Dear John (In theaters Feb 5, 2010) follows the relationship between Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) and soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) as they communicate via love letters over the course of a war-filled decade. Some of Amanda Seyfield’s scenes also involve a young autistic character, Alan, played by 6 year old Braeden Reed.
“To work with Braeden in “Dear John” was completely wonderful,” said Director Lasse Hallstrom. “He brought charm and intelligence and spontaneity to the part he played. He was fearless and lacked that inhibition that many other kids have in front of the camera. It was therefore a delight to get to know Braeden and I look forward to the opportunity to show his charm and inventive intelligence to an audience!”
Phil Blevins, Executive Director of Carolina Autism, a Charleston-based non-profit agency that serves people with autism, consulted with the “Dear John” filmmakers on matters relating to autism spectrum disorders, and responded enthusiastically to Hallstrom’s proposal that a child with autism audition for the role. Blevins introduced the filmmakers to a number of boys, including Braeden Reed. While dozens of typically developing boys also auditioned, in the end Braeden, a child with autism, won the role.
Livestock coordinator Dan Hydrick (who provided the animals for the production) was required to teach Reed to actually ride a horse. “Autism has to do with concentration, and if you’ve done any riding a horse, you know that you need to pay attention to what you’re doing,” Hydrick told the Los Angeles Times. “Braeden was exceptional. I just know that he made my job fairly easy.”
Teaching an autistic child to ride a horse was an experience to remember for Hydrick which required significant research. He had to find the right horse for the job visiting half-a-dozen different stables. he finally called on his mentor Marion Reid, of Stono River Stable. Marion was then suffering from Alzheimer’s so his wife, Annie Caroline, showed Hydrick the different horses.
According to Hydrick: “I looked at a horse named Honey. Honey was a smaller horse, just a quarter-horse, a regular riding stable plug. Old racetrack horses, they’re called plugs. They’re just quiet school horses because they give riding lessons. And that’s what I’m looking for — settled, just real calm. Then when we had Braeden come out, we showed him all the different horses, but he liked Honey. And within 10 minutes, I knew it was going to work.”
In terms of teaching Reed to ride, “Braeden set the pace,” Hydrick said. “We had just the three of us — me, Annie Caroline and Braeden — and Annie Caroline is incredible. The way she got him to wear the helmet is she wore a helmet walking next to him. She would ask, ‘Would you like to ride? Would you like to get on Honey’s back?’ We started off walking with the horse, progressed to me leading the horse with him on it, progressed to him holding the reins. We let Braeden take it to the next step. ‘Braeden, would you like to ride with Dan not having his hand on your shoulder?’ ‘Braeden, would you like to ride by yourself?’ Those questions were always asked of him to make him comfortable. Gutsy little kid, I’ll tell you.”
According to IMDB, this was Braeden’s first feature film.