“Lion’s” Raize to Star in Avildsen project

by Michael Fleming
Published in Daily Variety (Los Angeles, CA)
February 26, 1998

NEW YORK — Director John Avildsen has landed Jason Raize, star of the Broadway hit “The Lion King,” to topline an untitled film he’ll shoot this summer about New Jersey high school kids who complete in annual fashion competitions between local schools.

Raize, the 22-year-old actor who opened the Broadway run as Simba, will take a short leave from his starring role to make his feature debut and then return in the fall. A theater veteran, he has starred in the national company of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and regional companies of “Gypsy” and “The King and I.”

The film is being produced by Gene Kirkwood and Norman Stephens, who said they have financing together and will set up distribution during the shoot.

Avildsen, the director of such films as “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid,” said he was attracted to the underdog nature consistent with the fashion film. “I’m calling it the untitled ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Hoboken,” the director said. “It’s kids and their dreams to be in the fashion industry. There are these modeling clubs where kids who are not affluent get a sense of worth and self-esteem trying to realize their dreams of breaking out of their eight-block world by making their own clothes or modeling them.”

Raize plays an aspiring Hispanic model who bonds with an Italian girl who works in her father’s tailor shop and puts together her own clothing creations. The wannabe model has romantic designs on the girl, even though both families don’t approve of the romance because of the ethnic differences. The script is by Virginia Clark and Marjorie Short.

“When we were looking for a new Hispanic face, we saw Jason’s ‘Lion King’ reviews and when we saw the show, he just lit the place up,” said Avildsen, who cast Raize that night and now is looking for the girl character and a title for the film.

Raize said he was eager to move into film, but that he is not yet ready to leave the lion’s den permanently. “The whole ‘Lion King’ experience has been overwhelming, starting with Michael Eisner sitting there at the first run-through with his jaw on the floor as (director) Julie Taymor laid out what we were going to do,” Raize said.

“Disney signed me to quite a long contract and they’re doing me a favor letting me out temporarily to do this film. Doing the show each night has become more fun because there was so much information to process, so much practice we needed. Now that we’re relaxed and the pressure’s off, we’re actually improving.”

Raize, who called Simba a dream role, said he wasn’t looking for outside work, but found a kinship between the film’s storyline and his own Broadway quest. “I grew up on top of a mountain in the Catskills, where my parents didn’t let me watch TV and we didn’t see theater,” Raize said. “I didn’t have any real access to films, TV or pop culture until I was 16. When this became a dream, I went after it as hard as I could. I saw a lot of that in the characters in this film.”

Raize was repped by Harry Gold and Doreen Eliassen of Gold, Marshak, Liedtke.