Scott Caan — Entertainer Makes Waves for Autism

Circa 2009

Though he shares the rugged good looks of his father James, actor Scott Caan has steadily made his own way in Hollywood, with roles in films like Ocean’s Eleven, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and in HBO’s hit series Entourage. He’s also proven himself as a writer-director, with credits including “Dallas 362”, “The Dog Problem”, and the soon-to-be-released “Mercy”. But few of Caan’s fans are aware of his volunteer work with Surfers Healing, an organization which introduces autistic children to the joy of catching a wave.

Joined by Caan’s surfer buddy, Keith Kendall, ABILITY Magazine met with the artist at his Hollywood Hills home to discuss his work outside the limelight, and how helping others learn to surf has had a lasting impact on Caan’s life.

Chet Cooper: When did you guys start volunteering with Surfers Healing?

Scott Caan: About four years ago. Surfers Healing was doing an event in Malibu, inviting a bunch of families with autistic children to come and surf. These are kids who aren’t really big enough to surf by themselves, but instructors put them on the front of the boards and paddle out and stand them up in the waves.

When Keith and I had discovered Surfers Healing, they had 120 kids and maybe six, seven instructors. Since the waves weren’t really that big that day, the instructors asked a couple of the local surfers at Malibu to take some of these kids out. So Keith and I volunteered, and we’ve been doing it every year since then.

And now our friend, Jimmy Gamboa, has started another organization called TheraSURF where we’re taking kids with disabilities out surfing. The whole thing is getting bigger. I have a couple of kids I take out.

Cooper: When you say “take out,” you mean… kill?

Caan: (laughs) yeah, kill them.

Liz Angeles: I know that Life Rolls On has a similar arrangement, taking out people with disabilities. How is that different from what you’re doing with Surfers Healing and TheraSURF?

Caan: Well, I’ve only been involved with Life Rolls On for about a year. I met [Life Rolls On founder] Jesse Billauer a couple of years ago. With the autistic kids, we actually pick them up and stand them up on the boards. We don’t push them into waves and let them go like we would with someone like Jesse, who is paralyzed, but very capable in the waves. When Jesse surfs, of course we have people stacked up along the beach to rescue him in case he falls off or rolls over, but with autistic kids, we’re sort of just giving them the sensation of riding.

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A lot of autistic kids don’t like to be touched. A lot of autistic kids are initially timid about getting into the ocean, so we kind of have to grab ‘em, yank ‘em, hold ‘em down on the board, paddle ‘em out, and force ‘em to do it. But I would say six times out of 10 times, kids who were kicking and screaming not to get into the water are pleading to surf once we take them back to shore. They’re like, “One more. One more. One more.”

Cooper: And then you start kicking and screaming, “I want to go home!”

Caan: (laughs) I’m like, “I’m tired. I can’t paddle any more!”

Cooper: They have to grab you and throw you on the board?

Caan: (laughs) Yeah. But it’s really amazing. I mean, I have this girl that I take all the time, named Olivia. She’s nine years old and she’s deaf and she’s autistic, and she does not want to get out of the water when we’re done. When I say it’s time to stop surfing and we paddle in, she throws a tantrum and gets mad at me and pouts and gives me dirty looks for an hour. (laughter)

But most of my experience with Life Rolls On, and it’s been limited, is that most of the people there have surfed before, and are wanting to surf again.

Keith Kendall: And it’s a different experience, because that’s specific to people who are paralyzed or paraplegic.

Scott Caan surfing with Oliva via the Surfers Healing program
Scott Caan surfing with Oliva via the Surfers Healing program

Caan: I did an event with Jesse at Zuma, and some of the guys there were like, “Do not hold on to me. Let me go,” just wanting to charge into big overhead waves by themselves. I remember being so amazed at the courage. I was out with this one guy, waves were crashing, and there wasn’t a lot of space in between set waves, and we were getting hammered. I looked at him like, “Should we go in [to shore]?” And he was like, “No, let’s keep going.”

Angeles: This is a former surfer?

Caan: I actually don’t know if he had surfed before, but he was charging and he wanted to surf.

Angeles: This is with Life Rolls On?

Caan: Yeah. I couldn’t believe the balls and the guts and the strength he had to just go again and again. We crashed, and he was underwater, and I pulled him out and I thought for sure he’d be like, “I’m done.” But instead he was like, “Let’s go. Let’s get another one. That one was lame.” And I thought, “Jeez, this guy has just got heart.”

Cooper: So you have to be a lifeguard at the same time? After you wipe out, you’ve got to grab them and get them back on the board?

Caan: Yeah, but they do it pretty well. I mean, for Jesse’s events, there are usually people stacked up every 10 feet. You have the on-shore team, the knee-high team, the middle team, which is in waist-high water, and then you have the deep-water team.

Cooper: So you only go out with them on a certain size of wave? You can’t really do it on really—

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Keith Kandell: Jesse goes big.

Caan: Jesse goes big. At the event they did at Huntington, I got there and I was like, “First of all, I don’t want to surf in these waves.” (laughter) “And I certainly don’t want to take these guys out in these waves.” I was nervous, and I was hoping that they had called it off. And I was surfing with a lady named Alyson, who—

Cooper: Was she Miss Wheelchair?

Caan: Miss Wheelchair, yes. And she looked at me and she was kind of nervous. She was like, “How is it out there?” And I was like, “It’s fine. It’s nothing.” And then I turned to the main instructor and said, “We’re not doing it. We’re not taking them out.” I didn’t want to go out there. I was worried about getting sucked into the pier myself, let alone having to deal with Alyson. But we got Alyson into six waves.

Angeles: Is it all done in the same manner with everybody when you guys take them out there?

Caan: Yeah. But some guys have different approaches. Like, there’s this one guy, he’s paralyzed from the waist down, so he can paddle, and he doesn’t like you to help him paddle, he just likes you to help keep him lined up. But it’s different with everyone.

Kandell: And in a place like Malibu, it’s more satisfying, I think, to take people who wouldn’t be able to surf on their own. The people who surf in Malibu are sort of a privileged lot, generally speaking, because you’re out in the middle of the day and there’s a hundred guys, and they all feel like it should be their wave.

But that state of mind totally changes when you have someone with you that couldn’t be out there on their own, and they’re so happy. And it’s so much more rewarding. Also, when you’ve been surfing for so long that the initial thrill of riding a waist-high wave kind of goes away, you relive it all over again when you’re surfing with someone who doesn’t get to do it often.

Angeles: You probably have a lot of great memories with the people you take out there to surf.

Kandell: Yeah. There’s this girl that I take, her name’s Alexandra. She’s the sister of someone that I know. They were there one day for Surfers Healing a couple years ago, and Alexandra had so much fun that her mom got in touch with me and wanted me to take Alexandra surfing, which I did. During the summer, I was out of town a lot, and I missed surfing with her.

When I got back to Surfer’s Healing, I caught a couple of waves with her, and we were on the beach afterwards and she was kind of grabbing my hand. After we would surf, she loved to just swim with me in the ocean, and so she yanked my hand and kept going, “Surfing with Keith! Surfing with Keith!” And I was like, “Sorry, I have to go, I have to catch an airplane.” Her mom said, “No, Alexandra, he has to go.” And then Scott came by and she saw Scott and she turned to her mother and said, “Surfing with Scott! Surfing with Scott!” (laughter) She just wanted to be in the ocean. It was not even about me.

Cooper: But you thought it was at first?

Kandell: Yeah, I did. She drew a picture of me. She would wear her hair up in a bun, too, like mine, and she drew a picture of us on a wave at Malibu for my birthday one year.

Angeles: Do you guys get on the board together?

Kandell: Yeah. I stay on the back of the board and they lie in the front. You kind of put your chest on their legs or their butt, depending on how they’re—

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Angeles: Wait. What? You put your chest on their butt?

Caan: Do you want me to show you? (laughter) Get on the table. Come on, I’ll show you.

Cooper: Do you use your own boards for this, or their boards?

Caan: You’ve got to use big boards. I have a board that I use for kids that are under 50 pounds. I also have sort of a stand-up, paddle board. It’s really wide and has big thick rails.

Cooper: So you’re not using the foamy boards, which are a little bit more difficult to maneuver?

Caan: No. The smaller the board, the better. If the board can hold two people, that’s good enough. The boards we use for Surfers Healing are basically tandem boards. For Life Rolls On, Jesse has a special board that he uses. Those boards are set up kind of differently because, like I said, we don’t really ride the waves with those guys. They’ve got stand-up bars on the side to keep them on the board.

Kandell: Depending on how much ability the surfers have, they can either grab the board and turn or they can kind of lean with their weight to turn. The Life Rolls On surfers really go on their own.

Angeles: What does someone have to do if they want to go? Just show up at the beach? Do you have to sign up?

Caan: Surfer’s Healing holds events— maybe 10 events all year—all over the country. They do only a couple in Malibu every year. Sometimes at Surfers Healing events I’ll talk to parents, or to kids who are really stoked and really into surfing. I’ll go to their parents and say, “Look, here’s my phone number. Any time you want to surf when there are good waves or there’s a swell, call me. Or I’ll call you and let you know when there’s a swell and you can bring your kids down.” So I have two or three kids right now that call me a couple times a month during the summer and say something like, “Hey, can you take Olivia surfing tomorrow?”

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Cooper: We’re going to put your phone number in the magazine. (laughter)

Caan: I would do that. I know it’s a bad idea, but you definitely can go onto and check it out. They do events all the time.

Sometimes there aren’t a lot of waves to go around, so you’ll find these hard-core surfers getting frustrated if a lot of people descend on the beach. That’s a part of surfing that’s really ugly, and at the same time I understand it and sometimes feel it.

Cooper: That’s why you volunteer!

Caan: (laughs) Yeah. To get waves. There was this one guy who was super angry all the time, and the other day, he came down to the line on a big set wave. I was out there and had a little girl on my board, and he kicked out, swam in, and was like, “That was so awesome.” So even the angriest, meanest guys get turned on by what we’re doing, they’re so stoked on it. This guy, who I’d thought didn’t have a heart, came in and enjoyed seeing us out there. It was so cool to see that.

Angeles: Surfing is really your kind of thing, then.

Caan: And fighting. I like to fight, too.

Angeles: And acting. And photography. And writing. And directing. And producing.

Caan: (laughs) Right. Cooper: You’re into martial arts?

Caan: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There’s a lot of judo and wrestling in jiu-jitsu, mostly it’s ground fighting.

Cooper: How long have you been doing that?

Caan: On and off for 10, 11 years. I train jiu-jitsu regularly, three times a week.

Cooper: How did you know you were going to get into acting? Was that something your father was telling you not to get into?

Caan: Yeah, pretty much. He said not to do it. But I wasn’t into school, and I could never imagine myself in a regular job kind of situation. I always felt really creative, whether I was taking pictures or writing.

I ended up doing a movie and after I was on set, it was like, “Oh, this is my life.” I didn’t know if I was going to be a grip or a cameraman or an actor, but I was 18 years old and on a movie set, working.

Cooper: You hadn’t been on a set before with your father?

Caan: I had been on a set, but as a kid, just checking my dad out at work. When I was younger, I wasn’t into movie stars or movies. It wasn’t something that impressed me. I was way more into skating and surfing.

Cooper: Tell me about The Dog Problem. Did you write it, or did you adapt it from the play?

Caan: No, no, I wrote it. The similarity to the play is just the title. I sort of stole the title on purpose by accident. I had worked on the play and a year or so later I was writing the movie, and I was like, “God, this is such a perfect title.”

Angeles: So the play didn’t have anything to do with the film?

Caan: Nothing. The play is about these guys from the East Coast. David Rabe, who wrote it, is one of my favorite playwrights. It’s guys from the East Coast, and one of them thinks that this guy made his sister sleep with a dog.

Cooper: Okay, that’s really different!

Caan: So yeah, mine has nothing to do with the play. It just shares the title, which I admit to stealing.

Cooper: How did you come up with the idea?

Caan: The story actually happened. A friend of mine was going through a really rough time, and he was spending a lot of money on therapy. Every time he called me, he would be really bummed out and depressed. And then one day he called me in a really good mood, and he’s like, “Come pick me up and let’s go to the Beverly Center.” And he literally went to the Beverly Center and bought a dog. That was his solution to hard times, to buy a dog, and I thought it was genius.

I thought, “This is a premise for a movie.” And then I just went and wrote it. But I also just recently wrote and produced a movie called Mercy, which I’m really excited about. It’s going to come out in 2010.

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Angeles: What’s that about?

Caan: It’s about a writer who falls in love with—

Cooper: —a dog?

Caan: (laughs) No, it’s about a writer who writes these romance novels, but is totally scorned by love and doesn’t buy it and is never really—

Cooper: He can write it, but he can’t live it?

Caan: Yeah. And then he falls in love for the first time and has something really tragic happen to him afterwards. It’s about him putting his life back together.

Cooper: How did you come up with that idea?

Caan: I was living in Texas with a friend. There was this movie, Tender Mercies, that Robert Duvall did—a really good movie. We were obsessed with it, and we thought, “Let’s write a movie about a guy that’s obsessed with the movie Tender Mercies and falls in love with a girl named Mercy.” To me, the idea of love and relationships is such a tricky—there’s no science to it that can be analyzed and you can make art about it forever. What happens when you have it and then it’s gone?

Angeles: Tell us about your photography book.

Caan: You should go buy it. (laughter) Caan, Vol. 1, Photography. The subject is really LA street life and women. But I’ve taken lots of pictures of things that didn’t end up making the book, and that’s why we called it Vol. 1. But the theme of the book is along the lines of celebrity and pretty women and stuff like that. Because I’ve been lucky.

Cooper: This is your first book?

Caan: Yeah.

Cooper: And you’ve been taking photographs for a long time?

Caan: Since 2000. I use all kinds of different cameras, but mainly a Nikon FE. I also use a Leica, an M6. I don’t like digital. I love everything about shooting on film. I love loading a camera. I love not knowing what I’ve got. I love wondering if I underexposed or overexposed. I love flying home with 20 rolls of film and wondering what’s on the film.

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Angeles: It’s like opening Christmas presents.

Caan: I love the smell of the lab. I love the smell of the darkroom—it sounds slightly pretentious, but I just like everything about it.

Cooper: Have you done any projects with your father?

Caan: He’s in Mercy with me.

Cooper: Do you see yourself leaning towards writing, acting or directing?

Caan: I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do all of it. The last year’s been kind of tough, so I’ve had to do some work that I don’t know I would have done if I’d had my choice, but I think I’m ultimately aiming to stay creatively fulfilled and to make money while doing it.

After our interview with Scott Caan, ABILITY Magazine was informed that Olivia’s school has noticed she’s made dramatic improvement both socially and in her studies. Olivia’s mother attributes this growth to the confidence Olivia has been building from surfing with Scott.

L to R Chet, Liz, Scott and Keith
L to R Chet, Liz, Scott and Keith

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