The applause, from an audience that matters, was thunderous. Of course John Lee Hancock, the director of "The Blind Side," was pleased. But his discovery, the young man whose life could change in much the way his character's life changes in the movie, was stunned.
"First time seeing the movie, first time feeling the love of an audience for the movie," says Quinton Aaron, the 25-year-old who plays a teen rescued from homelessness and poverty by a Memphis mom (Sandra Bullock). "People coming up to shake my hand, taking pictures. Autograph signing. I'm trying to adapt."
"You're happy to give a role like this, a chance like this, to somebody like him," Hancock beams. "He's going to handle this sudden fame thing fine."
Aaron and Hancock were in Orlando to unveil "The Blind Side," which opens Friday. It's about a big, quiet guy who discovers a gift for football when his new "mom" explains the game in personal, family terms to him.
Aaron was just another actor from New York, struggling to find work (he had a small part in "Be Kind Rewind"), facing long odds because, as big as he is, the types of roles available to him are always going to be limited. But to tell the story of Ole Miss star offensive tackle Michael Oher, you need a guy with size.
"And we're both very, very big," Aaron laughs.
Hancock, whose break-out film was "The Rookie," knows his way around sports dramas. But when he read Michael Lewis' nonfiction book about football, all he saw was a gripping personal story. Oher, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, was the homeless son of a crack addict, given up on by schools and society in general, until a wealthy, no-nonsense conservative Christian, Leigh Anne Tuohy, took him in and raised him as her son.
"This is a story of mother and son, not a 'sports movie,' " Hancock says. "The 'big game' here isn't what this is about ... I always looked at it as a nature vs. nurture discussion. Haves, have-nots, and what happens when you give somebody an opportunity. Are you given the things that allow you to succeed?"
Pete Hammond, writing on the Los Angeles Times' awards blog The Envelope, wonders if "The Blind Side" might earn Bullock her first Oscar nomination. Hancock and Aaron say they're more concerned with the film's bigger message.
Aaron sees the film as "inspiring," but not in conventional ways. "People who are more fortunate in our society, who maybe want to do something but can't decide what to do and worry too much about how something looks to their friends and neighbors, maybe they'll see this and realize that they can change just one person's life."
And Hancock sees great things for his young star.
"The great actors are great listeners, and that's what he became, making this film. Michael Oher didn't say much, but Quinton, he got across what he was thinking and feeling in every moment. He's going places."