Byline: WALT BELCHER
By WALT BELCHER
TAMPA -- Getting attacked by bats was a snap compared with being dead, says a young actor from the Tampa Bay area who makes his TV debut tonight in the CBS movie "Vampire Bats," starring Lucy Lawless.
Arnie Pantoja, 20, who plays a college student and victim of a mutant bat attack, said he spent hours in makeup and had an intense scene in which he pretended to fight off bats in a Louisiana swamp.
"But the hardest thing was to stay perfectly still while playing a corpse in the morgue," he said. "If you move a muscle or take a breath, it ruins the whole scene."
Pantoja is one of four actors from the Tampa area who have significant roles in the movie, which was filmed in New Orleans and Nova Scotia.
Pantoja; Andrew Matthews, 21; Brandon Rodriguez, 20; and Bobby Campo (billed as Bobby Camposecco in the film), 22, are close friends and fellow students in an acting class at Independent Castings, a casting agency and acting school in Tampa.
In the film, Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess") plays their biology professor. She reprises her role as Maddy Rierdon, a sexy scientist who battled mutant grasshoppers in CBS' "Locusts" last spring.
In the sequel, set a few years after the locust attacks, Maddy has moved to Louisiana with her husband (Dylan Neal) and their two daughters.
Brett Butler plays Lawless' sister-in-law, and Timothy Bottoms is mayor of the town invaded by bats. Craig Ferguson, of CBS' "The Late Late Show," has a small role as a fisherman.
The four lads from the Tampa Bay area say the movie was a great adventure.
Not only did they get to hang out in New Orleans with "Xena" while earning their Screen Actors Guild union cards, but they also faced the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, evacuating at the last minute.
"It was kind of crazy with the hurricane coming," Pantoja said. "We all piled into a little BMW and headed for Texas." Other cast members ended up in Baton Rouge.
"The whole experience was amazing, and we got paid," said Rodriguez, a graduate of East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs who left Florida State University after one year to pursue an acting career.
These four friends got the roles through their agents with help from Independent Castings owner Kathy Laughlin, an acting coach and casting director. Laughlin said each of them is talented enough to succeed. All plan to relocate to Los Angeles soon.
"They all drove up to New Orleans together for the audition on a wing and prayer, and they were so broke that they all stayed in one hotel room and were horribly uncomfortable," said Lawless, who predicts that they have a future in films and television.
"The director [Eric Bross] loved them and cast them because they had such an obvious camaraderie, which was a great fit for this film," she said in a recent telephone interview.
Rodriguez and Pantoja were classmates at East Lake. Campo is a graduate of Seminole High School. Matthews grew up in Orlando and only recently moved to Tampa to take Laughlin's courses.
"This bat movie is the biggest thing that we've done so far," Campo said.
Campo said the four worked together on "99," a low-budget independent film shot in Tampa. "It was about a guy whose goal was to have sex with 100 women," Pantoja said.
Friendship Translates To Screen
Rodriguez said they jumped at the chance to work with Lawless on a film that will be watched by millions.
"She was really cool, and we learned a lot," Pantoja said.
In the film, Pantoja's character gets killed early. Campo's character meets his fate much later. "I end up face down in a pool," he said.
The characters played by Matthews and Rodriguez survive.
"Those four brought a youthful enthusiasm that inspired all of us," Lawless said. "They were grateful for the opportunity, and even though we were working in sweltering heat and mopping our brows, they came in all bright-eyed and gave us all a lift."
She said the film is a throwback to escapist 1950s horror flicks.
It has computer-generated killer bats; screaming, bloody victims; and coeds in skimpy outfits.
"It's just fun," she said. "The film is perfect for Halloween."
Lawless, 37, said her family (husband Rob Tapert and three children) had been with her at a rented New Orleans home, but they left early in the production.
She said she bonded with the younger actors and even went out and shot pool with them. "They were kind to take an old lady out," she said.
Pantoja said they had a lot of fun on the set.
"Eric, our director, likes to play pranks, and when we were going to do the morgue scene, he got me good," Pantoja said.
The scene was filmed in a real morgue. It was supposed to be empty, but when the director pulled out the drawer where Pantoja was to play a corpse, there was a body wrapped in a sheet.
"Eric was acting like he was mad, and suddenly the body jumped up. It was Brandon!" Pantoja said.
Lawless said these cut-ups went too far at one point and she had to scold them when they were goofing off during one of her scenes.
She cut them down by saying she might as well be acting with "two tennis balls and a stick."
"I felt it was important for me to get their attention and rap their knuckles, because I really liked them and didn't want them to get away with shoddy behavior," she said.
Escape From New Orleans
All the fun in New Orleans came to an end when, with one week of filming left, Hurricane Katrina was coming up the Gulf.
"I was going to ride it out," Lawless said. "It seemed very adventurous ... besides, a lot of people depend on you for their living. You can't just leave."
But the producer decided to call it quits on the Sunday before Katrina hit. Unable to get a flight out, most of the cast and crew piled onto a bus headed for Baton Rouge.
"We left in controlled panic, with thousands of people on the road," Lawless said. "I saw thousands of people just walking the streets with no options. They couldn't leave, and all I could say was, 'Please, God, let them be all right.' "
Lawless ended up at a bed and breakfast in Baton Rouge. "That family took in 40 people, and they didn't know who we were," she said. "The people of the South are amazing and so generous."
The entire cast and crew eventually resumed work in Nova Scotia, where the production company was just finishing another CBS film, "The Hunt for the BTK Killer."
Lawless said she was "bummed out" for a month after Katrina.
"A lot of places that I dearly loved in New Orleans were destroyed," she said.
She said that, for a while, she felt that making a fluffy bit of entertainment wasn't important.
"But then I came to a place of peace with myself and decided that giving some people entertainment is enough," she said.
(CHART) TV PREVIEW
WHAT: A horror movie starring Lucy Lawless with four actors from a Tampa acting class
WHEN: 9 tonight