By Bethany Bray
Growing up in Andover, Kunal Sharma knew he wanted to be an actor.
"I wanted nothing else but to be in films," said Sharma, 22. "I had made up my mind when I was a kid that I wanted to be an actor, no matter what."
It is safe to say that dream is coming true, as the Andover native has been seen on TV and in movies, most recently in the independent film "The Kids Are All Alright," which created buzz at the Sundance Film Festival. It stars Julianne Moore, Annette Benning and Mark Ruffalo.
"I feel like everyone has a purpose - do what you're passionate about, do what moves you. Acting is the one thing that I'm so passionate about. I do it all the time, I live it and breathe it and eat it. Taking it away is taking my life away," said Sharma. "I can't think of a single thing that I would be doing (otherwise). Being on a movie set, as stressful it can be, taking a character and breaking it down is so much fun."
At 17, Sharma was recruited by a talent scout and moved to California. Within six months, he landed his first job on "Phil of the Future," a television show on the Disney Channel. In his first major leading role, Kunal played a prince in the Disney Channel movie "The Cheetah Girls: One World," which was filmed in India.
He has also acted on "The Office," "Castle," "Commander in Chief," "Veronica Mars," "Crossing Jordan" and "Hannah Montana."
"I was growing up and leading a very normal life, shooting hoops like any other kid in his driveway ... going to high school, spending all my evenings with my family," said Sharma. "I came out here, and I was like a baby crawling, had no idea of what to do. I had to go from crawling to walking to running."
Sharma credits his parents, Naresh and Uma, who still live in Andover, for allowing him to leave Andover High School as a junior. He finished schooling in California to follow his dream.
"Making that kind of decision was one of the most difficult things in the world. They took a very courageous step, and just the fact that they believed so much in me, it was the greatest gift they could ever give me," he said.
At first, Kunal moved to California with his mother, splitting the very close Sharma family, leaving his father and older sister behind. After one year, Una moved back to Massachusetts but would fly to the West Coast often to check on her son.
Now living on his own, and after five more years in the business, Sharma said he's learned the best actors don't think about how a role can help their career, but focus on their character.
"I try not to think too much about (fame). When I started out, that's all I could think about - everything I went into was huge. I had to tell myself, 'OK, this is just another role, one gig at a time,'" said Sharma. "It's so easy to let those extra things fill up your head, and that can keep you from giving a great audition."
If he can help it, Sharma says he never watches himself on a finished movie or TV show.
"I am incapable of watching any of my work. Part of acting is that you have to be yourself. I don't want to hide any flaws, or be polished or perfect," he said.
Family life is the one thing Sharma says he misses the most, living away from Andover. Back in Andover, his father can't get enough of seeing him on the Cheetah Girls, he added, chuckling.
Next on the list is cold weather and snow.
"I recently did a movie in Michigan ("MOOZ-lum," with Danny Glover). It was freezing, but I loved every second of it," he said.
Sharma has a coming-of-age role in "The Kids Are All Alright," playing Jai, an awkward teenager.
"He's a normal teenager that happens to have feelings for his best friend. He has something in common with her, he is comfortable around her," said Sharma. "When I first read the script, I thought, how cute - these two kids have no clue of how to take their friendship and make it more than what it is."
Besides Moore, Benning and Ruffalo, the film has, as Sharma's character's love interest, Mia Wasilowski, an up-and-coming actress who stars as Alice in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," which opens this spring.
"They're really cool people, very normal," said Sharma of his A-list costars. "I have an immense amount of respect for each and every one of them."
The film's director, Lisa Cholodenko changed Sharma's character in the middle of the project, altering Jai from a mature, adjusted guy to an awkward character new to romance.
Everything about the character he'd studied, even the costuming, changed, said Sharma.
"He went from being the aggressor to playing defense," said Sharma of Jai.
"The Kids Are All Alright" is tentatively set for release nationwide in July.
Advice from Kunal Sharma, Andover native and actor, on making it in Hollywood:
"Think big, think ahead and think fast," he said. "As hard as it is, try to pursue success but pursue excellence. Try to be the best you can be.
"Don't be preoccupied in what Hollywood can offer. The main thing is excelling in your craft."