On Friday, James Ayoub will make his motion picture debut in a global action blockbuster that’s expected to make $400 million world-wide. He shares the screen with huge stars, including an Oscar winner, in a film on which he had his own trailer and shared a driver with the actor Forbes Magazine ranked as the highest-paid in 2016.
But he’s not talking much about it. He’s got Cheerios to eat.
“I tell him, ‘Hey, you’re in a movie with The Rock!,’” says his grandmother, Elena Zabala. “But he doesn’t know.”
As far as James, now 18 months old, knows, the seven weeks he spent on the Atlanta set of “The Fate of the Furious,” the 8th installment in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, was just another place to play. Each week, he and mother Adriana Zabala Ayoub, along with one of his grandmothers, would fly up so the then seven-month-old could shoot scenes with the aforementioned Dwayne Johnson, as well as Vin Diesel, Charlize Theron and others.
On Friday, he’ll get to see the fruits of his labor, along with his closest friends and family, at a private screening of the film in Wellington. The family isn’t giving many details on James’ role, but his character is critical to the plot, they said. The series follows a group of international criminals - James probably doesn’t steal any cars in the movie, but as fate would have it, he is criminally cute.
James’ parents, vocal coach Adriana and attorney Darren of Palm Springs, became interested in getting James into the business as a baby. “We said ‘We need to get this kid to work,’” Adriana jokes.
They heard from Jupiter talent manager Meredith Blackwell of Taylor Made Talent about a national casting call for boys between 7-9 months who looked Latino. James, who is of Latin and Lebanese heritage, fit the bill, so his parents sent in a photo and were told quickly that the casting folks liked what they saw.
They were instructed to take another of him sitting in a chair, holding a teddy bear, so they knew that the photos were taken that day. The future movie star struck a very on-point pose. “The funny thing is that he never makes that face,” his grandmother says. “He was like ‘You want me to pose for you? Oh, I’ll pose for you!’”
Whatever James’ motivations were, it worked, and the family was told to be in Atlanta the next week. (Other filming locations include Iceland, Cuba, New York City and Cleveland.) Adriana Zabala says the whole family pitched in, including her mother and her mother-in-law, Marilyn Ayoub.
She also says that the filmmakers could not have been more accommodating, stopping filming to allow for James’ naptimes, and providing headphones to cover his little ears when the scenes around him got particularly loud.
“He was fine,” grandmother Elena Zabala says. “He was singing!”
Movie-making is stressful, but James seems to take it in stride. He’s a friendly kid, offering an air-kiss to a new friend before turning his attention to the bright purple-cased tablet on his lap, the movie “Zootopia” and those Cheerios. He endured a grueling filming and travel schedule, with a total of 14 flights in seven weeks, back and forth between West Palm Beach and Atlanta, and “was so well-behaved on the flights,” grandmother Elena says.
“Once he got on set, he was so easy-going and happy that it was a no-brainer to use him. So he’s not only cute, but he has the right temperament for it,” manager Blackwell says. “It’s the first job he booked with me. Not bad for a first gig, huh?”
The Ayoubs have nothing but great things to say about James’ co-stars, including Johnson, “a really, really nice guy,” and co-star Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Missandei, trusted servant of Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones.”
“She was so sweet with him. Every time they said ‘Cut!’ she would come over to play with James,” his grandmother says. “He loved her hair.”
Diesel, “asked ‘Can I hold him, so he’s not scared of me?’” Adriana remembers. “James loved everyone. He just was really well-adjusted.”
And he had a particularly chummy rapport with Theron, “who was his favorite,” grandmother Elena says. “She’s so sweet, very good with kids. She would pick him up and say ‘There’s my little nugget!’”
The photos taken of James on the set are the kind of celebrity interaction fans wait in lines for hours for - mugging with Diesel, posing with him and Theron, beaming adorably from co-star Kurt Russell’s directors chair.
Since the “Furious” shoot, James has done a lot of modeling, including work for Carter’s and Toys R Us. He’s also learning new words - “Say ‘Shoes!’” Adriana says.
And they’re open to him doing more films, although they know that his next job has a lot to live up to.
“It’s kind of hard to beat a movie with Charlize Theron and The Rock,” manager Blackwell says.