It was like most movie premieres, with a red carpet, celebrities sliding out of limos and the press waiting eagerly to drown the stars with questions and blinding camera flashes. Only this wasn’t Hollywood but rather Denver, Colorado, and the first big name to walk the carpet was Kauai’s own Bethany Hamilton, in town to promote Soul Surfer, the inspirational drama based on her life. Hamilton—as anyone who’s ever paddled out knows—overcame a shark attack and learned how to surf with one arm, becoming perhaps the greatest comeback story in the history of the sport. The tale was begging to be a major motion picture and now it is, starring Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Hamilton in one of the year’s breakout dramatic performances. Robb is a Denver native, which explains why the event took place on a chilly night in Colorado rather than a balmy Hawaii evening.
A tall, striking figure, Hamilton was all smiles at the event and accessible to her many fans. Following the film, Hamilton participated in a question and answer session along with the film’s director, Sean McNamera, and Robb, who learned to surf under Hamilton’s guidance.
Hamilton—who has an easygoing demeanor that belies her insanely busy schedule—spoke with me the following day about the film and the causes she’s passionate about. Our talk also covers issues ranging from faith to Spam Musubi to her favorite surf movie.
Now that you’ve seen the finished product, how do you feel about the film?
I’m really happy with how it turned out. It was kind of scary to have, like, Hollywood and our true story combining, [but] it turned out really good.
You handpicked AnnaSophia Robb to play you in the movie and have said it was her role in Bridge to Terabithia that drew you to her initially. What was it about that performance that made you think, ‘she’s the one’?
Well, she’s just a naturally talented actress and she has a really spunky attitude. She’s kind of a fun girl and has the blonde hair thing going on—she was just the right girl.
Was there ever a point where the film was being written or shot when you thought, ‘I never said that’ or ‘that’s not how that happened’?
There was definitely some awkward [dialogue] in the script and throughout the filming. It was great, though, because the director allowed my family and me to give feedback and input to make it more true to who we are.
You’ve got competitions coming up in Australia, France, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Oahu and California. How do you juggle all that and promoting the film?
Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m trying to jockey two lives right now, with pro surfing and having this movie come out. It’s been hard to deal with not surfing, being in different places, but I’m just going to take the year as it comes and see how it goes. I spend a lot of time doing training and, of course, surfing and also working on my spine and trying to keep my body in proper posture. [The travel] is exciting. I really enjoy that part of my job. I’m excited to go to Australia in a week or two to compete in my first event of the year.
I know you support the children’s charity World Vision and a non-profit organization called Friends of Bethany. Talk about that.
Well, that was one of my favorite scenes in the movie, going to Thailand. I got to go to Thailand with World Vision and it was a special trip. I really like what they’re doing and I think it’s a great opportunity to encourage people to support those around the world who need love and food. The trip I went on, for example, was just helping them overcome their fear of the ocean. The non-profit organization is what my family and I started recently; we’re still figuring it out but we’d like to reach out to amputees and shark attack victims in various ways. It’s been a blessing to be able to get that going.
AnnaSophia said she ate ‘cleaner foods’ while you were training her for the film. Which makes me wonder, as an island girl [in his best Pidgin] you like Spam musubi?
[Laughs] I used to grind so much Spam musubi when I was little. Nowadays, I don’t really eat white rice or pig, so it’s not a part of my diet anymore. I love seaweed and poke and I eat lots of vegetables and organic foods.
What are your favorite surfing movies?
My favorite is probably North Shore.
John Philibin, who played Turtle in that, was also in Soul Surfer.
He’s my favorite in North Shore, so it was cool to have him come be a part of [our film]. He’s friends with Helen Hunt, so that’s how he got hooked up.
Do you come to Maui much, to visit or surf?
I really enjoy coming to Maui, there’s some really good surf over there. It’s very beautiful and similar to Kauai. I have friends over there; I just like to roam around.
You spoke last night about the importance of your faith. Is there anything you’d like to say to young Christians—or teens in general—who may be going through hard times?
If you’re struggling, trust in God with everything you’re doing and [don’t] live like the world is telling you to live. Especially for young girls: body image is such a huge issue. Live a healthy lifestyle and love yourself. Most importantly, focus on your inner beauty.
What would you say to someone who wants to learn how to surf but is intimidated by the waves and the dangers of the ocean?
If you want to try surfing, just get out there when it’s smaller. The more time you spend out there, the more comfortable you’ll be. Also, having someone who knows what they’re doing to help instruct you and having good swimming abilities can really help you a lot.
This next question is from an 8-year old girl named Haunani who’s from Upcountry Maui: Did surfing feel the same for you after your hospital and recovery time?
It’s definitely different, figuring it out with one arm. It’s a totally different approach to riding waves, just figuring out where to place myself in the line-up and catching enough speed to catch the waves.
What’s your favorite place to surf on the planet?
Besides Hawaii, I like Indonesia. But Hawaii’s definitely my favorite.
I won’t ask you which island is your favorite, because I don’t want to cause any rifts.
Hey, I was on Maui the other day and my friend took me hiking in Iao Valley and that was incredible. That might be my favorite spot over there.