When he was just 6 years old, Utahn Gavin Lewis was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. And he got to meet Nick Jonas.
The diagnosis led directly to the meetup.
After learning of his condition, Lewis entered and won an essay contest for kids with Type 1 diabetes who were making a difference in their communities. In addition to the $5,000 prize, which he donated to charity, Lewis got to meet Jonas — and got some inspiration from the then-17-year-old actor/singer, who had himself been diagnosed with Type 1 at the age of 13.
“It was great,” Lewis said. “It's something I've always remembered. It's something I hope I can do for other kids.”
Today he’s in a position to do just that. Now 15, Lewis is the star of the Netflix series “The Prince of Peoria,” and he’s looking for ways to pay it forward.
“That would be really just as cool for me as it would be for them,” he said. “That’s my main goal — to be able to inspire somebody like Nick Jonas did for me.”
Lewis plays the title character in the new series — Prince Maxemil “Emil" Vanderklaut III, from the fictional kingdom of Buronia. An unfailingly happy and enthusiastic 13-year-old, Emil wants nothing more than to be a regular teenager with regular friends in the regular world, so he pretends to be an exchange student in Peoria, Ill. There, he strikes up a friendship with Teddy Jackson (Theodore Barnes), who is less than enthusiastic about the whole thing.
It's the sort of show you might expect to see on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel — a sitcom aimed at young viewers.
Emil is “a very happy, excitable, outgoing person,” Lewis said in an interview. “He’s not a stuck-up kid. He’s very down-to-earth and just happy with everything he gets to do.
“I do relate to him. I’m a pretty happy person, so I relate pretty strongly. I’m not quite as extroverted as him, though.”
And the role of Emil “kind of caught my attention with the dialect,” he said — Emil speaks with an English accent, and Lewis worked with a dialect coach to get it down.
And, hey, if it’s not perfect, Prince Emil isn’t English — he’s Buronian.
You might think that Lewis was born to be an actor. His parents, Kyle and Colleen, are actors and teachers whose résumés include stints with Plan-B Theatre Company and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. But their son initially resisted.
“When I was little, I was almost a little overexposed to theater. So for a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Lewis said. “They were almost more trying to steer me away from theater and acting.”
But he got a role in a film that one of his mother’s students was making, “and I turned around 180 [degrees] and decided that I loved it. I think it was the film and television aspect. But, yeah, I came around, and they’re very supportive of what I do.”
The family lived in Salt Lake City until he was 8 years old, then moved to southern Utah. These days, he travels back and forth from the St. George area to Los Angeles, with his mom along as his teacher and coach.
“My parents do help me quite a bit with the character,” he said. “My dad helps me with comedic timing and some of the choices for the funnier bits when I'm running out of ideas.”
The first eight episodes of “Prince of Peoria” are streaming on Netflix; the Christmas episode will be added on Dec. 14, with the remaining seven Season 1 episodes coming later.
Lewis was just 14 during the filming and was seemingly unfazed at shouldering the responsibility as one of the leads in the series.
“It’s fun having that many lines and that much to play with,” he said. “It is a lot of responsibility, but I’m really thankful for what I get to do. And it’s rare to get quite this much to play with in a role.”
This is his first series regular role; his résumé includes voiceover work, TV guest shots and supporting roles in several TV and theatrical films.
And his Type 1 diabetes didn't slow him down at all on “Prince of Peoria.”
“On set, it isn’t a huge concern,” Lewis said. “In the total six-ish months or so, we only had to stop filming one time because of blood-sugar issues. My mom helps me a lot on set, and it’s never really become an issue when filming.”
And that’s the message he wants other people — particularly young people — with Type 1 to understand.
“I’m very excited to be able to help kids with diabetes and possibly be a role model and help them live more confidently with diabetes,” he said.
People are already reaching out to him on social media.
“It’s kind of cool to tell people that it doesn’t hold me back in any way,” Lewis said. “A lot of these people have Type 1 themselves, and it’s cool to be able to help them and answer any questions that they have.”
And, while he’s not old enough to drive yet, Lewis said he’s in acting for the long haul — along with, maybe, architecture.
“Acting is definitely my main goal for when I’m older,” he said. “This is definitely what I hope I’m doing. I’m also very, very interested in directing. I’m reading books on that and seeing if I can shadow some of the directors on ‘Prince of Peoria.’
“I love what I’m doing.”