Teenager Atticus Shaffer is an old soul. The 15-year-old actor plays whispering oddball Brick Heck on TV2 comedy The Middle, but he speaks like an adult, and his interests might baffle the typical teenager.
He’s also experienced a lot more of life than your average adolescent. A sufferer of brittle bone disease (type IV osteogenesis imperfecta), Atticus walks with a limp, due to multiple breaks in his legs, resulting from his condition.
At 1.3m (4ft 3in), he’s the perfect height to play a 12-year-old, and the show’s directors work around his disability – he’s hardly ever seen walking. But this May, the actor had another setback. A serious fall at his home in Burbank, California, caused a shoulder injury and fractures to both of his legs, one requiring extensive surgery. But the happy-go-lucky star was grateful to return to work, accepting the injuries as a reality of his life. He’s also startlingly pragmatic about his future in the business.
“This is temporary and I know it’s temporary,” says Atticus, reflecting on the fickle nature of fame.
“I love being a storyteller, and my hope is that I might go to college and learn to be a director and writer when I’m older. I’d like to be the narrator of the story, rather than just a character.
“I was never the kind of kid that woke up one morning, went down the stairs and said, ‘I want to be an actor.’ And it’s not like my parents were trying to shape me into a child actor,” he says.
A copy of The California Child Actor’s Bill hangs by the set door at Warner Bros. studios, a gentle reminder to the cast and crew of The Middle that, no matter how mature he may seem, Atticus is still a minor.
He has a social worker on set, and is legally required to have three hours of tutoring a day. Mum Debbie home-schools him the rest of the time.
A huge sci-fi and fantasy fan, Atticus is keen to visit New Zealand to check out Hobbiton – he’s even put a picture of himself up on Twitter, greeting his fans “Kia ora”.
The history buff is also keen to learn more about the Maori trenches used in the New Zealand Wars. It’s esoteric interests like these that make him the perfect person to play Brick.
“He’s quirky, and I am too. I’m a big movie nerd. I love to read and I love nature as well. It’s not a big method [acting] thing for me, it’s how I naturally am,” says Atticus.
“When I first got into this business, my mum said, ‘Just be yourself, don’t let anyone change you, march to the beat of your own drum.’ So that’s how I’ve always been.”