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updated: 8/13/2014 5:26 AM

Former St. Charles resident shell-shocked by 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' role

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  • For his role as Leonardo in the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," former St. Charles resident Pete Ploszek donned a skintight gray get-up, a shell-shaped backpack and a helmet equipped with cameras to capture his facial expressions. His performance guides the digital animators who produce the finished product.

      For his role as Leonardo in the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," former St. Charles resident Pete Ploszek donned a skintight gray get-up, a shell-shaped backpack and a helmet equipped with cameras to capture his facial expressions. His performance guides the digital animators who produce the finished product.

  • Leonardo, played by former St. Charles and Hinsdale resident Pete Ploszek, goes into action in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

      Leonardo, played by former St. Charles and Hinsdale resident Pete Ploszek, goes into action in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

  • Former St. Charles and Hinsdale resident Pete Ploszek, second from left, stars as Leonardo in the new movie "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle," directed by Jonathan Liebesman in the gray T-shirt.

      Former St. Charles and Hinsdale resident Pete Ploszek, second from left, stars as Leonardo in the new movie "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle," directed by Jonathan Liebesman in the gray T-shirt.

  • As one of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, St. Charles East High School grad Pete Ploszek donned a skintight gray get-up, shell-shaped backpack and helmet equipped with cameras to capture his facial expressions.

      As one of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, St. Charles East High School grad Pete Ploszek donned a skintight gray get-up, shell-shaped backpack and helmet equipped with cameras to capture his facial expressions.

  • Video: "Teenage Turtles" trailer

 

Pete Ploszek played football in school for 12 years, but none of that physical conditioning could prepare him for the rigors of portraying a ninja turtle.

"Here we were in the back of a semi trailer, mounted onto a hydraulic lift, getting tossed around like rag dolls!" the former resident of Hinsdale and St. Charles said.

Ploszek plays Leonardo -- the one with the blue mask -- in the new movie "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Like David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" trilogy while James Earl Jones read the dialogue, Ploszek handles the action scenes for Leonardo while Johnny Knoxville supplies his voice.

For his part, Ploszek, 27, donned a skintight gray get-up, shell-shaped backpack and a helmet equipped with cameras to record his facial expressions in a motion-capture process. The turtles' appearances were then created by computer imagery.

The actor figured that his extensive football experience would serve him well in taking on the character's physical challenges in an action movie.

"But after two or three takes I was just floored!" he confessed. "That's when stunt guys become your best friends. They know how to fall and make it look absolutely beautiful. The guys we worked with (called 87Eleven) are the best in the world."

Like a good football team, the cast of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" worked together well to reboot the turtle franchise, about four crime-fighting, pizza-loving reptiles named after Renaissance artists.

"All the actors were really looking out for each other, so there wasn't a nasty, competitive nature to it," Ploszek said. "That mentality is so counter to the spirit of the TMNT franchise anyway, so there wasn't room for it. The material really demands that you be in on the joke."

Ploszek was born in Hinsdale. He lived in New Jersey, Maine and Ohio before his family returned to the suburbs in 1998 by moving to St. Charles.As a football player at St. Charles East High School, Ploszek earned all-state honors as a senior running back/wide receiver. He earned all-area and all-conference honors and was named most valuable player as a senior. He received the Joe Gaffney award for top male student athlete, plus the Fleur De Lis Award for his academic record, character and leadership. After high school, Ploszek went on to Princeton University, leading all freshmen with 16 carries for 58 yards. He took his first theater class sophomore year to get away from the grind of playing college football, and the acting bug tackled him.

"It was a real sort of synergistic Aha! moment when I started acting," Ploszek said. "This was it! I went on to play out four years on the (football) team, but as soon as the season finished every fall, I ran over to the theater to get into the next play going up."

He said training at USC's School of Theatre, where he earned a master of fine arts in acting in 2012, changed his life.

"It's conservatory-based training, so I was essentially holed up for three years with the same 11 actors, cutting our teeth and learning the craft together," he said. "It was a pretty intense experience. It's not for everyone, but I couldn't recommend it more highly."

Ploszek wasted no time in jump-starting his performance career.

"Acting very quickly became a dream of mine, but the acting game privileges youth," he said. "It takes a while to build credits and, because of that, it's not the kind of career you can jump into in your 40s or 50s. The ship sets sail by then. I don't think the same applies to a job in sales or real estate."

Ploszek's dad, Mike Ploszek, is a vice president at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington. His mother, Karen, works as special education teacher. Aside from a brother who performed in a couple of high school musicals (Ploszek has three brothers and a sister), no one in the Ploszek family has experience in acting.

"Getting gigs and making a living doesn't come about by simply working harder," Leonardo's alter-ego said.

"I was very fortunate to be raised with an 'if not you, then who?' mentality, and I count my blessings every day to have the support of my family and especially my wife. She's got a front-row seat on the roller coaster."

He met his wife, Daniela, on the very first day of their freshman year at Princeton.

"She's not an actress, which keeps me grounded," Ploszek said. "She's a holistic health coach, helping clients prepare healthy meals, lose weight and find balance between work and home life." She's also an entrepreneur, having just launched a company called Color Me Complete.

"I've been blessed in how fast things have started taking shape," Ploszek said. "Working on a big-budget summer blockbuster with a built-in fan base is a dream come true for any actor."

Even so, Ploszek, whose TV credits include appearances on "Parks and Recreation" and "Shameless," characterized this big-budget blessing as a double-edged sword.

"I'm still relatively new to the game, and I don't have much on the resume. So I need to get back to basics here, to supplement all of the flashy, motion-capture work with productions that put a premium on the actor, like the independent films that make their way onto the festival circuit.

"I'm hungry for that."

-- Dann Gire

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are looking for suburbanites working in showbiz. If you know someone who would make a terrific story, contact them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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