Charlie DePew was walking across the playground at La Cañada Elementary School, back to class, when his life changed.
He’d just clowned his way through a tryout for a part in the 6th-grade production of “Charlie Brown,” and it was bothering him, this sense that he might be squandering an opportunity.
“So I ran back to the cafeteria and I was like, ‘I want to really try!’” said DePew, whose second take got him the part, and whose performance earned applause that triggered another notion: “‘I’m going to do this!’”
Good grief, Charlie DePew, you weren’t joking.
DePew, a 20-year-old La Cañada Flintridge resident, is among the stars on the new TV drama, “Famous in Love,” which will premiere Tuesday, April 18, on Freeform (formerly ABC Family).
If you’ve been out of your house in the past few weeks, odds are you’ve seen promotions for the series — DePew describes it as a mix of “Gossip Girl” and “Entourage” — on billboards and buses throughout L.A.
“They’re putting a ton of money into advertising,” said Alison DePew, Charlie’s mom. “So odds are that it’s going to go, and he’s going to be quite recognizable overnight. That’s wild.”
Mere months after Charlie DePew discovered he was wild about acting, he and older brother Jack were walking to a vending machine while at a regatta in San Diego when life changed — for Jack.
A pair of Abercrombie & Fitch scouts, armed with impressive cameras, stopped the boys. The encounter led to Jack’s participation in the clothing company’s fall campaign, and after that, to a signing with an agency, a manager and, yes, acting opportunities.
“I was outraged!” said Charlie, then a 7th-grader. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous! This is what I want to do and Jack gets it literally handed to him on a silver platter and he doesn’t even care that much.’”
But, within a year or so, the brothers were sharing a manager and Alison was driving her youngest son to auditions, too. (There is an older DePew brother, Will, a firefighter who lives nearby with his wife and daughter. And Jack has just filmed a sci-fi series of his own.)
Young Charlie DePew was invited to test for the pilots of “Sugar Loaf” and “Shake It Up, Chicago,” for which he was in the running for a lead role. He was called back eight or nine times for that gig, he said, before executives selected Adam Irigoyen. Still, they gave Charlie the opportunity to guest-star in the pilot, which is when he met Bella Thorne, the star of “Famous in Love.”
In 8th grade, Charlie was cast in “The Amazing Spider-Man” and then, as a sophomore, in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” In both films, he played the younger brother of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and, while filming the sequel, had his hair dyed very blond.
“They bleached my hair four different times trying different things, and they didn’t have time that night to reset it or change it so it looks natural,” he said. “So it was bleach-yellow and when I went to school the next day, I got the craziest looks, and I was like, ‘It’s cool. Of all the things I could be stared at for, this is pretty awesome.’”
If his hair screamed “look at me!,” Charlie never did, said LCHS theater teacher Justin Eick, who marvels at the young actor’s versatility and positivity.
“I have known other actors who are his age who don’t have such grace or humility,” Eick said. “[Charlie] never name-dropped; you’d have to pry it out of him, really, to find out how things were on set. He’d be gone on location shooting and then he’d come back and throw himself into his schoolwork. He took his school plays just as seriously as a $150-million film.”
What he might have told you, had you pried it out of him, was that his small role in the two big-budget films was great, but … “A lot of people were like, ‘This is your big break!’” Charlie said. “And I was like, ‘No, it’s a huge role and I’m so grateful to do it, but it’s a stepping stone.’”
The role led to other small roles (“Mad Men,” “Bad Fairy,” “Days of Our Lives”) and to opportunities to audition for more substantial ones, too, which produced a long list of inevitable near-gets, including, initially, “Famous in Love.”
After submitting a hurried self-take for the show, he was invited to an in-person test at Warner Bros., where more than 30 other actors also were testing.
“There were eight or nine guys going out for my part,” said DePew, who said he was more nervous for this audition than others, he wanted it so much. “We’re all in a hall together and, sometimes, it’s so competitive you can taste it in the air. The other guys will try some sort of sabotage or psych-out thing, trying to play on your emotions.
“If somebody is listening to music, if you have your headphones on, they’ll be like, ‘Turn your headphones down.’ Or they talk a lot, the ones who are trying to psyche you out, they’ll be saying funny things to get everybody not focused.”
DePew (who was listening to “meditation sauna music” on his headphones) was not deterred. He made the cut all the way down to the final two, again, before executives went with the other guy, Jesse Henderson.
That hurt. So did finishing second in auditions for “Riverdale,” the new CW series based on “Archie” comic book series. Around that time, he also missed a call back for Steven Spielberg’s “Super 8” because he was out of cell range, hunting in Colorado, when the call came.
“I was 70% of the way to quitting,” said DePew, whose passions extend beyond acting to include entrepreneurial technology-based endeavors that his fans might read more about soon.
“I was like, ‘I have tested for 15 or 20 pilots and my career slogan was close but no cigar. I was so upset that I went up into the Angeles Crest Mountains on a hike for five or six hours, just sulking. I was gonna get off that mountain and call my manager and be like, ‘Let’s take a break.’”
But when he was on El Vago Street, going back home, he changed his mind.
“Something told me,” he said, “‘Do not call.’”
A few months later, he was across the street from the Paramount Pictures studios, where he had another audition, when he ran into a fellow actor who mentioned that he’d also thrown his hat in the ring for the role of Jake Salt on “Famous in Love.”
Charlie was shocked that the role was still open, and thrilled. He asked his agent to try to get him another shot at the character, but, again, the producers passed — until they didn’t. A month later, “after they’ve auditioned 1,500 guys, I was told, basically every actor with semi-good looks between 17 and 30 who looked between 20 and 25,” they reconsidered and asked Charlie (and “like 25 other guys”) to come back for a chemistry reading with Thorne, followed by another with other cast members, which didn’t go well.
“Horrible,” DePew said. “I was dropping lines, I was not in the moment, my pacing was off. I left with my head down, tail between my legs. I’m walking down the lot at Warner Bros. when the casting director comes running out, ‘Charlie! Charlie! Come back, we know you can do better!’
“It was,” DePew said, “totally a ‘Charlie Brown’ moment.”
And, like before, the second take was better. He was hired that night and on-set the next day for a busy, dream-come-true 18 hours that started with a scene in which his character Jake, an aspiring screenwriter, learns that Paige (Thorne) has gotten the call to play a big role.
“Probably 13 or 14 hours after I found out I got it, I’m doing this scene and the line is, ‘This is going to change your life!’” Charlie said. “It’s cheesy, but it’s right. It’s exactly right.”