LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - She’s the spitting image of her late father, has inherited his passion for wildlife, and now 11-year-old Bindi Irwin is following “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s footsteps into Hollywood-style movies.
Bindi makes her feature film acting debut in “Free Willy: Escape from Pirates Cove,” being released Tuesday on DVD as the fourth movie based on the 1990’s franchise about a young boy helping free an Orca trapped in captivity.
“Pirates Cove,” however, is a new story about an Australian girl (Irwin) helping a baby Orca trapped at her grandfather’s theme park on the shores of South Africa.
Growing up with a larger-than-life personality like Australian adventurer Steve Irwin, who died in 2006 after a stingray attack, seems like a natural evolution for Bindi.
She came into this world camera-ready when her father filmed her birth. Growing up, she often was featured on his shows such as “The Crocodile Hunter” and “The Croc Files” on U.S. TV network Animal Planet. For a while, Bindi even had her own kids documentary series, “Bindi the Jungle Girl.”
At his funeral, in front of a crowd of 5,000 people and 300 million TV viewers around the world, Bindi, then 8, delivered an impassioned speech about the daddy she called “my hero.”
“He’s still my hero,” Bindi told Reuters. “He taught me about documentary filming and to be comfortable around cameras. I used that during the filming of this movie because I wasn’t scared to be around cameras.”
While her late father’s early instructions helped her feel at ease, it was her “Free Willy” co-star Beau Bridges -- who plays her grandfather, Gus -- who helped Bindi to begin laying the foundation for the building blocks of acting.
“I was a bit nervous about learning the lines but Beau taught me how to make them into a conversation,” said Bindi. “He gave me ‘Acting: The First Six Lessons’ on audiotape and a book I‘m reading right now.”
“Free Willy” appears tailored for Bindi. Her character, Kirra, is the daughter of a zoo veterinarian (as was Steve Irwin) who interacts with all sorts of exotic animals from a penguin to a lion cub. Kirra also lost a parent at young age.
But Bindi said she did not feel like she was without her father on the “Free Willy” shoot.
“There is so much footage of my dad out there,” said Bindi. “While we were in South Africa, every morning we’d watch him on Animal Planet, then go and film the movie.”
While filming, Bindi was with her mother Terri and brother Robert, 6. The trio lives full-time at the Irwin-owned Australia Zoo, which was made popular on ”Crocodile Hunter.
Bindi said her experience filming “Free Willy” has left her wanting to do more acting, but she would like her next project to include “a lot more wildlife.”
“I feel like I‘m nothing without wildlife,” said Bindi. “They are the stars. I feel awkward without them.”
She refers to herself as being “hatched” rather than born, and can easily chat about facts and statistics of just about any animal. She is now collecting signatures for a petition to save the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, which is under threat of being strip mined.
“Every time you lose an animal, it’s like losing a brick from the house,” said Bindi. “Pretty soon the house just falls down, you know?”
Her passion for wildlife has been passed down to her from her father, whose legacy she wants to continue.
“He taught me to love and respect animals and treat them how you would like to be treated,” said Bindi. “I really want to carry on in his footsteps and pick up where he left off.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte