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Taylor Firth of Grand Island competes during the women’s short program at the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash.
Associated Press

From small town skater to leading lady

Grand Island’s Taylor Firth skates her way into ‘Ice Castles’

NeXt Correspondent

Just over a year ago, Grand Island skater Taylor Firth, 17, took the ice at the U. S. Figure Skating Championships (nationals) for the third time. She skated a disappointing short but a brilliant long program, ending up in 13th place overall.

A few weeks later, back at her skating club in Jamestown, her coaches, Kirk Wyse and Lenel van den Berg, found a spam e-mail asking if Taylor would be interested in auditioning for the lead role of Lexi Winston in a remake of the 1978 film “Ice Castles.”

Taylor’s reaction was total excitement. How many people actually get a chance like that? The next day, she and her sisters made her audition tape.

Right from the beginning, Taylor had the support of her family –her father Michael, mother Pattie, and four sisters, Shannon 20, Taylor, 18, Chelsea, 16, and Sierra, 14.

“They were all excited. We all thought it was so out of the blue. I wasn’t looking for acting. We all wondered, ‘Is this real?’ ... We had fun filming, they were ecstatic for me. My sisters came to Toronto and visited me, and my dad came to Nova Scotia,” said Taylor on her family’s reaction.

“Ice Castles” tells the story of Lexi Winston, a girl from Iowa who has grown up skating on a pond near her house. When she competes, she is noticed by a big-time skating coach. He whisks her away to Boston to train with him in order to compete at sectionals and then nationals. After placing second at sectionals, she has a terrible accident, leaving her blind. With the help of her boyfriend Nick (Rob Mayes) and her father Marcus (Henry Czerny), they pull her out of her depression and teach her how to skate again.

At first Taylor was being considered as a skating double for an actress who would play the part of Lexi off the ice. But then it was decided to have a skater do both, which is what director Donald Wyre wanted.

Choreographer Sandra Bezic was thrilled: “When [the decision to switch to a skater] was made, I said to the producer and director, ‘She’s your girl; just her personality –her joy, youth and enthusiasm –is perfect for the role of Lexi.’”

The original “Ice Castles,” released in 1978 with Wyre as the director, introduced skater Lynn-Holly Johnston to the world of acting.

For Taylor, this movie was her first acting role.

Taylor, who was home-schooled along with her sisters, says acting is “hard. It was a lot of fun, such a blast. I thought it was going to be easy, but it’s a lot of work, long days, tons of memorizing. It is so different having to think about body language, facial expressions, being told where to start and stop skating. I loved learning about it. I had a lot of great mentors to help me.”

It also helped that Taylor had a lot of similarities with the character she was playing. “We’re both small-town skaters thrown into the fast track. I skate at Jamestown and now I’m in a movie! The boyfriend situation is also similar –we both had to go far away and although we had different relationships, we both had struggles, such as missing home. It made it easier to play her character since we had so many similarities,” Taylor said.

The movie took roughly four weeks to film, mostly on location in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, they filmed inside the house for four to five days, which seemed like a drag to Taylor. But then they shot outdoors on the pond where many skating scenes take place in the movie.

“It’s my favorite place we filmed at. The three days went so fast. It was the perfect little point, it was my absolute favorite place!” said Taylor.

While in Nova Scotia, her mom and dad wound up with small roles in the movie. Her mom was on set every day, and when they needed an extra for a salon scene, they gave it to her. Taylor was so thrilled to see her mom be part of the movie. Later when her dad visited Nova Scotia, they needed an extra paparazzo, and he got the part.

Throughout the entire process she had a great support system. Her biggest supporters? “Definitely my family. Days were hard, and I was wishing to be home. They encouraged me. My boyfriend was really good with me, encouraging me. The director was a huge part of the work; he was more than willing to explain to me what was needed for a certain scene. The entire cast was patient and helped get done what needed to get done. It was great.”

Since this movie is all about Lexi’s passion for figure skating, Taylor obviously got to skate a lot.

“It was so fun! ... When we weren’t filming, I didn’t just sit around. I drew pictures and skated around. It was great mixing acting with something I’ve done for 12 years. It was a whole new aspect of skating,” Taylor said.

Taylor also got to try other things for the first time, such as driving a snowmobile, which was easily one of the most fun things she learned to do.

“I remember saying actual lines and I had to try and keep my smile down like I was a 4-year-old, because I got to drive! The director actually had to tell me to calm down a few times so we could get through the scene!” she said

Another first for Taylor was having two on-screen romances, first with Lexi’s boyfriend, Nick, and with Lexi’s coach, Aiden.

“My least favorite part of the film was having the on-screen relationship with the coach, it was awkward, and I didn’t think it was something my character would do. I had to remember it was a job,” she said.

The movie brought in other skaters such as Molly Oberstar, a senior-level skater and first-time actress, and Michelle Kwan, the national champion for eight consecutive years (1998-2005). Oberstar plays Carrie Turner, Lexi’s main rival, and Kwan plays herself as a commentator.

Taylor describes working with Kwan as “amazing! It was always a dream of mine, she was normal and willing to talk and give tips.”

On watching the movie for the first time, Taylor said: “It was a little strange, it felt like a home movie, strange but exciting. Everything came out great. It was amazing to watch it.”

Looking back on the experience, Taylor realizes she doesn’t have a favorite part.

“It was a lot of fun, being in front of cameras and playing someone else. I loved all of it. It was a blast. Learning how to act blind was really hard. I didn’t want to offend anyone ... I loved filming in general.”

As for acting in the future, Taylor says she would love to, since she thoroughly enjoyed everything about acting.

“In my dream world, the acting would be in the Christian film industry, but anything wholesome that allows me to be a positive role model and get my message out there, I would act in,” she said.

Taylor hopes viewers enjoy the film. “It’s a great film. It can be a positive role model for teens and kids ... I guess [with this whole experience] I want people to know that I am a strong Christian, with a lot of hope. I want to go out and give glory to God because I’m really blessed for the opportunity I was given. Dreams come true; it’s all in God’s hands.”

“Ice Castles” will be released Tuesday on DVD.

Isabella Fagiani is a sophomore at Niagara Falls High School.