8:10pm

Sat April 9, 2011
Movie Interviews

Never Mind The Sharks: Surfing's In Her 'Soul'

On Oct. 31, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton was well on her way to a successful surfing career. But that morning, while catching some waves off the north shore of Kauai, Hawaii, she was attacked by a 14-ft. tiger shark. Hamilton survived, but lost her left arm.

Just a month later, she was back on her board. In 2005, she won her first national title, and turned professional in 2007. Now 21, Hamilton is the subject of Soul Surfer, a movie based on her life. She sat down with NPR's Liane Hansen to talk about the movie and her unlikely comeback.

Hamilton is no stranger to the media. The new movie — starring Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid and AnnaSophia Robb — isn't the first to be made about her. A 2007 documentary, Heart of a Soul Surfer, chronicled Hamilton's life before the attack, and her road to recovery. She has also brought her story to print, in a Soul Surfer book series.

Although Hamilton wasn't the driving force behind the film, she did suggest actress AnnaSophia Robb for the starring role. When Robb got the part, she traveled to Hawaii to train alongside Hamilton.

A native of Colorado, Robb had very little surfing experience, so it was up to Hamilton to help her appear like she knew what she was doing on a surfboard. The secret, Hamilton says, is all in your paddle.

"As an avid surfer, just by the way someone paddles I can tell how long they've been surfing, or what their skill level is," Hamilton explains. "I wanted her to at least look like she could surf ... and then I came in for some stunt-surfing."

As the resident expert, Hamilton performed most of the one-armed stunts for the movie herself. Thanks to the help of her father, Hamilton was able to develop a board that enabled her to surf at a competitive level again.

At first, getting back in the ocean was difficult. "It was really hard to get out into the surf because you have waves breaking ... and you need to be able to push your board — and yourself — underneath the wave," she explains. "It was very challenging because you normally have both hands to grab both sides of the board."

To solve this problem, her dad put a handle on her board — an idea he picked up from the lifeguarding surfboards that he saw on the beach. The addition gave Hamilton the stability she needed to balance.

But getting back on her surfboard wasn't just a question of re-learning how to balance. Initially haunted by nightmares, Hamilton had to overcome her fears before she could fully recover. Now, eight years after the attack, Hamilton says her life has returned to normal.

"Doing everything with one arm, being well-known, and having a book and a movie, it's fairly abnormal," she admits. But, "as far as just not having to worry about past experiences, I've healed very well," she says.

In fact, Hamilton says that she has adapted so well to her new lifestyle that her friends even forget that she's missing her left arm. And staying out of the water was never really an option. Hamilton wasn't afraid of another shark attack, but the thought that she wouldn't surf again terrified her.

"To lose your everyday life of surfing and being creative on waves, enjoying the ocean — that's scary to me," she says. "It was essential to at least try surfing again and get out there and see how it went."

Luckily for Hamilton, her resilience paid off. She is now living out her dreams as a professional surfer. "It's exciting just to see how life works out," she says, "and how good can come out of bad situations." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Here is a story of cruel luck, pure pluck and ultimate triumph. On October 31, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton was well on her way toward a successful surfing career. But while catching some waves that morning off the north shore of Kauai, Hawaii, a 14-foot tiger shark attacked. Hamilton survived, but lost her left arm.

A month later, Bethany Hamilton was back on her board. In 2005, she won her first national title and turned pro surfer in 2007.

(Soundbite of movie, "Soul Surfer")

Unidentified Woman: Aren't you afraid?

Ms. ANNASOPHIA ROBB (Actor): (as Bethany Hamilton) Im more afraid of not surfing.

HANSEN: She's now 21 years old, and she's the subject of "Soul Surfer," a movie based on her life that opened this weekend.

Bethany Hamilton is in our studio in New York. Welcome to the program, Bethany.

Ms. BETHANY HAMILTON (Pro Surfer): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: There was a documentary made about you several years ago.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Heart of Soul")

Ms. HAMILTON: (as Herself) It happened so fast, there wasnt much time to think. Then all of a sudden, it just like - I felt like, a tug on my board. Right away, I knew what was happening.

HANSEN: Why turn your story into a Hollywood movie? What does it say about you that the documentary doesn't?

Ms. HAMILTON: Well, the thought of a feature film - which we thought would reach a broader audience - really had some appeal, in a way. I mean, it wasnt like I went out pursuing someone to make a movie about me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: So...

HANSEN: So you didnt call Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt and, you know, Kevin Sorbo and the other people that are in this movie, and say...

Ms. HAMILTON: No. No, I didnt call them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: But I did suggest AnnaSophia, who ended up getting the part. So that was pretty cool.

HANSEN: Tell us about the actress who plays you, AnnaSophia Robb. Is she a surfer?

Ms. HAMILTON: AnnaSophia Robb is from Colorado, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: ...she has very little surfing experience, especially prior to the making of this film. And so when she found out she got the part, she came out to Hawaii and trained, and learned to surf. And you know, for me, it was more of teaching her the how to look like she knows what she's doing on a surf board, and be able to paddle good.

Because as an avid surfer, you know, just by the way someone paddles, I can tell how long theyve been surfing, or what their skill level is. And so I wanted her to, you know, at least look like she can surf. And then I came in for some stunt surfing. So...

HANSEN: So you were your own body double, in many respects?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. I mean, I did a lot of the one-armed stunt surfing because obviously, the first half of the movie is all two-arm surfing, so we had to get a two-arm stunt for that.

HANSEN: Explain how your board was modified to allow you compete.

Ms. HAMILTON: Well, when I first started surfing again, it was really hard to get out into the surf because you have waves breaking, and they break in front of you. And you need to be able to like, push your board and yourself underneath the wave. And so it was very challenging because normally, you have both hands grab both sides of the board and grab the rails, and push under. And so I didnt have that ability anymore. And so my dad came up with this idea when he was at the beach. He saw it on a lifeguard's board - a handle - and put it in the center of the board so that I could balance my hand onto the board, and have some kind of grip - and protect myself from the board coming back and hitting me, you know?

HANSEN: Your best friend, another surfing champion, was with you when you were attacked. And in the film, we see scenes - she has trouble going to see you when you're in the hospital.

(Soundbite of movie, "Soul Surfer")

Ms. ROBB: (as Bethany Hamilton) Where's Lana?

Mr. KEVIN SORBO (Actor): (as Holt Blanchard) She's at home, with her mother. She's still a little freaked out.

HANSEN: And she is having these nightmares, over and over again. Did you have nightmares?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. It was scary. You know, I'd wake up and be upset. But Im very thankful because I've healed from all of the - the whole experience now. And life is fairly normal, in a sense.

HANSEN: Yeah, fairly normal for having your life made into a major motion picture, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah and like, doing everything with one arm and being well-known, and having a book and a movie - it's fairly abnormal. But I dont know. I mean, as far as just like not having to worry about past experiences, I've healed very well.

HANSEN: Yeah. It is interesting: As the movie goes on, you lose awareness of the lack of her left arm.

Ms. HAMILTON: I mean, all my friends always say, like: Oh, I forget that you even dont have an arm. Like...

HANSEN: Huh.

Ms. HAMILTON: ...so we're just used to it, and Im just so adaptive to everything that it just seems - I seem normal, you know?

HANSEN: Yeah. What scared you more: Getting back in the water where the shark was, or not being able to able to surf once you were back in?

Ms. HAMILTON: Definitely for me it was like, not being able to surf and not getting back out there was scarier. I mean, to get attacked by a shark is so rare, and to lose your everyday life of surfing and you know, being creative on waves and enjoying the ocean - thats scary to me like, to not have that. And so for me, it was essential just to at least try surfing again, and get out there and see how it went. And it went good.

And so today, Im a professional surfer. And Im living my dreams that I've always wanted to do. And so it's exciting just to see how life works out, and how good can come out of bad situations.

HANSEN: Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton joins us from our New York studio. The movie based on her life, "Soul Surfer," is in theaters now.

Thank you, Bethany.

Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you.

HANSEN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.