Denzel Washington thought he looked too smart. So Austin’s Glen Powell Jr., who auditioned for the role as an Oklahoma student in “The Great Debaters,” came away with a higher profile slot as a Harvard University orator who faces down the upstart team from all-black Wiley College.
At 19 and a University of Texas freshman, Powell has already built an impressive list of film credits, starting with “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over” in 2003 and including “The Hottest State,” “Fast Food Nation” and “Jumping from Bridges.” Wearing scuffed boots that unintentionally match his status as a fraternity brother and an impossibly winning smile, Powell sat in the shade at Jo’s Hot Coffee with his mother and manager, Cyndy Powell, who has helped keep her son on an even career keel.
For instance, the Austin native balanced his early acting stints at Austin Musical Theatre with sports (football and lacrosse) and Westwood High School’s business club. And he’s majoring in economics at UT. “You need a backup plan,” he said. “If the acting thing doesn’t work, I may go into entertainment finance.”
Powell studied debate at Westood under winning coach Alex Pritchard, and after nabbing the movie role, Powell was whisked off to Texas Southern University to bone up on the less policy-oriented 1930s debating style, research he took quite seriously. During the shoot, Washington encouraged Powell to play his debater as a “blue blood who never loses” and coached him to pause, button his tuxedo and stare at his listeners before starting his key speech.
“He gives you a lot of freedom,” Powell said. “But he knows what he wants and he likes to see others succeed.”
Next up? Powell plays a pot head in “40 Love,” which films in the Austin area this winter, and which he describes as “Caddy Shack” for the tennis set.
“Yeah, my life’s like ‘High School Musical’ without all the singing,” Powell said. When kidded about being such a responsible, well-rounded gentleman, he admitted to “starting a small coup in a South American country.”
A sense of humor to boot. Handy skill in Powell’s enviable position.