TAMPA ― In July, seeking more acting opportunities, Tamara Austin relocated from Tampa to Atlanta, which has become a second Hollywood in recent years.
A few weeks later, Austin’s agent called with news of her first big role since the move.
It was back in the Tampa Bay area.
“My agent asked if I was ready to come back to Florida,” said Austin, a 2012 graduate of the University of Tampa. “I said, ‘For what, jury duty?’ I was told that I booked ‘Spider & Jessie’ and got so excited.”
“Spider & Jessie,” filmed primarily in Plant City for 22 days spanning August and September, might have the most star-studded cast and be the most prestigious movie made in the area since “Cocoon” was produced in St. Petersburg in 1984.
“This movie has the right pedigree with the cast and crew and story and timeliness to be an awards contender,” said Joe Restaino, whose Hungry Bull Productions helmed the movie along with Jeff Hoffman from Above the Clouds Productions.
The cast includes Mckenna Grace of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” Dacre Montgomery of “Stranger Things,” Jesse Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jojo Regina of “Where the Crawdads Sing” and Forrest Goodluck of “The Revenant.”
Restaino, a Tampa resident who also recently produced Nicolas Cage’s “Pig,” which some critics believe was snubbed by the Academy Awards last year, said he is sent “hundreds of scripts a year. But as soon as I read this one, I knew it could have an impact.”
The film follows Spider, played by Grace, and her little sister Jessie, played by Regina, who hide their mother’s body after she dies of an opioid overdose. They carry on as though she is alive.
“They don’t want to be separated because they know how thin the foster care system is spread,” producer Dan Sima said. “We really see through these girls’ eyes the collateral damage of the opioid crisis. It’s a tough story, but it’s ultimately filled with a ton of hope and humanity.”
Fernanda Andrade, who portrays the mother of Spider’s best friend and currently stars in the series “Let the Right One In,” said she hopes the movie “opens our eyes to the opioid crisis in a real way. There are so many children that are now in foster care because their parents have either passed away from opioids or have been affected so badly from opioids. This movie is incredibly important because it shows that perspective.”
The production also shows how far the Tampa Bay area’s film industry has come.
Grace was supposed to be in the area in 2015 to star alongside Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer in “Gifted.”
That story was written for St. Petersburg, but production switched to Tybee Island off the coast of Savannah to take advantage of Georgia’s robust state tax incentive program that offers films up to 30 percent back on expenditures without a cap.
Florida does not have a state program.
But the area has become a hub for independent film and made-for-television movies by offering their own incentives. Hillsborough County’s annual incentive budget is $500,000, and Pinellas County’s is $1 million.
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Austin has been a beneficiary of those incentives. She was cast in the Hallmark Channel’s “True Love Blooms” romance shot in Pinellas and Justin Long’s “Lady of the Manor” comedy that was made in Hillsborough.
Still, she wanted to spread her acting wings and star in a drama with social commentary.
“This is what I’ve always strived to do,” said Austin, who portrays a social worker in “Spider & Jessie.” “Reading the script’s impactful material gave me chills.”
The movie was written for the Appalachian region. Writer-director Dan Kay toured that area for two weeks for research, Sima said, talking to children orphaned by the opioid crisis and their social workers.
“For the audience to believe that these kids could even pull this off for a time, it had to take place somewhere remote but not too remote,” Sima said. “There had to be some civilization nearby but not homes stacked against homes.”
They considered Kentucky, Sima said, but Plant City was suggested by Restaino, who also helped to bring “Lady of the Manor” and “Fear of Rain” starring Katherine Heigl to the area.
“Joe brought us here and showed us Plant City and some of the outskirts of the county,” Sima said. “We were blown away by the Spanish moss and how beautiful it is. We just knew that this story could be told there.”
The area’s diverse locations shocked Malia Baker, the 15-year-old Canadian actor who portrays Spider’s best friend.
“I had never been to Tampa Bay so it was really fun to explore,” said Baker, who has also starred in the series ”Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “The Babysitters Club.” “It was dreamy. The beaches were like those postcards you send to friends to make them a tinge jealous. And then Plant City in particular gave us a real sense of variety.”
Austin hopes a film of this scale opens Hollywood’s eyes to what this area has to offer.
“It has so much potential,” she said. “There have been some amazing projects that have come through, but it can still be so much more.”
Hillsborough County’s film commissioner Tyler Martinolich has high hopes for “Spider & Jessie.”
“I think this film could be Tampa’s ‘Florida Project’ or ‘Moonlight,” two Florida-made movies that won Academy Awards, he said. “In the 10 years I’ve been at this job I have never had a better script come across my desk. It has the potential to be the most critically well-received film to come out of Tampa Bay since ‘Cocoon.’”