by Dov Kornits

“It started, as always, with an audition,” says 12-year-old JJ Pantano, currently completing year 6. Zooming in from his Melbourne home, JJ is telling us about how he landed the coveted role of Luke Smallbone in American film Unsung Hero, which has been a surprise hit around the world.

Unsung Hero is the affecting true story of an Australian family, the Smallbones, who moved to Nashville, USA after financial strife back home, following patriarch David Smallbone’s dream of becoming a significant music promoter. After significant hardship for the family of 9, the answer to the Smallbones’ problems lay right under their nose, with daughter Rebecca and sons Luke and Joel ultimately becoming massive stars in the significant Christian pop market.

Unsung Hero isn’t JJ Pantano’s first break, although it may turn out that way in terms of acting roles. He first entered popular culture when he appeared on Australia’s Got Talent as a 7 year old stand up comic. Next came America’s Got Talent, when he went truly viral.

Pantano had acted before his comedic breakthrough, but more substantial roles started being offered to him after America’s Got Talent, such as Wog Boys Forever, TV series Gold Diggers, The Nut Farm and his first US production, Unsung Hero.

“I auditioned and then it went through to a callback. It was a Zoom callback. And personally, for me, I much prefer doing things in person, talking to people. I find it more realistic, and I like it,” says the way beyond his years Pantano over Zoom today. “I did really great in the callback and they called me back again. They wanted to see one final scene, just this last sort of thing to finalise things. I recorded that final little bit, and then that scene was actually of me and my mum in the film. I was in bed and my mum was tucking me in. It was one of my favorite scenes in the final film, and that was the scene that I booked it off.

“I remember specifically the day that I found out that I had booked it. I had a bunch of my cousins with me, and I got told that I booked it and I was so excited. I ran to my bedroom, started jumping up and down. Then I ran back outside into the living room. I slid down the hallway. I was jumping. I was so excited. I was dancing around and then my little cousin had no idea what was going on. He started dancing as well. We were all pretty much having a dance party because it was so cool.”

Did you know much about the Smallbones before you auditioned?

“I wasn’t entirely sure about who they were before, but I saw the actual audition and thought, ‘oh wow, for KING AND COUNTRY, that seems like an interesting name’. I did some research, did some Googling as a part of my character analysis, and I found out that, of course, they’re a Christian band, five time Grammy award winning, and I found out more about the family. It was super interesting. And I think on the second or third audition, I got sent over the script that I was able to read through to get a full sort of debrief of what the entire story was. And the further I went on through the audition process, the more connected I became to the actual project itself.”

Did you ever get the sense of how meaningful they are to some people?

“Yes, actually it was a funny, funny story and it was insane on set. It was one of the last days we were filming, and we had to do this big scene in an amphitheater. We needed a lot of actors to fill up the theater. So, for KING AND COUNTRY said, ‘hey, we need actors in Louisville, Kentucky to come to this location this day’. They had a bunch of people show up. But then we had a bunch of set delays. It ended up raining, and I think we went on for a couple hours longer than we should have. And everyone was getting pretty irritated, tired, all these background actors. for KING AND COUNTRY said, ‘hey guys, we know it’s late, but please, please, if you guys stay with us for maybe another hour or so, we’ll put on a show for you’. Not a single person left. They all stayed there, and we all got to watch them perform live after we finished. And it was super exciting. And also, as far as they go as people, I was around them on set and around them so much. They’re very, very good people. I’d say they’re role models for everyone.”

How was it playing the actual guy who’s producing the movie [Luke Smallbone of FOR KING AND COUNTRY, with Joel above]? Was that a bit weird because he was on the set? Was he coaching you? Was the character playing your father [co-director Joel Smallbone also of for KING AND COUNTRY] coaching you? How did that work?

“Well, it was a very interesting set. We had two directors. One director was the actor playing my father, Joel Smallbone, and the other director was Richard Ramsey. So, not only was I getting direction from both of those people, I was also getting direction from the person I was playing as a kid. He was telling me things about his life and things that he would do as a kid. We sat and we’d just talk and talk and talk about him as a kid and how I’m going and things to do. If you watch very, very closely, you’ll notice me doing this thing with my hands where I’m sort of drumming the table. And that’s because Luke, he would always drum and he loves drumming, he drums in the band and he was always doing that from when he was a kid.”

What are your plans with schooling?

“I always say my career comes first. It’s my dream, it’s my goal and it’s what I want to do with my life. But school is very important and anything that I miss, I have to catch up on. I think I was in America for five weeks recently, so I missed school. We came back two weeks ago, and I’ve had three lunchtimes outside because the rest I’ve just been inside working head down focusing. I do what’s urgent, what I have to do first, as far as my career goes, and then I catch up and as my parents always say to me, ‘say yes and work it out later’.”

How did this become a career, as you call it? Your family are also in the entertainment industry, is that right?

“Yes, they are. My dad was an MC, my mum was a singer. I have my grandfather, Tony Pantano, who is a big cabaret singer around Australia. I’ve always been around the industry from a very young age. I’d go and I’d watch my mum sing, and I think at age 3, in the middle of one of my mum’s shows, I ran up on stage and started dancing around. Everyone cracked up laughing, and I think that’s where I really started. I’m like, ‘Hey, this is fun’. I kept doing it more and more often. And then I started with the whole acting thing after my parents saw that and they’re like, well, this kid wants to be in the industry. I started doing musical theater, stage acting, and then I went from stage acting to more screen acting because I was like, ‘look at all these cool people in the movies. I want to try that’.”

Do you have a manager and an agent in the US, and do you get coaching in acting?

“I did Australia’s Got Talent and that video went viral overnight. And then I went on America’s Got Talent and I ended up getting American representation. Without that American representation, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the audition for Unsung Hero. So, if I didn’t do Australia’s Got Talent when I was seven years old, I wouldn’t have done Unsung Hero and been where I am right now.

“But yes, I’m doing singing, I’m doing dancing, I’m doing acting, I’m doing a lot of auditions. Yeah, the short answer to you is yes, I’m doing everything.

“I’m trying to balance homework, school, auditions, writing comedy jokes. I’m balancing dancing, singing, practice, piano, it’s a lot.”

Who’s your favourite actor?

“Leonardo DiCaprio is my absolute, I love all of his work. I haven’t seen Titanic yet, a little young for that. I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet, I just love the way he acts.”

Who’s your personal unsung hero?

“I would probably say my mum. I call her my social media manager who hasn’t had a paycheck for 12 years; she manages everything for me. She’s always on the ball, and she knows me better than I know myself, and I couldn’t be where I am without her. Also, my dad, who likes to call himself the Uber driver, but I like to think that he does more than that. But yeah, he does drive us around everywhere… Thanks dad.”

Who’s your favorite comedian?

“Let’s just say quite a few comedians that I shouldn’t really be listening to for my age. My two favourites are Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle. In fact, at the Dave Chappelle show at Rod Laver Arena, I went on stage with Jeff Ross and Dave Chappelle saw me; that was super cool.” 

What were you doing with Jeff Ross?

“I contacted Jeff Ross on Instagram before the show and said ‘hey, we’re coming’. And then he just said, ‘get some jokes ready’. I’m like, ‘what? Okay, sure’. So, I’m thinking about jokes in my head, and then Jeff Ross comes on stage and he does this thing that he does where he flash roasts people from the audience and he says, ‘JJ, come up here’. He gives me a roast and then I start roasting him back and me and Jeff Ross are having a roast battle, it was so cool.

“And then Dave Chappelle came out and said quite a few censored things towards me when he first came out on stage, but he kept referencing me. In fact, he gave me this incredible quote that I still remember. He said, ‘fame is a tool, not a toy, use it wisely’.

You are going to heed those words.

“I’m going to keep them.”

Unsung Hero is in cinemas now.