Cora From Titanic Reveals Amazing Story About Leonardo DiCaprio On Set

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cora cartmell in titanic and on setSupplied/Paramount Pictures

Today, Titanic turns 21 – and who better to celebrate and reminisce on the epic retelling of the 20th century tragedy than Jack Dawson’s best girl, Cora Cartmell.

You’ll probably remember her from the film – if not recognise her now. Cora, played by Alex Owens-Sarno, was the little girl who managed to steal the dancing scene below decks when our favourite star-crossed sea-goer, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, realised he was falling for Rose DeWitt Bukater, aka the inimitable Kate Winslet.

You can relive the movie-making magic below:

Iconic though it may be, and in spite of the fact Owens-Sarno knows fans would like to think the steerage dancing scene was the most fun to shoot, she admits she’s ‘not the best dancer’ and adds, ‘that scene was a little awkward for me’.

She now finds the dancing scene ‘extra embarrassing’ to watch and says some Leonardo DiCaprio fans’ reception of her part in it has become a bit ‘creepy’ over the years.

leo and kate on the red carpetGetty

Speaking to UNILAD, the now 30-year-old mused:

I don’t know why, but whenever I see the dancing scene I always feel extra embarrassed!

I think it’s just because that’s the scene I’m most well known for, and the scene that when people realise I was in the movie they freak out that I ‘touched him’. I literally have had people say that to me.

I know it’s coming from a good place, but it kind of makes it sound creepy!

cora dancing in titanic gifParamount Pictures

Of course, she adds, she’s glad people love the scene and says it was ‘awesome to have been a part of the process’.

But the story of how an ‘outgoing’ eight-year-old from San Diego ended up with such an iconic role in one of the world’s biggest films of all time begins in tears. Her baby sister’s, to be precise.

Alex has always wanted to be an actor, she told UNILAD, so when James Cameron announced an opening casting call for Titanic would be taking place in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, in 1996, her mother hot-footed it down there with her and her sister, Rachel, to see if Alex ‘had the acting bug’.

Alex recalled:

We were walking around, checking out the scenery when my mom started talking about the Titanic and how many people died on it. My sister was around three at the time and started crying.

At that exact moment, Mali Finn, the casting director, happened to be walking by, and said, ‘Get that kid in a costume and on a boat.’

[She thought] my sister could be the little girl (aptly named ‘The Crying Girl’) Billy Zane picks up to get onto a lifeboat.

still from TitanicParamount Pictures

Only, Rachel wouldn’t stop crying hysterically and Cameron decided to go with a different little girl for the part. Meanwhile, Finn had asked Alex if she would like to audition for the role of Cora.

Agreeing, a ‘nervous’ Alex was led into the audition room along with 10 other little girls with blonde hair, where she read a few lines and stood on the casting director’s feet as they danced. A week later, she got a call to say she’d got the part.

Luckily, her mother and sister – who went onto be a Rodeo Queen and also has a flair for the dramatic – were cast as extras. Alex told UNILAD they were close by in the background shots in most of her scenes.

Alex described filming over the course of six months on set as an ‘amazing’ experience – well worth missing a bit of school for too, apparently.

Talking about the scale of Cameron’s venture – from the sound stages, craft services, huge warehouses full of costuming and makeup stations to the vans you needed to traverse the lot – she said:

It’s so crazy to look back on that and realise just how huge the lot was to fit everything. Not only was there a replica of the side of the Titanic, there was a huge pool in front of it to film water scenes.

I distinctly remember the smell of the sound stages, and anytime I’m lucky enough to get into one these days, it makes my heart so happy because of the nostalgia. Everyone was so nice and I felt very taken care of.

Heartwarmingly, none more so than her on-screen friend and the actor who played him. Leo – of course.

Prepare to swoon. Alex said:

I think I’d disappoint a lot of people if I didn’t say that Leo wasn’t my favourite. At that time I was convinced he was my best friend. He always made a point to be super sweet to me and my family.

I actually spent a decent amount of time with Leo. He was pretty much the first actor that I met on my first day. We were drawing pictures of where we thought rain came from. We’d hang out during breaks in filming.

Leo was always doing what he could to make us laugh. He would chase us around to try and tickle us. He would order me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in between takes. He would dance behind cameras to make me laugh.

As for the actor who played Rose, who you might recognise from such classics as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Holiday, Alex said:

I spent less with time Kate, but I had a few little chats with her. She was one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met, and she was obsessed with my little sister’s ringlets.

I don’t have quite as many [memories] with her, I just remember that when she spoke to me, she didn’t really treat me like a kid. She’d ask questions, and listen wholeheartedly to what I had to say.

Although Cameron has a bit of reputation in Hollywood for being a hard taskmaster who’s strict on set, Alex said she had a ‘great time’ with the Oscar-winning director.

She recalled how he made her and her family ‘feel comfortable for my first time on a set’ and would always take the time in explaining things ‘or apologising for bad language going on around us’.

Alex also recounted a mysterious women whose name has been lost to memory, but who she dubbed ‘The Chicken Lady’ for her tendency to ‘cluck like a chicken to make all the kids laugh’.

Alex regrets not keeping in touch with anyone from the film, adding:

I would have loved to keep in touch with Leo, but it’s tough when you’re eight and your pal Leo is 22 and on his way to becoming one of the most famous and revered actors of this generation.

You just have to give people space to grow into the people they need to become.

With a cheeky grin, she noted she ‘very much’ hopes to work with everyone again one day, especially having just started her own company, Sundae Knights Productions, with her writing partner, Zack Hillman.

But, as a child in a post-Titanic world, Alex shied away from the limelight and says the attention from strangers was ‘overwhelming’.

Meanwhile, she’s still dealing with the Titanic fandom in the best way she can in adulthood.

The rejections were hard at first, she said, especially as the first ‘yes’ was such a life-changing moment, but she’s still working on ‘making her dream come true’.

Now, as she doesn’t make any money from her role in Titanic these days, Alex is working on her career having moved to LA after college to audition and write.

She does make time for the fanbase, even though she doesn’t get recognised as often as she used to – despite the multitude of online articles professing to be baffled at ‘how different she looks now’, as if the passing of time and ageing process is a new concept to be marvelled at.

Although recognition is embarrassing at first for Alex – and the person who just confessed what a huge Titanic fan they must be – she says it’s ultimately ‘endearing’.

She’s had to stop signing the autographs she offered out to die-hard fans too – until she figures out a better system of responding to requests.

But Alex has done her fair share over the years.

Her keenness to please the fanbase just goes to illustrate her admission that she still finds the success of the movie ‘mind-blowing’ after all these years.

Even the ones with conspiracy theories which she debunks here for UNILAD:

One of my favourite conspiracy theories is that I was replaced halfway into shooting because I broke my leg during the dancing scene.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can be a bit of a klutz, and let’s not forget I have two left feet, but when you’re 8 and you have Leo holding you up for an entire dance, it would take a lot to break your leg.

Although stranger things have happened. At any rate, it was definitely me the entire time of filming. It just took place over such an extended period of time that my face was changing because I was growing up.

Cameron used to jokingly tell me to stop growing up so fast because I was ruining his shots.

And, below, Alex obligingly weighs in on the million dollar question of The Big Door:

Oh, the door! I guess my take is that if they both could have fit on there, Jack probably wouldn’t have risked Rose rolling off, so he would have sacrificed himself anyway.

Also trauma makes you do crazy things and not think straight. Since it didn’t work out at first, they were probably in such a state of shock that they didn’t realise that they could have made it work.

Let’s not forget, they just survived the sinking of a giant ship and were in freezing cold water. But push come to shove… They both could have fit.

jack and rose in the titanic filmParamount Pictures

Thanks to the relentless appeal of Cameron’s epic, this question will probably be one Alex has to address for the rest of her life – especially as, she smiles, a new army of young fans is introduced the the film in every generation.

She says:

Honestly, it is truly incredible how many lives this movie has affected. I have people contact me via social media pretty often about the movie, how much they love Cora, and how the movie changed their life.

I’ve had quite a few people tell me that they actually named their children after my character. It’s humbling.

The thing is, for child actors who star in hugely successful films and then grow up into professional actors in adulthood, their first gig can sometimes be a hard act to top, especially when they are so recognised.

Recalling her Titanic highlight reel, Alex said:

I think at the time my favourite was my first day of shooting, when Leo and I were drawing in Jack’s book. The scene was cut from the movie, but it was a really cool day.

As someone who is now obsessed with dramatic acting, I think having the experience of doing such an emotionally intense scene at such a young age really solidified my love for acting in a way that I couldn’t appreciate at the time, because it was scary.

Now I love scary scenes that challenge me to push myself.

The love of challenges on set must’ve started young, Alex mused, as she was required to do a water-based stunt for the film.

She recalled:

Initially I had a stunt double to do the scene, but James Cameron must’ve thought I could handle it. There was a set built that reportedly became known as the Cora Cartmell set after this night in the shoot.

We had to run up the stairs while a crane lowered the set piece into the water, all the while I’m crying and screaming. I got dragged under the water a few times, which Cameron was not happy about.

But without that scene, Cora’s tragic story would’ve been left unfinished.

Answering what happened to Cora in those deleted scenes as the ship sank, Alex explained:

Unfortunately, I know exactly what happened to her. Cora’s family got stuck in a stairwell that was locked, and they drowned.

We ended up getting the shot, all for it to get cut because the audience for the test screenings did not want to see Jack’s best girl go down like that.

In that sense, the character of Cora represents the 52 children who lost their lives on April 15, 1912; a role which Alex Owens-Sarno knows, even 21 years after the film’s release, is still helping tell a tale otherwise relegated to the history books.

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