The first clue this isn’t a typical press junket for a new film is the live alligator.
“He’s only getting a little cranky,” assures Joe Gemellaro, an educator at Riverhead’s Long Island Aquarium, while holding Blue, a three-foot American alligator who jerks, occasionally whacking Gemellaro’s side with his tail. Blue’s snout is taped shut, and good thing — his bite can apply 2,100 pounds of pressure per square inch. Not bad for a four-year-old … who’s still growing.
“If he bit my finger, he’d take it,” Gemellaro says casually.
That was the scene this week at the Aquarium, when reporters gathered to meet actors Kaya Scodelario and Emmy winner Barry Pepper, plus director Alexandre Aja, of “Crawl,” this summer’s chilling new horror disaster film — think “Jaws,” but with alligators and a hurricane.
The film, which opens July 12, pits a dad (Pepper) and his swimmer daughter (Scodelario) in a fight for their lives, trapped in a small crawl space under their Florida home as hurricane flood waters threaten and gators roam. Unlike the shark-wielding tornadoes in “Sharknado,” the events in “Crawl” feel somewhat plausible, which may add to the fright factor.
Scodelario, the English actress known for “Maze Runner,” happens to be married to a Georgia native, and her in-laws showered her with tales of alligator sightings in homes down South. “I’m like, really?” she says, chuckling. Really, they replied.
Mechanical replicas, puppets and costumed stunt men replaced actual ‘gators during filming, but the actors did shoot many scenes in a tiny crawl space, part of a set built inside a series of warehouses in Serbia, where they recreated a small town inside a massive tank, then flooded it, to simulate an actual storm.
“It was like a 10-week fight camp underwater,” Pepper told Newsday. And grueling, to be in the water for 12-hour days. You emerge “like a prune,” he admits.
“I broke my toe at one point, and couldn’t get out to get it wrapped in ice — it would’ve taken too long to lift off the roof — so I was like …’Just keep filming,’” says Scodelario.
The Aquarium’s Gemellaro also knows on-the-job aches (smacked by alligator tails). But he remains in awe of the apex predators.
“They’re truly amazing animals,” he says. A student at Suffolk County Community College, Gemellaro, 20, has been drawn to reptiles and insects since he was a tot growing up in Shirley. “Every day I get to work with them, it’s surreal — a dream come true,” he says.
With that, he unleashes the gator from a harness, and carries him off to an outdoor exhibit. The Aquarium has seven gators, and it’s feeding time. (Spoiler — not for the squeamish.)
Later, the “Crawl” co-stars check out the gators, in their sleepy post-meal haze.
“Ahh, they’re not moving,” Pepper says.
Then one does.
“Wuhhhh,” Scodelario shudders.