‘Little Tin Man’ mirrors Cobb actor’s journey to success

About two seconds into our lunch interview at a Marietta Square restaurant, it was clear what Aaron Beelner must go through on any given day.

A little girl, maybe 3, about came out of her shoes gawking and pointing at the actor, who stands just over 4 feet tall. The child’s mother sprang into action and delivered an emergency lesson on manners through clenched teeth. Other diners stole furtive glances.

I mustered exactly zero courage and pretended not to notice. Beelner just shrugged.

“Kids are kids,” he said. “Kids sometimes come up and say, ‘Can you tell Santa something? I’ll play along.’”

Teenagers and adults who should know better are a different story. He’d be happy to never hear the “m-word” again (midget is derived from the word midge, a type of fly). And why do some people think it’s OK to pat the master’s-degree graduate of the University of Georgia and father of two on the head?

“People coming up and touching you, it’s like the burglary of your personal space,” he said. “It’s frightening how dense we can be.”

An Iowa native now living in Cobb County, Beelner stars in the brilliant independent feature “The Little Tin Man.” It has been received well on the film-festival circuit, earning awards at the Napa Valley Film Festival and Naples International Film Festival. It’s available now on Vutopia, the Time Warner Cable streaming site, and will be available starting Oct. 3 on iTunes.

The film stars Beelner as Herman Mitchell, a New York restaurant employee yearning for both an acting career beyond elf or munchkin roles and the gorgeous co-worker who sees him as just a friend. It stemmed from a class project while he and producing writers Matthew Perkins and Dugan Bridges were all at UGA.

“We took a class together and made a couple of short films,” said Perkins, an Athens native now living in New York. “(Beelner) had a one-man show talking about the humorous side of being a little person. It sounded like he had been continually typecast. It was an interesting metaphor. Every actor’s felt rejection at some point, but in Aaron’s case, he can’t turn that off when he walks out of the audition.”

Perkins and Bridges cast Beelner in a 2011 short film called “Life in Short,” which was expanded into “The Little Tin Man” following a spirited fundraising campaign.

“Early on we took a meeting with some Atlanta investors who offered $2 million in financing, but there was a catch,” Perkins said. The investors did not want Beelner in the lead role; Perkins and Bridges said thanks but no thanks. Another potential backer offered financing if they were able to line up some A-list Hollywood talent, but that didn’t pan out, either.

A Kickstarter drive raised about $100,000, barely enough for an 18-day shoot in New York with every conceivable corner cut. For example, one scene features a hilariously irreverent outdoor “luau-style” funeral. A coffin rental wasn’t in the budget. A lawn chair for the dearly departed was.

“At 10 p.m. on Day 2, the assistant director and production manager quit,” Perkins said. “I spent the next four days assuming their roles and holding the wheels on until we were able to find someone. The urgency that you feel is real. The clock Herman is facing in the movie is the one we’re facing in real life.”

The movie, with Jeff Hiller, Kay Cannon, Emmanuel Maldonado and Chris Henry Coffey, is both funny and touching. About halfway through, the audience forgets Herman is a little person. He’s just a person, looking for love and happiness like anyone else. The title reflects Herman’s goal to land the Tin Man role in a fictitious Martin Scorsese remake of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“You could be the Tin Man,” Cannon’s character, Miller, says to encourage Herman. “He’s just a dude looking for a heart. That’s perfect for you.”

Beelner said he relates to Herman’s drive and desire.

“I didn’t want it to be preachy,” he said. “It’s a comedy that is also informative and educational. People have asked me, ‘If you could change and not be a little person, would you?’ No way in hell. All the things I’ve learned from being who I am make me who I am. I’ve never been afraid to fall flat on my face. I know I’m going to pick me up.”