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'Dolphin Tale' star visits Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Cozi Zuehlsdorff narrates the new documentary about Winter the Dolphin.

Steve Persall | Times

Cozi Zuehlsdorff narrates the new documentary about Winter the Dolphin.

Times Movie Critic

Filming Dolphin Tale 2 doesn't begin until October but Cozi Zuehlsdorff already made another movie with Winter the tailless bottlenose.

Zuehlsdorff, 15, who played Harry Connick Jr.'s daughter in 2011's Dolphin Tale, recently visited Clearwater Marine Aquarium, promoting Winter: The Dolphin That Can, a documentary telling the true story Hollywood hasn't. Zuehlsdorff narrates footage shot during Winter's rescue and prosthetic tail rehabilitation, plus profiles of challenged people inspired by the dolphin's resilience.

She'll be back in a few weeks, rehearsing with Winter and Hope, another rescued dolphin figuring heavily into the sequel's plot. The aquarium closes to the public Oct. 1 for a 3 1/2-month shooting schedule, with Connick, Ashley Judd and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman present when needed and their schedules allow.

Zuehlsdorff's spunky character "Hazel Haslett" has become a face of the aquarium and downtown Clearwater's Dolphin Tale museum, beaming from posters and concession stands. The documentary was a way for Zuehlsdorff to keep in touch with professional and personal milestones.

"It definitely helped with the three years in-between the last time shooting here and Dolphin Tale 2," she said. "You don't feel disconnected. Since (Dolphin Tale) was my first movie, I would've felt heartbroken just leaving and being done with it."

Following up her hit movie debut hasn't been easy for Zuehlsdorff, mostly Disney television guest shots and chorus roles in cartoons. Playing a piano prodigy with a brain tumor on the since-canceled TNT series Monday Mornings is her meatiest role since Dolphin Tale. There's a reason for that.

"I would be working more, if I was very open in the things that I audition for," Zuehlsdorff said. "I am a Christian and I'm very careful.

"I'm interested in inspiring people with my life, and in the way I carry myself. Doing a project that's really inappropriate, that has a really bad rating, that has bad language, that has a lot of sexual content; those are the things that I'm careful to not be involved with, per se."

Zuehlsdorff is more interested in finding more roles like Hazel, and uplifting stories like Winter's.

"(Director) Charles (Martin Smith) created a character with a lot of light and a lot of love, and a lot of acceptance. ... Amen if people love Hazel because she's a really good girl to aspire to be like."

Winter: The Dolphin That Can is currently available at the aquarium's website (seewinter.com) and gift shop. Aquarium CEO David Yates, who produced and wrote the documentary, said television and distribution deals are currently being negotiated. Dolphin Tale 2 is scheduled to arrive in theaters Sept. 19, 2014.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

'Dolphin Tale' star visits Clearwater Marine Aquarium 09/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 5:55pm]

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