Harry Connick Jr.'s voice could melt butter on cold grits, a baritone tinged with Southern courtliness and a touch of rascal. Rhett Butler with a jazzy beat.
On stage before his big band, Connick is as suave as they come, nattily attired and effortlessly crooning to swooning fans. On this humid day in a church auditorium, the Man Who Would Be Sinatra looks like any other tourist in Clearwater: beachy T-shirt, shorts and a ball cap saluting his beloved New Orleans Saints.
But that voice, even when only chatting during a lunch break in filming Dolphin Tale, is unmistakable.
Connick is wrapping up his 18th starring role in a feature film, and as usual he's playing a good guy. Clay Haskett is the fictional director of the very real Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where a severely injured yet rehabilitated dolphin named Winter still lives and inspires humans with disabilities.
Dolphin Tale, slated for a fall 2011 release in 3-D, is Winter's reality tweaked with Hollywood fantasy. Connick portrays a father, and the role involves two elements that actors have been warned about sharing a screen with since W.C. Fields: children and animals.
Mention that and Connick's musical instincts kick in.
"The thing about being a jazz musician at heart is that being upstaged is part of the game," he says, picking at a piece of lemon cake. "You go on stage with people who are better than you all the time. My ego has never been affected by that. Let 'em have it."
With three daughters, Connick has the chops to play a dad. He's also a bit of a Pied Piper on the set. Sitting the previous day with preteen co-stars Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, he was quickly surrounded by curious child extras.
"I just dig kids, man," Connick says. "I'm the guy at the big party sitting in a chair and all the kids are standing around me. I've always been that guy. I don't know why. I just don't feel a need to get away from kids."
Working with a dolphin is a new game. One reason Connick took the role is that after reading the script he couldn't believe Winter existed. "It's one of those things where it kind of blind-sides you," Connick says. "I was kind of blown away by that."
Meeting Winter when filming began in September opened Connick's blue eyes even wider. The dolphin had been prepared to play herself (with assists from CGI and animatronics) with an assortment of reactions to hand signals.
"How do you train a dolphin how to close her eyes, then sink to the bottom and blow bubbles?" Connick wonders. "They trained her (in) these sequences of behavior. It's kind of crazy, in a way."
Connick sips his tea and continues:
"You ever think about what aliens look like? It seems like the intelligence she has is not even on the same plane as ours. It's a different type of intelligence."
Cute kids, cute animal. It's enough to raise a red flag for a realist like Connick.
"There's a lot of opportunities to milk this stuff, man, I mean a lot, and to go real bubble gum with it. And to be patronizing, quite frankly. (Director/co-writer Charles Martin Smith is) very sensitive about that. There are a lot of opportunities in the dialogue to get super cornball, but he won't go there," the actor says.
"I'm not a big fan of those saccharine kind of inspirational (movies). I'm not a fan of something that would play on that intentionally. But (the story is) the way it is."
While filming Dolphin Tale, Connick spends most weekends at home in Connecticut with his family, except for one involving two concerts scheduled before he was cast. Most actors remain close to a production, building rapport with co-workers and staying in character. Most actors don't possess Connick's perspective, more musical than Method.
"The way musicians think, especially jazz musicians, and the way actors think is really different," Connick says. "It's funny because what we're doing is not that different in a sense; you take material and you interpret it. It's art and it's creative and it's spontaneous.
"But a jazz musician doesn't go on stage thinking: 'How am I going to play this solo, or do this or do that?' All the preparation has been done and then you just go out and play.
"This movie is not that hard because the guy I'm playing — although he's completely different in many ways — I'm not playing an 18th century suitor in England trying to woo some queen or something, you know? It's a pretty normal guy, pretty much like me."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.