As any surfer will tell you, being attacked by a shark is right at the top of their worst nightmare list. For Bethany Hamilton, that nightmare came true on October 31 2003 when she was mauled by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing with friends off the north shores of Kauai, Hawaii. Losing her left arm and over sixty percent of her blood, Bethany’s teenage dreams of competitive surfing could have been over, but through sheer willpower, courage and strength she has since gone on to become one of the highest ranking professional female surfers in the world.
Having inspired millions with her story and penned a number of books based on her experiences, Bethany is now the subject of a major Disney biopic directed by Sean McNamara and starring Anna Sophia Robb (as Bethany), Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt (as her parents Tom and Cherie), and singer Carrie Underwood in her movie debut.
Filmed on location in Hawaii and Tahiti, much of the surfing footage in the film includes Bethany herself, displaying the immense focus, skill and athleticism that has helped turn a near –tragedy into a life-affirming success story. At the UK premiere of Soul Surfer on September 22 – fittingly held at the inaugural British Surf Film Festival in Newquay, Cornwall – Dan Jones caught up with the 21-year old to ask her about life, fame, and her love of the ocean...
Congratulations on the movie Bethany. What was it like to have a film made about your life?
It’s been kinda crazy as I’m still so young. I guess it all started with my book and documentary and then my manager at the time was throwing around the idea of it becoming a feature film. My family and I thought it would be a good idea but you never know with movie-making. It didn’t work out for a while but then two years ago it just all came together. Now it’s out it just feels really crazy.
Did you want much control over how it was filmed? Did you get it?
I definitely wanted to be involved as much as I could possibly be. I wanted to keep it true and authentic. The main things that my family were concerned about were my faith (Christianity is a big part of Bethany’s life) and the surfing. Our director was amazing and he really allowed us to be super-involved. I’m still so young and living my life so it was probably a rare case as far as this type of movie-making goes. I’m really happy with the way it turned out and I think it really captured who we are and what we went through.
What was the best part of the film-making?
Probably going to Tahiti to shoot the surfing scenes. We did some filming in Hawaii at first but the conditions weren’t right and I wasn’t happy with the first edit. Tahiti was actually one of the best surf trips I’ve ever had. It was just a small crew, me and one other girl. We got good waves for five days in row. It’s one of my favourite places.
Was it upsetting to relive the experience of the attack?
It wasn’t upsetting for me but I think my parents struggled a bit and I think they got a bit emotional. I’ve healed so well from all the bad stuff in the past so I’m able to just be stoked with things. I hope the film inspires people to enjoy the ocean. The last thing I would want would be for people to be scared of going in.
The film also portrays your trip to Thailand where you met tsunami victims, one year after it hit. How did that affect you?
It was one of the best trips of my life. I actually went with my brother and dad whereas in the movie I went with the youth group but that didn’t matter. It was incredible – a lot of the kids hadn’t set foot in the water since the tsunami. It was cool because I got to share my story with them and then by sharing my story it encouraged them to get out and try surfing which is something so new to them. It was awesome and beautiful to be able to reach out to other people.
What’s the biggest challenge for you at the moment?
Definitely my schedule. The film came out in the US back in April and I haven’t been home for longer than a week since. It’s been hectic living out of a suitcase. I’ve also been bombarded with so many opportunities and I can’t do them all and I can’t please everyone so I just try to do my best and do the things that are important to me.
What was it like working with the cast?
It was great. My mum and I actually helped with the casting. We cast Anna Sophia who plays me and also Sonya Bellmore who plays Malina, the rival in the film – she’s an actress from Kauai and we grew up surfing together. I also cast Alana’s brother (Jeremy Sumptor plays Byron) – he was the one who played Peter Pan – I had kind of a crush (laughs) so I thought he has to be in the movie (laughs and blushes). I had fun getting to know all the actors especially the ones that were more my age. Anna Sophia is my dear friend to this day and always will be. She’s a great actress.
What is it about surfing that you love so much?
I guess it’s a like a lifestyle and an art. I just love the beauty of riding waves and the adrenalin and just being creative. Every time you go out it’s a unique experience, the waves are different, there’s nothing repetitive. Going back in the ocean was a huge part of my healing. It was essential. It’s a really special sport.
What do you do when you’re not surfing?
I just love hanging out with friends, playing tennis, training, playing with my dogs. I just keep active. And I love cooking too.
What’s next for you?
Keep on with my surfing career. I’m actually looking at doing a reality surfing, travelling and humanitarian TV show so if that worked out it would be fun.
A movie sequel?
(laughs) Definitely no movie sequel for me. I’m done with Hollywood film-making for now - I’m exhausted.
Finally, what do you want people to get out of the story?
I just hope that people see that good can come out of bad. It’s just a matter of your attitude and how you approach things.
Bethany’s favourite surf film: North Shore
Bethany’s favourite non-surf film: Simon Birch
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