said.

"During the filming, I had no social life whatsoever," Sweeney said. When he wasn't busy with Big Miracle, he was keeping up with academics with his set tutor. Law requires that children on movie sets not work more than nine hours a day, and spend at least three hours on classwork — even if they aren't attending regular school hours.

Sweeney missed his friends, but said the experience was a good one that taught him a lot; lessons he is taking with him into an acting future.

"My friends at school were really excited for me," he said. "I thought it was fun. I got new lines every night to remember, and my acting coach made it easier for me."

Sweeney currently has an agent in Los Angeles, which he just recently visited, though he politely declined to comment on any upcoming projects. He and his family also traveled to Washington D.C. for the movie's premier, taking the red carpet walk most of us only see on TV.

"I think I had a certain perspective of what it was going to be like, and it was that times ten," Tara said. "It was a bit overwhelming, the cameras, the attention. While it was fun it certainly took a lot of energy — and we're just the parents!"

While the movie has riled some Alaska critics in terms of accuracy, Tara noted that it's important to remember the film is based loosely on real events.

"When you go into it with that mind set, it's a great family flick," she said. Tara was a young teenager when the three whales became marooned in the sea ice off of Barrow, just a few years older than her son was when he became a part of the retelling.

Sweeney is in sixth grade at Bear Valley Elementary in Anchorage. He sends a "special shout out" to his loving Aaka May — great grandmother May Panigeo.


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