This document is part of the Ocean Girl Archive — Last update: 2008-07-28 — sourcemeta

Author:Ron Miller (San Jose Mercury News)

Depths of stardom

The whale is fake (sometimes), but “Ocean Girl” has genuine appeal

It won’t be long before the well-intentioned folks at the Disney Channel are going to have to change the name of their hit show “Ocean Girl” to “Ocean Woman” and let it swim out of the kiddie zone.

Either that or come up with a new form of child-proof gadgetry for the cable converter box that will automatically give any boys under the age of 18 a cold shower whenever they tune in “Ocean Girl.”

Attraction grows

The reason is Marzena Godecki, the 16-year-old beauty who plays Neri, the mysterious, scale-free mermaid of the title. You’ll be surprised when you see her in the new batch of shows for the second season, which start showing this Monday night on The Disney Channel.

“I think she gets more beautiful every time we go out and shoot another series,” acknowledges executive producer Jonathan Shiff. “I think it’s kind of neat that Neri is maturing because many in our audience are maturing with her.” In this time of heightened awareness about the role of women in our society, it would be a mistake for “Ocean Girl” to put too much emphasis on the fact that Godecki is a stunning young woman who’s either stepping into or climbing out of her own private blue lagoon when not swimming in the open sea with her best friend, a 40-ton humpback whale she calls Charley.

Disney executives are coy about exactly what’s behind the appeal of “Ocean Girl,” but they’re clearly delighted that it began making waves with the network’s viewers almost as soon as it premiered last fall.

“It has become an instant hit – as it has for networks around the world,” says Bruce Rider, Disney Channel’s senior vice president for programming. “The show has a freshness that I think sets it apart from other shows on television today and we think it’s a wonderful addition to our lineup.”

International audience

“Ocean Girl” is co-produced by Disney with a consortium of other international investors, including Shiff’s production company, Network Ten Australia, Beyond Distribution, Tele Images and the BBC. It plays to a vast international audience of youngsters and has become a hit with kids of nearly every culture.

So far, Godecki’s fan mail hasn’t yet reflected the gradual hormonal development of her audience, but then the new batch of episodes hasn’t played anywhere very long.

“Most of the questions I get asked are about (whether or not) I can really talk to the whale or if I really swim with him,” says Godecki, who recently met with TV critics on her first visit to the United States. “It’s from kids who have never been up to the reef and Queensland, who just want to know a bit more and find out if what they’re seeing is actually real.”

So, for that prepuberty element, here’s the scoop: Godecki can talk to the whale all she wants, but she isn’t sure it’s making much sense of what she says. Actually, she mostly swims near a phony whale mock-up, but has done some scenes with real-life Minke whales.

Godecki wouldn’t be cast as Neri if she didn’t have the ability to convincingly play the strange girl who can dive faster and deeper than any human in the open sea. She had to prove she was plucky, courageous and athletic before she had any chance to become “Ocean Girl.”

Picked from 700

“Marzena was one of about 700 girls we looked at,” says Shiff. “When we got down to the top 30, we started to look at their physical – and psychological – profiles.”

The psychological part was mandatory because “Ocean Girl” is filmed near Port Douglas and around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in open water where real sharks prowl. Though she’s always surrounded by a team of expert divers, Godecki is the one you see doing that vigorous, fishlike kick and zooming through the deep without scuba gear.

Godecki had to be trained in scuba diving to learn the skills she has to display each week. Shiff says her background as a ballerina-in-training counted heavily in her favor.

“But I must say it was actually the audition and the acting process that got her the job,” he adds.

Godecki was born in Poland, but came to Australia with her parents at the age of 3 and speaks with a pronounced Aussie accent. She’s still in the Australian equivalent of high school, but wants to carve out a Jodie Foster- style career, combining acting with higher education. She says her math and science grades are “pretty good,” so she may lean in that direction. She admits to no boyfriends yet.

In the first season, Neri was discovered by Jason and Brett Bates (David Hoflin, Jeffrey Walker), the young sons of Dr. Dianne Bates (Kerry Armstrong), a single mom who’s doing underwater research on the ORCA, a floating sea lab. They kept her identity a secret for much of the first season, but the secret began to leak out when Neri saved Dr. Bates’ life.

In the new season, Neri begins to find out who she really is and who her parents were. She even learns she has a sister named Mera (Lauren Hewett). In this week’s episode, she rescues Dr. Hellegren, who heads a sinister organization called UBRI. When he learns she has telepathic powers, he takes her prisoner, intending to study her.

Godecki claims the second season was more fun to film because she was a much more accomplished swimmer and because her character begins to interrelate more with humans.

Water worthy

“I did most of my own swimming in the second series,” she says. “The double mostly was needed for things like jumping out of trees.”

Sweet and self-effacing, Godecki is also quite modest about her athletic ability. According to Shiff, Godecki has developed into an outstanding underwater performer.

“She spends like five or six hours a day (at it),” he says. “It’s a very courageous pursuit, swimming down there with the camera guys. I’m just sitting up there in a little boat, watching on video, but Marzena is down there with the sharks, the turtles and the stingrays for six hours a day.”

And, just like Neri, Godecki believes it may be possible to make some kind of connection with our undersea neighbors. While swimming with the Minke whales, she concluded that some form of primitive communication was going on.

“It felt like not only were we looking at them, but they were looking at us, too,” she says. “They want to learn more about us just like we want to learn more about them.”