Tara Devon Gallagher

“Swimmers” marks the acting debut of a major new talent, Tara Devon Gallagher, who co-stars in the pivotal role of 11-year-old Emma Tyler.

In her only other film appearance, Gallagher was one of the dance contestants showcased (as herself) in the hit documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom.”

The fact Gallagher had never had an acting class – much less ever acted before – didn’t concern “Swimmers” director-writer Doug Sadler, who auditioned hundreds of pre-teens in New York, Los Angeles and Maryland.

“The Emma character requires a certain depth and intensity. Tara blew me away in her initial audition when I asked her to use her own words in describing the boats and activity mentioned in one of the voiceovers. I interrupted her and asked her questions about what she was describing, and it was clear she was seeing and experiencing those things in her mind’s eye,” Sadler says.

“ Tara brought a lot of heart to the role and she clearly connected to Emma’s situation and shared her ability to see magic in nature and the everyday. She was alive to her own imagination as well as carrying the depth, maturity and complexity I needed in Emma to make her observations in the voiceovers feel organic and make her relationship with Merrill believable.”

Everyone who worked with Gallagher on the film found her disarmingly mature for her age. “She’s literally like a 40-year-old woman trapped in a 12-year-old body,” laughs Sara Paulson, who plays Merrill, the enigmatic young woman who suddenly shows up in town and becomes Emma’s soul mate.

“ Tara’s amazing in this movie,” says the veteran actress who starred on Broadway with Jessica Lange in 2005. “She’s just so emotionally available and raw and 100 percent. I loved working with her.”

Paulson points out that that during a particularly poignant scene, where her Merrill character is sharing feelings about her past she has never shared before, “I didn’t have to act really. I could just be there and look at those beautiful eyes. She was just so available and sweet. In that scene, when I’m crying by the pool and I’m recounting the story of my mother’s suicide, she wipes away my tear. Nobody told her to do that. It wasn’t in the script that I was going to cry at that moment. She’s just so instinctual.”

Gallagher says she was awed by working with such blue-ribbon talent as two-time Tony Award-winner Cherry Jones, Paulson, Shawn Hatosy and Robert Knott. “The other actors were all fantastic, and I just felt like I had to keep up my game,” she says. “I had to live up to all these great names, and I just wanted to do my best to impress everybody. It was very exciting working with them, because they would give me lots of tips and pointers and stuff, and advice. It was just very helpful.”

Gallagher, now 13 years old, is an only child whose parents divorced when she was really young. She lives with her father, a Manhattan hair stylist, in Rutherford, New Jersey, but also spends time with her mother, a mortgage broker, in North Bergen.

Prior to moving to New Jersey full-time, Gallagher lived in Manhattan with her mom and attended the Tribeca Learning Center from kindergarten through 5 th grade. “This school was just phenomenal. It was just a fantastic school with amazing teachers,” she says.

It was at TLC, soon after she completed filming on “Swimmers,” that Gallagher was selected to appear in “Mad Hot Ballroom” when the producers chose her school as one of those to be featured. Surprisingly, Gallagher became one of the showcased competitors, even though her only prior dance experience was a year of ballet lessons at the age of six.

Disarmingly mature for her age, she credits her parents creative natures for leading her into acting. “My mom is a very creative person. So is my dad. They opened my eyes to a lot of things that most children would be deprived from – and I’m just so grateful for it, because it made me turn out like a better person.”

She notes how her mother, who had taken a few drama lessons in high school, “would just say to me out outgoing and how dramatic I was,” Gallagher says with a smile.

At the age of eight, Gallagher’s uncle, Patrick Lewis, a professional photographer, took headshots of her and sent them to the Ford Modeling Agency. During her initial audition, they asked if she had any special talents to show them. Gallagher said she could sing, but instead of the usual “Happy Birthday” kids typically perform, she belted out “Fallen” by Alicia Keys. “I started singing it and like the whole room got like quiet. It was really funny,” she recalls with a laugh.

Although Gallagher had had some singing lessons and spent a year performing in the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, she says her “vocal training was just like me singing in the shower all the time, you know? My mom used to sing a lot.”

Ford recommended her to a top talent agency, which signed her up immediately. Gallagher’s first professional break came in a Chucky Cheese commercial. “It was a great commercial to shoot because all we had to do basically was just have fun.” She also filmed a spot for Huggies, but got left on the editing floor because they decided she was too old to be giving advice to younger children about potty training, and Target.

Her first speaking part was in an on-air promo for the PBS children’s animation series, “Sagwa,” in which she was asked to share an experience related to the moral lessons in the show. She’s also been interviewed on HBO’s “My Favorite Book,” and was part of a reading for the play, “The Children’s Hour.”

Despite Gallagher’s lack of formal training, Sarah Paulson points out that “ Tara is a born actress. She’s the real deal, and I suspect that if she wants it, she can have a really beautiful career.”

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