If you haven’t heard the name McKenna Grace, just turn on a television set or go to a movie theater and you will likely find out what many in Hollywood already know: This girl has talent.
For the last few years, a young, golden-haired starlet has been popping up more and more on screens everywhere. But some may not know the budding star has family roots which burrow deep in southwest Arkansas.
Born in Dallas just over a decade ago to Magnolia native Ross Burge and former Southern Arkansas University student Crystal Burge, McKenna has already made quite a name for herself in the entertainment business. With over 40 film and television credits to her name, including the lead role in the recently released Hollywood film “Gifted,” she has found her way in a competitive and glamorous industry. But how does a little girl from Texas make it to such heights at such a young age?
According to her grandmother, East Side Elementary School teacher and lifelong Magnolia resident Teri Burge, McKenna was a natural born performer.
“I’m telling you, as soon as she could read, she was striking up conversations at restaurants with waiters and reading their name tags and asking them what the soup of the day was,” said Teri. “She has never met a stranger. She always sang and danced and skipped everywhere. She’s just so outgoing. It’s incredible.”
McKenna began her career as a 3-year-old model in Dallas. Under the guidance of her mom Crystal, images of the blue-eyed little star began appearing on toy product packaging and in ads around 2010. After modeling, she shifted to live-action work, particularly commercials. Her first onscreen appearance came as the face of a Dallas/Fort Worth children’s hospital ad campaign.
“It’s still my favorite thing she’s ever done,” said Teri. “It was a commercial for Cook Children’s Medical Center, and I still watch it all the time on Youtube and almost cry. She could barely pronounce her R’s and L’s. It was just so precious – the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen. It ended up being on a billboard there in Dallas for the children’s hospital. It was just her little face up there for everybody to see.”
As a featured actor in numerous television commercials, McKenna even participated in multiple ads which ran during the 2014 Super Bowl. But advertisements were not the heights of McKenna’s career. At four years old, she begged her mother to enroll her in drama lessons. With her natural talent showing through, it did not take the Metroplex theater instructors long to realize that this young lady possessed a different level star quality than most kids.
“They said, ‘Wait a second; this kid’s got real talent,’” Teri said. “So they began taping auditions and sending them to California.”
Not long after trying out for television projects, McKenna was offered the role of Jasmine on a children’s show called “Crash & Bernstein,” which aired on the cable network DisneyXD. The family was faced with a decision either to take the job in California or pass up what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. With all family members in agreement on the matter, Crystal and McKenna decided to move to Hollywood while Ross temporarily stayed in Texas to finish school.
“They made the decision for her and her mom to get an apartment in West Hollywood,” said Teri. “It was just the two of them out there. I can’t say enough about how well Crystal handled being there with no one else. She is just so great at things like that. They had so much family support from everyone. We have all just been so blessed.”
While on “Crash & Bernstein,” McKenna also landed a small role on the daytime CBS soap opera “The Young and The Restless,” where she played Faith Newman from 2013 until 2015. During the early years of her television career, mother and daughter flew back and forth between Los Angeles and Dallas as much as possible to be with family. Once Ross finished his university studies, he moved to be with his wife and child in California and began working in a small southern California beach community.
As McKenna continued working and making a name for herself in show business, she began landing larger and larger roles in more major productions. In 2016, she co-starred with Eddie Murphy in the film “Mr. Church” and accomplished one of her dreams by playing the part of Daisy in the 2016 sequel to “Independence Day.”
“She always wanted to ride in a school bus because she doesn’t attend traditional school because of her schedule,” said Teri. “I always told her that whenever she came to Magnolia next, I was going to get her on a yellow school bus. Lo and behold, while shooting ‘Independence Day,’ she was filming on a bus all the time. She was so excited. She’s just a regular kid who likes regular things.”
Teri attributes much of McKenna’s behind-the-scenes success to her mother, Crystal. An outgoing person in her own right, the Dallas area native and has become quite good at navigating what can sometimes be a rough and tumble business of entertainment.
“Crystal is just the best,” said Teri. “She has such a knack for that world. She is on every set every day with McKenna. She [McKenna] doesn’t go anywhere without her.”
Crystal also enrolls McKenna in activities outside of the film industry to keep a normal life. The young actress is a cheerleader for a local youth football team, and the family members are active in their church. During past visits to Magnolia, McKenna was enamored by the city’s landmarks and activities just as any other child would be, according to her grandmother.
“Last time she was here, we went up to the courthouse and the gazebo on the square. My gosh, she just loved it,” said Teri. “She would go on the steps and sing and go in the gazebo and act like she was a princess. She even liked playing with pine cones in the back yard. Anything most kids like, so does she.”
These days, McKenna spends much of her time jetting around the world filming and promoting television and film projects. In 2016, she became a regular on the Kiefer Sutherland-helmed FOX series “Designated Survivor,” playing the president’s daughter. In the same year, she was cast on the ABC primetime series “Once Upon A Time” as the show’s protagonist’s younger self. McKenna also plays the character of Rose on the 1990s hit family show re-boot of “Full House,” titled “Fuller House,” which airs on Netflix.
With such a busy schedule come many miles of travel in many foreign countries. But McKenna takes everything as a fun way to meet people and see places of which most people can only dream.
“She films ‘Designated Survivor’ in Toronto and ‘Once Upon a Time’ in Vancouver,” said Teri. “In a few weeks, she’s off to Japan to shoot for ‘Fuller House.’ She’s already been everywhere. It’s unbelievable what she’s experienced. She’s crossing all kinds of things off her little bucket list.”
With all of the roles McKenna has landed or been offered, nothing quite compares to her most recent project, which was released in theaters in April. In the drama film titled “Gifted,” the actress was featured in her first major motion picture leading role. She starred as a young mathematical genius named Mary Adler, who is orphaned and raised by her uncle.
The “Gifted” cast was full of major movie stars. McKenna shared the screen with industry heavyweights Chris Evans – known for playing Captain America in blockbuster Marvel Comics movies – and Octavia Spencer, an Academy Award-winning actress and co-star of the acclaimed 2011 film “The Help” and last year’s Oscar-nominated sleeper hit “Hidden Figures.”
McKenna’s performance in “Gifted” has garnered much attention throughout the industry. The film received positive reviews and earned admiration from her co-stars.
“I learned [from McKenna] that when you have talent that big, you give it room and allow it to bloom,” Spencer told the Hollywood Reporter in April.
McKenna’s grandmother shared a story of the most emotional day on the set of “Gifted” which showed the young actress’s raw talent and maturity.
“There’s a very sad scene in ‘Gifted’ where she [McKenna] has to cry,” said Teri. “They were filming in Georgia for months, and Ross flew out there for a week to be with them. They said she was usually skipping and talking to all of the camera guys and crew members, but nobody said a word to her that day so they could get her in the mood. They [the family] sat in her trailer and watched things like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and ‘Old Yeller’ to get to what she [McKenna] calls her ‘dark place.’ She was nine years old at the time of shooting, and she walked out of the trailer ready to go. She had to do the scene over, and over, and over because they have to film from every different angle. They said it was pretty incredible to see.”
The film marked McKenna’s most significant role to date and included a wide theatrical release by FOX Searchlight Pictures. The “Gifted” DVD is available for purchase this Tuesday, July 25.
The Hollywood experience has not been reserved only for McKenna and her parents. In April, Teri and her mother, Marilyn Blackwood, attended the red carpet premiere for Gifted. Once at the event, the two smalltown school teachers and grandparents got a firsthand taste of Tinseltown.
“It’s everything you think it would be,” said Teri. “We got to stand right behind the cameras on the red carpet — which was actually white — and see everything that was happening with the reporters and hear everything McKenna and Chris Evans were saying. There were three sets of grandparents there, and we all had our own security provided for us. They just treated us all like royalty.”
The awe did not stop at the red carpet press line. Once in the legendary Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard to view the film, the Burges not only brushed shoulders with movie stars but shared a tender family moment as well.
“There’s Octavia Spencer sitting right in front of you,” Teri said. “It was just unbelievable. During the movie, Ross took my hand and then he took McKenna’s hand, and we all held hands through the first part of the movie. Just being there in the theater and all holding hands while the movie played – it was just very emotional.”
Once the film hit wide release in the spring, Teri attended multiple screenings of the picture with Magnolia family and friends. Seeing her grandchild on the big screen could only be summed up with one word, according to the proud grandmother.
“It was just surreal,” said Teri. “You see her on the screen, and it’s Ross’s child. I saw it many times in the theater and I think I cried almost every one of them.”
According to IMDB (Internet Movie Database), McKenna will be featured as a young Tonya Harding in the upcoming biopic titled “I, Tonya” set for release in 2018. She also has many projects in the works which have yet to be publicly revealed.
The young performer has a charitable side to go along with her movie career. Through her children’s hospital connections, she has visited numerous sick patients to bring a bit of joy to their day and is involved with the Ronald McDonald House, which assists families with severely ill children. She also loves animals and never goes on set without her trusty stuffed toy seal named DD, who mysteriously makes an appearance on screen in nearly every one of McKenna’s projects.
Teri said that local support for McKenna is astounding. When asking for time off from work – which she had rarely ever done in her long teaching career – to attend the “Gifted” premiere in California, her principal was more than happy to grant her permission to go.
“When I asked to take some personal days, my principal said, ‘Girl, if you don’t go, I’m going to make you go,’” Teri said.
Friends around the community have also made an effort to support McKenna and her career by watching her shows and films.
It’s not often that an actor has such success so quickly but, in McKenna’s case, she has never known anything other than being a working, high-level performer in the film and television business. She has no plans of stopping her blossoming career anytime soon.
“She’s going to keep doing it as long as she still enjoys it,” Teri said. “And I don’t know if she’ll ever get tired of it. She’s never had a lull; she’s been working steadily. When you read about it, that’s every actor’s dream. She loves it.”