When it came time to study for her part in the Sonic The Hedgehog movie, nine-year-old Melody Nosipho Niemann had to get back to the basics: “Before I got the part I used to play Minecraft, NomNoms and Pokeball,” she says. “It was my dad who told me about Sonic. I thought it was cool and then I downloaded it: it was very fun!”
The film, inspired by the early-1990s Sega videogame character, stars James Marsden as small-town sheriff Tom and Jim Carrey as the dastardly Dr. Robotnik. Melody plays JoJo, the niece of Tom and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) who’s surprised by her dad’s friendship with the world’s fastest-moving hedgehog (voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Ben Schwartz).
Sonic was shot in and around Vancouver and scored big with $70 million on its opening weekend, the largest-ever for a video game adaptation. Box office is now well past the $200 million mark worldwide. With that kind of action, you would think the kids in Melody’s fourth-grade class would believe that she was in the movie. “Well, some of the boys in my class don’t believe me,” she says matter-of-factly from her West Van home, “but most of the girls believe that I’m an actor.”
At school her favourite subject is “genius hour,” when a small group picks a subject -- “like energy, continents and maps” – to study. When the movie came out Valentine’s weekend, Melody saw it with her friends Erica and Malena. The verdict? “They liked it. Malena kept on calling me JoJo!”
She describes her time on set as “like play time” and, impressively, she can name everyone on her long list of co-stars. In serious-actor fashion, Melody won’t give away too many details about her part in the film: you’ve got to go and see it. “I just tell people that it’s really funny when Sonic shows up and that I do something special for Sonic,” she says. “It’s very, very, very funny!”
She insists that auditions never make her nervous, but that sometimes singing does. She got the jitters last year when she sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in front of the entire school, coached by her dad. Her older brother sings, dad Juergen sings at church and mom Jabulile “Maju Maju” Dladla sang with the Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir. Now “they sing in the shower!” according to Melody.
The family moved from South Africa when Melody was two, and it was around that time she knew she wanted to act, she says. “I’m in a house and I’m watching a movie, and I said ‘Mama, Mama, I want to be on the TV’!” Commercials came first, then roles in Hallmark Original movies like Gingerbread Romance, Just Add Romance, and A Family Christmas Gift. She met best friend Payton Lepinski on the set of Spontaneous.
But the person she’d most like to work with is Arianna Grande. “She’s so cool,” says Melody. “I would really like to be in a movie with her.”
When she’s not working and going to auditions, Melody plays the violin and the piano and some recorder. At school they just learned “Let It Be” on the ukulele, she says.
That’s a lot for a nine-year-old to juggle. Does she ever get tired? The young actor recalls one of her scenes in the Sonic movie: “I had to run and run and run around the room for 15 minutes,” she enthuses. “Gotta go fast!”