BY JENEÉ OSTERHELDT
The Kansas City Star
When your dad is U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, people ask if you’re into politics or the church.
But Evan Cleaver, the youngest of the congressman’s children, is an alien. Or at least he plays one in Stephenie Meyer’s sci-fi adventure “The Host,” opening in theaters on Friday. If things go well, this movie could approach “Twilight”-level success — without any vampires. There’s talk of a trilogy.
Evan’s just happy for the break. He plays Seeker Pavo. Basically, he’s an alien cop, policing the aliens that occupy human bodies and finding humans on the run. His part is small — five scenes and three lines. But in a movie this big, that could mean more opportunities. Not to mention, Meyer herself had a hand in picking Evan for the part.
When he showed up for filming, he heard a voice call his name. He turned around and there she was, the famous author herself. She remembered him from his audition tape.
So it’s safe to say, even with limited screen time, Evan Cleaver is making his debut.
At the red carpet premiere in L.A. last week, a legion of Meyer’s Twi-hard fans shrieked at the cast of “The Host”: Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, Max Irons, even Evan.
“It was pretty awesome,” he says. “They were screaming with books and posters and asking for autographs. Her fans are so loyal and dedicated, they knew my name. I only have three lines, but they do their research. It was my first taste of fame.”
It won’t be his last. He’s been preparing for this since he was a kid in Kansas City. His mother has seen almost everything on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 film list. His grandmother was a theater major at the University of Kansas. He grew up going with them to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, the Coterie and lots of movies.
Movies comfort people through entertainment, he says, and he wanted to do the same. At 13, he co-wrote and starred in “Rising Star, Falling Star,” a play about a rising basketball player. He performed it for the youth group at his dad’s church, St. James United Methodist, and that was it. He knew he wanted to act. And play basketball.
Evan was a star point guard at Center High School and earned a scholarship to Dillard University in New Orleans. He became the first student on a basketball scholarship to graduate with a degree in acting.
“I didn’t realize it was rare,” he says. “To me, there is a strong connection between the two. The coach is your director, the teammates are the cast, and both require a lot of hard work and discipline. Coaches yell, you lose games. That is like rejection in the world of acting.”
He stayed in New Orleans after graduation in hopes of landing gigs, but not for long. His sister called from Kansas City when the Hurricane Katrina warnings started to make news. She told him to evacuate. He packed three outfits and headed to Memphis for the night.
He returned to Kansas City and started looking for other opportunities. He played Martin Luther King Jr. in “I Have a Dream,” a play that toured the East Coast. And then, inspired by another Kansas City actor, Don Cheadle, he applied to the master’s in fine arts acting program at California Institute of the Arts. And got accepted.
“It was my glimmer of hope,” he says. “My life turned around after that storm.”
Evan earned his master’s and returned to New Orleans, where he says the acting opportunities are abundant. He teaches at a local acting studio and has a few straight-to-DVD movies and small TV parts under his belt. When he got the chance to audition for “The Host,” he didn’t know what to expect with such a sparse resume. Still, he prepared.
“I read the book,” he says. “I wanted to get a feel for the world and how I thought the seekers functioned in this story. They have been around for millennia, so I figured they are highly intelligent and calm. I wanted to deliver serenity. That’s the great thing about Stephenie Meyer, she creates such a vivid world for an actor to play with.”
When he’s trying to figure out how to bring emotional depth to a character, he thinks about his family.
“Acting in part comes from fullness and experiences,” he says. “You don’t play the character, you let the character play you. Growing up in my family, there is so much love and gratitude and humility. My family doesn’t credit themselves with anything they have done for the community, they credit the people.
“And not everyone agrees with the politics of my family. Someone took a swing at my father when he was mayor. Someone from the Tea Party spit on him. That sparks a certain rage and anger that I sit on. All of these experiences provide me an emotional well to draw from when I am acting.”
And even though he isn’t fighting for better legislation and shaping politics like his father, Evan does believe he has a responsibility to the people who see his films.
“I grew up watching the great Sidney Poitier. If it were not for him, I wouldn’t have the chance,” he says. “I have a responsibility to bring sophistication, respect and class to the screen. He spoke intelligently, wore suits, saved the day, and he was cool while he did it. He never degraded his people. He showed black actors could be leading men, and I want to do the same thing.”
Evan isn’t just playing a seeker on the big screen, he’s seeking a purpose on it.