Michael Bahr, education director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, remembers when he encountered "this dynamic, charismatic, this kind of human dynamo called Riley Griffiths in this first-grade play."
Bahr was working with Debra Harding's class at Cedar City's North Elementary as they performed a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" "a pretty lofty task," he said and Riley was portraying the comic character Bottom.
"He had a lot of energy," recalled Harding, who now teaches at Three Peaks Elementary in Cedar City.
Two years later, the apple-cheeked Riley got his first professional acting gig, playing Robin in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the 2006 Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Riley is 14 now, and the world is getting a first glimpse of this talented young actor in one of the summer's most anticipated movies, the thriller "Super 8."
If Riley has anything to say about it, this role won't be his last. "Acting's definitely what I want to do for the rest of my life," he said in a phone interview.
"Dude, that's Steven Spielberg" • In "Super 8," Griffiths plays Charles, a middle-schooler in an Ohio steel town in 1979 who is directing a zombie movie, filming on his Super 8 camera with friends as cast and crew. One night, while shooting a scene on a train platform, he and his pals witness a horrific train derailment and, in the chaos, Charles' camera captures images of something mysterious escaping from an Air Force freight car.
Riley who recently left Cedar City with his family for the Seattle area and most of his young co-stars were discovered in a nationwide talent search. (The main exception is Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota Fanning and veteran of such films as "Phoebe in Wonderland" and "Somewhere.")
"My agent called me up and told me to send in the tape," Riley said. "I sent him the tape, and 3 1/2 months went by and I didn't hear back."
Eventually, Riley got a callback to audition. The audition consisted mainly of "us just hanging out" to gauge the chemistry between the young actors.
Riley felt positive about the auditions. "I was pretty much the only person ever there reading for Charles," he said. "I kind of had a slight suspicion that I got it.
"He's just a really fun guy to play. He's very bossy, and he's very production-value crazed. â¦ I put a lot of myself into him. We're both very passionate about what we do, and we both have a love for the arts."
When Riley told Bahr he had landed a movie role, the young actor offhandedly mentioned the movie's director. "He said, 'You probably haven't heard of him his name's J.J. Abrams,'â" Bahr recalled. Bahr, of course, had heard of Abrams, who created the TV series "Alias" and "Lost" and directed "Mission: Impossible III."
"Super 8" took 3 1/2 months to shoot, split between a Hollywood backlot and a West Virginia town. The young actors became best friends. "These guys are just like my brothers now," Riley said.
One of the most exciting parts of filming was re-creating the train derailment. "Everything that's on the ground was actually there there were really busted-up train cars and wood and crates," Riley said. "We actually got to do all of our stunts. There are really explosions behind us, and tanks driving around and chasing us. That was way cool to be able to do that."
One day during shooting, Griffiths and Joel Courtney, who plays Charles' best friend Joe, were shooting a scene when Abrams' boss executive producer Steven Spielberg visited the set.
"I see him walk in in the corner of my eye, and I'm just trying not to freak out and ruin the take," said Riley, who ranks "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" among his favorite films. "Joel's like, 'Dude, that's Steven Spielberg.' We were just trying to control ourselves. He came over and told us we were doing a great job and the movie looks great, which was an unforgettable experience."
Acting authentically • Riley worked through the Utah Shakespeare Festival's Playmakers education program, and Bahr was struck by his work ethic and his talent.
"There's a wonderful rawness about him," Bahr said. "You put him in the right place and shine a light on him, it's just very authentic."
Bahr remembered some of Riley's performances in Cedar City: playing Scrooge in a Playmakers version of "A Christmas Carol," and a role at age 9 as Robin in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2006 production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," his first professional acting gig.
"When we're looking for someone to spend the summer with us onstage with the professional actors, we want someone who's going to be there, â¦ to be a member of the company," Bahr said of hiring child actors. "Riley worked really well in that type of setting."
"I used to get ready, like, two hours before rehearsal," Riley said of his experience on "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
The young actor is looking ahead at the next step in creating a lasting movie career. He's reading scripts and is meeting producers, but hasn't committed to any projects.
His ambitions are big. "I want to be really diverse, like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks they can go from comedy to drama to action," he said.
Bahr thinks Riley will do anything he wants in Hollywood. "He has been exposed to a whole world of other professions, from director to producer to everyone who makes it go, set designers and cinematographers," Bahr said. "He's a sponge. He will soak all of that up. He's smart enough and intelligent enough to apply that.
"I'm looking forward to what will happen in the next couple years the next 10 years, and the next 15 years, and the next 20 years in the arc of Riley. It's just been fun seeing him go."