Atlanta actress Laura Lundy Wheale, who appears in "Sully," in theaters today and "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" later this fall, is something of a Renaissance woman. After Jacksonville State University, where she attended on a tennis scholarship, she graduated from Cumberland School of Law and now practices at Childers, Schlueter & Smith. For fun, she likes to rock-climb without ropes or harnesses, a sport known as "bouldering."
And she has one key talent almost no one in Hollywood has.
She has a real, honest-to-goodness Southern accent.
"Initially when movies were casting they weren’t casting much (local talent)," said Wheale, whose credits also include the indie "A Larger Life" with the late Fred Thompson. "Now it’s supporting roles. You’re going up against LA actors."
The Birmingham native who grew up in Cedartown often gets asked if her accent is genuine after a friendly greeting like "Where are y’all from?"
"Sully, " directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Tom Hanks as pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who landed a plane on the Hudson River after the aircraft experienced duress shortly after takeoff. The movie was set largely in New York, but filmed mostly in Atlanta.
"They turned downtown Atlanta into New York City, " Wheale said.
In her scene, which filmed at the Healey Building, she plays one of the reporters firing questions at the pilot shortly after the incredible water landing.
"Tom Hanks was super nice, " Wheale said. "He came over and introduced himself."
Their scene filmed late at night, but instead of retreating into his trailer in between takes, the Oscar-winning Hanks joked around with the cast and crew, "which kind of kept the energy up, " Wheale said.
In "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, " directed by Ang Lee, she plays Patty Lynn, a sister of the central character, played by Joe Alwyn. "Twilight" series star Kristen Stewart plays sister Kathryn Lynn. A key scene, filmed at a home in Locust Grove, explores the tense family dynamics after Billy comes home from war.
"We're at the dinner table, and (the scene) culminates with Kristin's character and my character kind of fighting, and it sets (Alwyn's character) over the edge, " she said. Lee kept having Wheale repeat her line over and over, to the point that she was flustered and frazzled. At first, she feared she wasn't giving the director the performance he wanted.
Later, she learned she'd given him exactly what he was after.
"After we finished it and he got what he wanted, he came in and gave me a hug and said, 'Great job.' I was like, Oh, I see what he was doing. He was doing that on purpose, " she said. "When you see the movie and see me getting all red and stuff, that was really happening."
That movie is due out Nov. 11.
Her very first acting experience, after taking classes at the Alliance Theatre as a child, was in community theater in Rome. She hopes to continue learning and growing as an actress, and was off to an audition shortly after we met for an interview this week.
"You've got to be prepared for anything and everything, " whether in front of a judge and jury or in front of a camera, she said, drawing parallels between her two professional passions. "You have to perform under pressure in both scenarios."
She remains grateful for the opportunities to pursue her craft.
"I'm really getting spoiled with the directors I'm getting to work with, " she said. "I can't imagine ever getting used to seeing your face 40 feet across (a movie screen). It's cool that I get to do what I love to do."