Las Vegas Sun

November 12, 2018

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Teenager from Green Valley is getting noticed in Hollywood

Chez Starbuck has a smile that just won't quit.

That's a good thing, given that the Green Valley teen sometimes has to wear his toothy grin for 10 or 11 hours a day in front of a camera.

Ah, the life of a budding teen heartthrob.

If you don't already know Chez's name and his lightly freckled face, chances are you A) aren't a teenager, B) aren't the parent of a teenager, or C) don't have cable television.

In any case, the 17-year-old burst onto the scene earlier this year as the star of "The Thirteenth Year," a cable TV movie that premiered on the Disney Channel in May. In it, Chez played a teen named Cody, who grows fins and transforms into a "merboy" (the male version of a mermaid) on his 13th birthday.

(Mark your calendars: The film will be rerun Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. on the Disney Channel, Cox cable channel 28.)

That film was followed by a promotional tour of a dozen cities last summer with Disney, during which Chez was greeted by throngs of preteen and teenage fans who scrambled to get his autograph.

He's since been featured in teen magazines (Teen People dubbed him "the next teen heartthrob to watch") and on teen star-studded websites including starmania.com and teencelebsplus.com, from which he also receives a fair share of fan mail.

"That is so weird," Chez says of seeing his image on the Internet. "My friends are like, 'Dude, you're on the website.' ... I would never (have thought) after just one movie I would have my face on all these different websites."

But then the way he landed that starring role was a bit unusual, at least by Hollywood's standards.

Aside from parts in a few commercials as a youngster and a stint anchoring KLAS Channel 8's local "Kids News" program a few years back, "The Thirteenth Year" was Chez's first official foray into acting.

It came after his mother, Lori Starbuck, sent tapes of his "Kids News" efforts to talent agents in Tinseltown. After signing on with one he began going to auditions. ("The Thirteenth Year" audition was only the second one he attended.)

Not bad for a kid (his real name is Caesaray Sarnella; Starbuck is his mother's catchy maiden name) without any formal acting training. But that also posed a problem: He had to learn his craft.

"Disney really took a chance on him," Lori Starbuck says, "and it paid off."

According to Mike Jacobs Jr, co-executive producer of "The Thirteenth Year," it was the Disney Channel's second-highest rated film ever.

Jacobs says he wasn't aware that Chez was a film industry rookie until after he had cast him in the role.

"He did a great job," he says. "You don't realize how hard it is to get on a set with 80 crew members and a director and (have) the pressure of the studio behind you and you've got to hit your marks ... you've got to get your lines right, and (Chez) was dead on.

"His energy level was the thing that surprised me the most. He always had energy and usually with child actors, they start to get tired or worn down by the (filmmaking) process. But this kid, on Day 23 or 24 (of shooting), he was as fresh as he was on Day One. It was very impressive."

Chez was assigned an acting coach to work with during filming. "She would come over to my house for like an hour and go over lines for that day. I never knew they (shot) the end of a movie first. And that's where all the difficult stuff was, all the yelling and crying and stuff."

Equally intense were four hours he spent in the makeup chair each day of the six-week shoot in Southern California. Attaching liquid latex fins on Chez's arms was no easy task. Neither was walking after his lower half was fitted with a floor-length prosthetic pair of fins.

"They had to carry me around everywhere because I couldn't really walk anywhere because I couldn't ruin the fins," he says.

Still Chez says he wishes he could have approached his acting career a little more slowly.

"I think it would have been better if I had led up into it (by doing) other smaller stuff and then actualy got into a (bigger) role." After landing a starring role right out of the gate, he says, "It psyches you up like, 'Now I can just go out and get a whole other bunch of stuff.' But it's not like that."

Admittedly, Chez had a bit of down time between wrapping up production on "The Thirteenth Year" and starting work on his current project, "Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's First School Dance."

The straight-to-video flick, starring the aforementioned twin sisters (also stars of the defunct ABC sitcom "Two of a Kind"), will hit video store shelves early next year.

In it, Chez plays Rick. "He's like the most popular kid in school," he says. "He's a jock and all the girls want him to be their boyfriend." His date to the junior high school prom will be crowned the queen of the dance.

The 13-year-old sisters are also scheduled to receive their first on-screen kisses in the film. Guess who is the lucky guy who gets to plant one of them?

"They're cool little kids," Chez says of the Olsens. "They're short. They're up to my shoulder in their heels." During a slow-dance scene the girls had to stand on apple boxes "so they wouldn't look so short."

Chez spends a considerable amount of time these days in Los Angeles while filming and going to auditions (he and his mother commute home to Henderson on weekends). He has hung out with the young cast members from Fox's "That '70s Show," spotted actor Clint Eastwood at his agent's office and shared an elevator ride with the perennially-tanned George Hamilton.

"He just said, 'I see it in your face, you're gonna be big. You have a light around you.' He's a really cool guy."

Chez, who hopes one day to land a role in a Western (his favorite movie genre), is slated to begin filming another video flick with the Olsen twins shortly.

In the meantime the former Green Valley High School student maintains his studies by home schooling via the Internet. When he's not in Los Angeles Chez skateboards around Las Vegas with his buddies.

After graduating high school next year he plans to move to Southern California with his older brother, Seneca Sarnella, also an actor who most recently appeared in the video "Desert Rose," a single from rocker Sting's latest disc.

Chez's advice for other aspiring teen stars: "If you want to do it ... don't let anyone stop what you're (striving) for. Keep on going, man, because you will eventually hit it. It's just a matter of time if you're focused enough and you're not sidetracked."

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