Almost two decades ago, ’90s kids thanked Poseidon for not turning them into a mermaid or merman when they hit puberty. Cody Griffin from the Disney Channel Original Movie The Thirteenth Year wasn’t so lucky, but actor Chez Starbuck was only too thrilled to play the character — which made him one of the earliest DCOM stars.
Disney approached Starbuck — whose last name is only too appropriate — after spotting him as a kid anchor for Channel 8 in Las Vegas. Starbuck and his mother and agent at the time, Lorelei, drove to Los Angeles for the audition. After learning the film’s plot, he thought, Oh man, my friends are probably going to make fun of me because I’m going to be a merman, Starbuck admitted to MTV News via phone.
Initially, Starbuck didn’t think his audition went well, but after being asked to read again for the producers, and then sent to a house in Hollywood Hills to show off his swimming skills, things began to look up. Eventually, he beat out the other kids and became Cody “I’m-Actually-A-Merman” Griffin.
“I’ve grown up around the water my whole life,” Starbuck, who was a member of diving team as a teenager, said. During filming, he was required to be certified for scuba diving, which helped him become comfortable with swimming in fake merman fins.
Unfortunately, Starbuck didn’t get to keep any of the fins after shooting was over, but he did take home the posters in his character’s bedroom, as well as his clothes.
While The Thirteenth Year was Starbuck’s first film, his TV movie dad was already a well-established actor from one of the most successful sitcoms of the ’90s. “I didn’t know that [Dave Coulier of Full House] was going to be the dad until we actually started filming it,” Starbuck admitted. Coulier was a fantastic resource for the young actor, helping Starbuck with his performance and making him feel at ease on set.
Plus, the DCOM wasn’t just Starbuck’s first major film — it was Kristen Stewart’s as well. Though uncredited on IMDb, KStew played the bit part of “Girl in Fountain Line,” one of the many students annoyed by Cody’s excessively long drink at the water fountain.
Stewart’s mother, Jules, was the script supervisor for the film and Starbuck said he and KStew “were friends for a while after that,” though he hasn’t seen her in years since he currently lives in Texas. But when he lived in Los Angeles, the two actors kept in touch.
Starbuck’s favorite memory from filming is the movie’s final scene, when he goes full-on merman and jumps out of the water like a total boss. Getting that iconic shot was a little tricky, since Starbuck couldn’t actually jump that high on his own while wearing a giant merman fin. So he had a little help from scaffolding, a rigging system, and some crewmen.
To create the fish out of water part, Starbuck held onto a bar (which you can faintly see in the photo above) while a rigging system yanked him out of the water. Then he simply let go and dove back down. For the second part, a scaffold was placed inside the giant swimming pool — sorry to burst any bubbles, but this was not filmed in the actual ocean — and three men basically tossed Starbuck off it. “That was one of the funnest things, I think, of filming ... some of those water scenes,” he said.
After that epic jump, Cody went on to explore the open water with his mermaid mom, promising to return before school starts. The film’s ending was a bit open, which is why Starbuck said there was always talk of a sequel. However, the high budget was most likely a major hinderance.
“I always just thought that [Cody] went to the ocean and had his own family ... and came back,” Starbuck said of a potential sequel (which he is totally down for, BTW). Cody’s children would follow in their father’s fin-steps and become mermaids (or mermen) on their 13th birthday, only to return to the surface to live a normal life. So, the cycle would continue. (Wink, wink, Disney Channel.)
Starbuck’s most recent projects include The Long and the Short, an indie short film about two hit men, and an untitled movie about a man with Alzheimer’s. He’s also working with former Even Stevens and Don’t Look Under the Bed star Ty Hodges on an upcoming project.