Dolphin Tale - Harry Connick Jr
Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

Harry Connick Jr finds himself in the enviable position of being successful in both arenas of music and acting. He has released over twenty albums, totaling more than 25 million in sales, and has received numerous awards, including three Grammy’s.

His first foray into movies was in 1989, when director Rob Reiner asked him to perform a number of standards for his romantic comedy When Sally Met Harry, and he went on to act in Memphis Belle, Little Man Tate, Hope Floats, Independence Day and in the TV version of the musical South Pacific. He made his Broadway debut in 2006 in a revival of The Pajama Game

His new movie, Dolphin Tale, is inspired by a true story of a dolphin named Winter, who plays herself in the film. Harry portrays Dr Clay Haskett, the head of the Clearwater Marine Hospital, in Florida. When a young dolphin is caught in a crab trap, severely damaging her tail, she is rescued by a little boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), and soon transported to Dr Haskett’s facility.

Losing her tale might cost Winter her life, and they have to turn to a brilliant prosthetics doctor, Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), to bring about a miracle.

Dr Haskett is a little stand-offish and into his work? What kind of research did you do for him?

Dolphin Tale - Julianna Harkavy, Nathan Gamble. Austin Highsmith, Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Harry Connick Jr
Rebecca (Julianna Harkavy), Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), Phoebe (Austin Highsmith), Hazel Haskett (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

I went to Massachusetts and I met a couple of doctors and one of them was incredibly forthcoming. He was a marine biologist, and I left his office feeling I knew more than I did when I went in.

Then I went down the hall and this guy’s office was a wreck, he couldn’t be more of a science nerd, and I walked out of his office feeling like I had intruded on his time. I felt guilty for even knocking on his door. And what I learned was that for both of these men, that that was their entire world.

If you go to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and you see these people work with these animals it’s like nothing else exists but these animals that are presented to them, that they have to help. It’s incredible. There is a single-mindedness about it, almost to an anti-social degree.

They are completely focused on what they do. All they do, day to day, is think about how do we keep these animals alive? If it weren’t for them we would be at a great loss. They’re so dedicated to what they do, it’s amazing to me.

Were you worried about being upstaged by Winter?

Dolphin Tale - Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick Jr and Cozi Zuehlsdorff
Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) and Hazel Haskett (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

I’ve never worried about being upstaged, I do it every night onstage with my band. When you surround yourself with unbelievable talent, you assume that there’s going to be upstaging. I’ve never had a problem with it.

Especially with the cast in this movie, it’s really not about me. I just happened to be a part of it because it was such a great story and it was fulfilling for me to do. I enjoyed the character and the trials that he endured as he was going through the process of trying to save this animal.

When you’re up there with Morgan Freeman and, people like that, and a dolphin, you have to take a backseat.

What was it like working in the water?

Well, the good thing about it was we were here [in Tampa, Florida], so it wasn’t uncomfortable. There were a couple of times when the water was a little bit cold but the wardrobe was basically t-shirts, you could roll out of bed and be ready to go.

It wasn’t like other films where the weather really can be a drag. And just to be around that animal [was wonderful]. I’ve done a few things with dolphins, I’ve taken my kids to swim with the dolphins, but this was a whole different way of interacting. We really got to learn a lot. It was an amazing education.

Did you have to have special training for it?

Dolphin Tale - Nathan Gamble. Harry Connick Jr with dolphin Winter
Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble). Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) with dolphin Winter © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

No, I did my own personal research just to try to know as much as I could before I [started], but it was all about getting as much info from the people that worked with Winter.

Were there any mishaps with Winter?

No. It’s a big animal and when you applied the prosthetic to Winter you’re talking about a couple of hundred pounds, a very muscular creature that if you startled her could possibly hurt you with a swipe of the plastic on her tail, but nothing happened. It was the most laid back, cool set I’ve ever been on.

What was it like working with Morgan Freeman?

Like most people, I’m a fan of Morgan’s and I was curious to see what his personality would be like, what his process would be like, and I was really thrilled to find out that he’s a gregarious, incredibly intelligent, funny guy who loves music. We had a lot in common.

We talked a lot about songs and songwriters and he had a massive knowledge of the Great American Songbook, which I was really thrilled to know about.

He taught me how to read on [the TV series] Electric Company. I remember that vividly from my childhood. It was just great to see how he took lines and interpreted them and what he was like in between takes. It’s fascinating for someone like me, who’s very much in a learning process, to be around someone who’s clearly mastered it and made it his own.

I hear you’re going back to Broadway with On a Clear Day You Can See Forever?

Dolphin Tale - Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr
Lorraine Nelson (Ashley Judd) and Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

Yeah. There are all these projects to look at, this one was different. I think it has [only] been revived maybe once or twice since its creation.

I read the script, and they have taken a completely different approach, and Michael Mayer, who is directing it, has some really great ideas.

He’s very bright, and I like the creative team behind it. And the songs are ridiculous.

They’re just great and it’s a great character. It’s a challenging role for me and I love being on Broadway. It was just a matter of finding the right thing.

What do you feel the message of Dolphin Tale is?

I think the basic message is that you should follow your dreams. It’s about sticking to your beliefs at all cost and not compromising. Everybody in the film has a goal, and they stuck to their goal and were able to follow through, and sometimes that’s very hard to do.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.