Behind Chasing Mavericks

Abigail Spencer on capturing authenticity for Hollywood’s latest surf flick

Abigail Spencer, one of the stars of the upcoming film Chasing Mavericks.

It was not my typical Friday afternoon. I sat uncomfortably in a trendy café in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, decoding some sort of all-organic, spiritually-imbued menu with entrée names such as "I am Pure," "I am Elated," and "I am Grateful." I searched high and low for "I am Hamburger" to no avail, so I settled for "I am Magical." I was sitting across from a woman who was nearly too beautiful to look at directly as she talked about the joys of working with esteemed directors such as John Favreau and Curtis Hanson. She waved to a girlfriend who approached, and I immediately recognized her as one of the stars of the former HBO show Entourage. With her was a man who I didn't recognize, but was probably famous for something as well. I may have been in Venice, but this was most definitely Hollywood.

I had crossed the spider web of superhighways to meet with a person I knew only as Sterling Spencer's sister. Although her surf career is non-existent, she is one of the stars of Hollywood's latest attempt at depicting surfing in a major motion picture, and kind of a big deal in her own right. More than just tackling the topic of surfing, Chasing Mavericks set out to capture the story of the late big-wave legend Jay Moriarity. The daughter of Gulf Coast surf legend Yancy Spencer III, Abigail seemed like a person who could possibly gauge the authenticity of this collision between Hollywood and surf culture. After finishing our soul-nourishing bounty, we spoke about movies, centaurs, and how surfing fits into the mix.

Are you a surfer?

I just surfed in Florida, actually. Surfing is in my blood, but I don't get to exercise it that often. Because of my family, I feel like it totally shapes how I look at everything. I make a lot of comparisons between what I do as an actor and as an artist, and what my family has done in surfing. Even though I didn't realize it, my dad taught me to approach being an actor the same way he approached surfing. He had utter devotion to surfing, and he wasn't going to do anything else. I feel that way about what I do, and I definitely owe that to my upbringing.

Did your surf background make you want to do Chasing Mavericks?

It actually was more of a deterrent at first. I don't want to be a part of something that I think is not going to do the surf world justice--something that cheapens surfing. I feel like there have been surf movies that felt like they missed the mark. But with that said, I'm like the biggest North Shore fan on the planet [laughs]. I literally think Sterling and I learned to surf through Chandler and Rick Kane and Lance Burkhart. All of that cheesy stuff was so much part of our childhood. On long car trips, we would watch that movie on loop. But when I heard Curtis Hanson was directing Chasing Mavericks I became interested. He's made some of the most incredible films like L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile. He's so diverse and he tells stories in such a human way. And then I heard that Bill Pope was the DP [Director of Photography] who shot The Matrix and Spider Man. He's one of the best DPs on the planet.

I still wasn't running to do it though. I got the script pretty soon after my dad [Yancy Spencer III] passed away. The timing made me super emotional. Basically the character I was auditioning for is the consummate surfer's wife--it felt like I was auditioning to be my mom. Gerard's character, Frosty Hesson, was so devoted to surfing that it reminded me of my dad. I almost didn't make it to the audition, but I showed up and a month later they called me and said that I was cast in it. I was really surprised because I just assumed that they would have to get a really big name for the part.

No one knew that I was Yancy Spencer's daughter, but when I got to set Brock Little was the first person I saw and he was like, "Yancy's daughter? What are you doing here?" I felt like all my worlds were colliding. I ran into a lot of my dad's friend's on set, and it was awesome to be able to represent what my dad loved to do on screen. And the surf photography is amazing. I've never seen surf photography like this in a movie. It's beautiful, and I feel good about getting the surf community involved in it.

Abigail and Yancy at her high school graduation.

From what I heard, Mavericks took its toll on everyone. Between Gerard nearly drowning, expensive equipment being destroyed, and stunt men getting pushed to their limits, did it feel hectic?

Yeah, maybe making the movie was like a metaphor for trying to surf Mavericks. There were a lot of challenges in this movie. There were a lot of things to overcome, which is goes pretty perfectly with the story. Jay and Frosty had to overcome a lot in their lives, so making the movie almost felt like it was becoming a parallel to that. But I think it was all completely worth it to do the movie in the right way. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

How did Gerard Butler react to nearly drowning?

I think he had to go to the hospital afterwards. He showed me a video of it on his iPhone because someone was on the boat filming the entire thing. He didn't come up forever. He's super tough, but I really can't believe he survived that. He's super committed physically to every role, and he really takes on the physical identity of anyone he's playing. Before this movie he was playing a soccer player and before that he was playing a big biker dude for Machine Gun Preacher. He completely transforms for every role. That might have helped him in that situation.

If Chasing Mavericks Gerard Butler got in a scrap with 300 Gerard Butler, who do you think would fair better?

If it went down in the water, 300 dude would just sink to the bottom of the ocean. On land he would probably win though.

So you talked a little bit earlier about cheesy surf depictions in Hollywood. How do you think this movie is going to be received by actual surfers?

I thought about that a lot because I want to be behind something that I feel is authentic to the surf community. I think the movie does the best job possible while still being accessible to people who aren't surfers. Brandon Hooper, who wrote it, has been a surfer his whole life and he lives up in Santa Cruz part of the time. So the story was coming from a real place to begin with, and I think it did everything that was necessary to show surfing as it really is. My dad had to hitch hike to the beach, and when he started surfing at 15 years old, it changed his life. It was like food, he couldn't exist without it. Jay had that same obsession, and that drives the story. And the surf photography is amazing. Its beautiful and it really captures surfing in a way that's never been done before. What makes it more accessible to non-surfers are the relationships in the movie. The movie shows that relationships are fleeting and we have to take care of them. Being emotionally vulnerable can be harder than riding big waves, and I think it really tows that line in a delicate and genuine way.

A 5-year-old Abigail gives Shaun Tompson a kiss for good luck at a surf contest.

Was there more pressure to do something authentic because a person's legacy was on the line?

Yeah, this is a tribute to Jay. You just leave the movie wanting to be a little less afraid to put yourself out there, because Jay was a pure soul and that's how he lived his life. It's almost like he lived a little beyond everyone else's human shortsightedness. He could see something beyond himself, and I think a lot of people who die very young have that.

Was Jay's family involved in the production?

Jay's wife Kim was on set a lot. She spent a lot of time with Leven [Rambin], who plays Kim in the movie, and Jonny [Weston, the actor playing Jay.] Anybody who was integral to the story was around and they were always welcome to come to set and be a part of it. In Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay the communities got behind it and we had lots of local surfers involved, which really helped bring everything together.

On another note entirely: being Sterling Spencer's sister, what can you tell us about the origin of his centaur obsession? And do you also have this fascination?

I think that started in high school. I don't even know how it came to be, but he is obsessed with them. Every time I see a centaur now, I take a picture and send it to him. I think it's hilarious.

As for me, I'm having a unicorn moment right now. I'm oddly obsessed with them--like magical unicorns, or like the idea of unicorns, and what does that even mean? There is some kind of unicorn movement I think, like the rise of the unicorn is happening right now. I think it would be hilarious if someone made that movie. It would be very serious. There would be so many explosions, and so many car chases, and so many people running.

Sterling and Abigail Spencer in high school, long before pro surfing and acting careers came into the picture. "Dad always wanted me on a soft board so i didn't wreck my face," says Abigail. "Thanks dad." Photo: Spencer