If You Knew Suzi: Kenneth Branagh boasts about the talent of his 11-year-old co-star from Cecil
Suzi Hofrichter of Cecil filmed "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" with Kenneth Branagh last year, when she was 10. Of her friend Branagh, Suzi says: "We'd goof around a lot. He's a lot of fun - a real nice guy."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 June 2000
by Lake Fong

Suzi has an invitation to go on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show

It was issued by Rosie herself on June 6. She looked right into the camera and said, for all the world to hear: "Suzi Hofrichter? Hello, honey bunny. Come on my show and promote the movie."

Suzi has a great publicist, you see. His name's Kenneth Branagh, movie star, and he had just told Rosie about Suzi: "She's in Pittsburgh, and she's a sweetheart." He's her biggest fan. He might have broken into a chorus of "four foot two, eyes of blue," except Suzi is actually a couple of inches taller than that.

He talks about Suzi a lot, Kenneth does. (That's what Suzi calls him, and it's catching.) In New York on June 4 for the Tony Awards, Kenneth met a drama critic from Pittsburgh and launched right into praise of this great little actress. But it isn't just Suzi's acting ability Kenneth is excited about; it's also the girl herself and her whole family, too.

Suzi, you see, reformed Kenneth.

Not in real life, of course, but in the movie they made together. It's called "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," and it hasn't been released yet. (Kenneth was on Rosie's show promoting another movie, "Love's Labour's Lost," from his better-known, Shakespearean side.) In his and Suzi's movie, Kenneth plays a grumpy playwright who's hit a dry spell in his career and private life, and Suzi is the personable little girl next door who softens the grouch.

Suzi is 11. She was just 10 when they filmed the movie last October in Vancouver, aka Hollywood North. Then or now, she could soften anyone: She's a bright, cute kid with braces, big blue eyes and a couple of freckles dusted across a creamy complexion. Although self-possessed and articulate beyond her years, she shows no artful airs.

"How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" isn't even her first movie -- in 1996 she played the young Julie Harris in "The Christmas Tree" -- and it sure won't be her last. Right now, she's working on one of the several independent films shooting in Pittsburgh. But there's nothing Hollywood about Suzi or about her family and their home. Surrounded by trees, it lies out where suburbia edges into country. You could call it bucolic heaven, but the town also has a name, Cecil.

The Hofrichter house is quiet as Suzi sits in the living room, undergoing one of the first of what will undoubtedly be many interviews, but it can't be this quiet most of the time. Her mother, Mary, is there to help out, but her father, Bill, is at work, and the other kids are at Grandma's or playing with friends -- Becky, 15, Billy, 13, and Alli, 7. That's four children in less than eight years, which gives you an idea of the committed family life led by Bill and Mary.

They're determined to shield Suzi from any adverse effects of her brush with fame. She's this nice, smart kid with a talent for acting natural and looking great on camera, but that doesn't set her apart from her sisters and brother, and she knows that, too.

"They're really nice about it," she says. Clearly acting is just this thing she does, while the others have their own things, too: "My brother plays piano -- he's very good at it -- and he does art all the time. My big sister plays basketball, and my little sister loves soccer. She's in her first year of full-time school."

Suzi's face lights up easily, and she uses her hands a lot when she talks. "I play piano a little bit. I do an after-school dance program, not competing -- that's too much pressure. And I like basketball."

"She hated soccer," Mary interjects, and Suzi agrees: "It's too much running. Me and my brother made up a game called '10 ball,' and we play that all the time."

You can count her as another Harry Potter fan, too, though she hasn't yet read all the books because friends have borrowed their copies. "I mostly listen to the radio," she says. "I like 'N Sync and Britney Spears. I watch a lot of TV, maybe too much; I'm trying to cut down, but I can't."

Bitten by acting bug

"I always wanted to do it, so I asked my mom how to get into it," Suzi says about the movies.

"It's all timing," Mary says. She's no stage mom, but she's had to learn something about the business to make sense of her daughter's options. When Suzi was 7, they sent her picture to the Docherty Agency in Pittsburgh. One result is that Suzi has done lots of print ads, especially for Kaufmann's.

"I like to do that," she says, "because you get to dress up in clothes you don't usually have around the house."

But they had no idea Suzi had camera-ready talent until the next year, when she did the "Christmas Tree" TV movie. In one of those roundabout, happenstance things that seem inevitable in the movie business, it led to "How to Murder Your Neighbor's Dog." Someone from Docherty just happened to be present when the Los Angeles production company was looking for the little girl from "Christmas Tree."

They've had to learn about auditions, of course. Suzi is thoughtful about them: "You have to sort of believe in yourself. You can't be all sad about [not getting a part]."

"Docherty is good," says Mary. "They know we won't do horror movies, and we won't move."

Yes, the Hofrichters have been advised to move. After "The Christmas Tree," they were told Suzi would have lots of opportunities in Los Angeles. "But we want her to be normal," says Mary.

"It's not like I'm the only kid," says Suzi, reasonably enough.

Even so, movie work does have an impact on the rest of the family. For the filming in Vancouver, Mary went with Suzi, leaving Bill (who works for Williams Communications, maintaining telephone/computer systems, mainly in hospitals) to supervise the other kids and all their sports and activities.

"I gave him a whole notebook," says Mary, "with the schedule and when to pay the bills -- and he just handed it to my mother."

"Grandma actually took care of the kids a lot," agrees Suzi.

Every night, mother and daughter would e-mail home -- Suzi talked while Mary typed. "That was sort of like our diary," Suzi says. She had three hours of schooling each day with a tutor, and they saw some of the sights of Vancouver, where "it rains a lot, but it's so beautiful." And they ordered lots of room service.

"Some days I had a choreographer and a technical adviser." Amy, her character, has a slight cerebral palsy handicap, so she had to learn how to act that.

About movie-making itself, she says, "It's weird. On a set, you become best friends -- it's like my big family." Most of her scenes were with Kenneth. "We were really good friends. He was teaching me English between scenes -- and French. Every day we'd say 'Bonjour' to each other. We'd goof around a lot. He's a lot of fun -- a real nice guy."

Robin Wright Penn was "really nice," too -- she played Kenneth's wife. "Before every scene she'd go, 'Good luck, everyone!' "

A key figure was director/writer Michael Kalesniko, whose wife, Nancy Ruff, is one of the producers. "He swore a lot," Suzi says. "So every time he said a swear word, he had to pay me 25 cents. He stopped swearing, but then he started again. Others were trying to trick him into it -- it was just our joke. But then he got me, because he paid me five dollars in Canadian money."

Suzi has fond memories about others in the cast and crew, but Kenneth Branagh was the main man. "He taught me lots of things about acting ... like how to cry. With him it's easier, because he ad-libs and helps you understand. ... You have to think about sad things and let it flow."

Experience helped. "In 'Christmas Tree,' I had to cry, and I hit my head, and it was a perfect scene." Hit her head on purpose? "No, no! It was my fault. I wasn't being careful, I was flying around, and I hit my head on the floor."

In one scene in "Your Neighbor's Dog," they told Suzi they'd have to be harsh. ("As a mom, I didn't know how she'd react," says Mary, who was always on the set but unobtrusive.) Then, Suzi says, "Kenneth turned around and said, 'Shut up!' He scared me, and I cried, but I kept going. I was crying so hard. Then we had to stop and do it again."

That's the movie business. The fact is that Suzi can do that -- stop and start up again. But there's a downside to this particular screen success. "The bad thing is," she says, only partly joking, "now when I cry at home, [her parents] don't necessarily believe me."

Another difficulty was having to do a stunt. "I had to jump on a guy's head [in a pool]. I was afraid I'd hurt him -- it was so hard to do." ("Our rule is not to jump on anyone," offers Mary.)

She's had lots of contact with Kenneth since the filming. "He's great. He is so talented." She's seen his movie "Henry V," and he sent her two books -- a visual retelling of Shakespeare, "Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays," by Marcia Williams, and a lovely old edition of "Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare."

They've also traded watercolors -- Kenneth's is of his pool house. And he sent a signed picture for Becky's teacher. He hopes to visit Pittsburgh soon, with the Hofrichters and Fallingwater his chief reasons to come.

Movie secrets

Asked what the movie is about, Suzi's face wrinkles cutely and she says, "I'm not allowed to say."

No one wants to ruin a movie before it comes out, of course, but the Variety reviewer who saw it at the Cannes Festival in May describes it this way: "While the story arc of Peter's [Branagh] and Melanie's [Robin Wright Penn] relationship with Amy [Suzi] moves to a touching conclusion, the film's main register is a comic one. Branagh delivers his many one-liners with effortless aplomb, making Peter a smart, sympathetic grouch."

In summary, the review calls it a "small but satisfying pic" and predicted it "should land some minor theatrical dates before proceeding to cable and video." The producers are working to prove him wrong, however, hoping to parlay what director Kalesniko calls an enthusiastic response from an audience of usually hard-bitten distributors at Cannes ("They were cheering at the end," he said by phone from Los Angeles) into a more widespread distribution deal. He expects something to be lined up soon, bringing the movie to Pittsburgh screens this fall.

"Your Neighbor's Dog" is the directing debut for Kalesniko, whose other credits include writing the Howard Stern movie "Private Parts." "It's a small film," he said, "about $7 million, so we didn't have the budget for a national search." He needed a girl with "incredible emotional range, funny but also energetic and able to cry -- and she had to have trouble walking. We auditioned so many kids in Los Angeles and Canada and then [solicited] taped auditions from all over the country."

It was just a couple of weeks before shooting when his wife, Nancy, remembered the little girl with "incredibly expressive eyes" in "The Christmas Tree." Suzi taped an audition, and they flew her out to Vancouver for a final test. In one day, everybody knew she was it.

After joking about the wisdom of making his directorial debut with a film that depends on a child and a dog, Kalesniko says, "I think I got spoiled rotten." He praises Suzi's "natural instincts -- it's a gift," and describes a long, one-take scene of five or six minutes in which Suzi was on camera the whole time, hitting all the right emotional notes. "And my cinematographer just loved her."

Back in Cecil, the Hofrichters haven't yet seen the whole movie.

And therein lies an unusual problem: "It's pretty much adult humor," says Mary. "We don't even know yet if Suzi can see it," because it might be R-rated for its language. So her friends may not be able to see it, either.

They had the same problem when Julie Harris was here for "The Gin Game." Although Suzi has had an ongoing relationship with Harris since "The Christmas Tree," with cards back and forth, they didn't go see the stage play because of its raw language. Instead, "we had tea with her at her hotel."

Suzi has been to see some professional plays, but not many -- "Annie" at Heinz Hall and, on Broadway, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," which starred Jessica Hecht, a friend from "The Christmas Tree." Nor has she gotten involved in Pittsburgh theater, except at school.

In last year's fifth-grade play, she says, "I was Mother Nature." The play was "Live from the Land of Make Believe," a news show with interviews with Mother Goose, Jack (of the beanstalk) and such. "I was like the hip 2000 Mother Nature with capris on and a ring of flowers in my hair."

In other words, Suzi is not stage-struck.

"I like to do this, but if I didn't, there's lots of other things," she says. "We just take it day by day. ... When I was little, I wanted to work at the zoo. I don't any more, but I would definitely like to work with animals."

The money she's earned "will all go toward college, because we're going to need a lot there," says the practical Suzi. Mary points out that by rule, 25 percent of her movie fees go into a block trust that she'll receive later.

Suzi's relaxed about money herself. At one point, she admits, "I don't do a lot of chores, so I don't really deserve a lot of allowance."

But since movies will continue to be made and Suzi will be in demand, Mary is practical, too: "I guess I have to learn to read scripts."

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