Jess Zacharias had no idea a Hollywood scout was watching her play volleyball at the National Team Challenge Cup in Richmond, B.C., last month.
A week later, the 17-year-old agreed to play the body double in a true story, feature film mirroring her own family's tragic loss —a film about a teenage girl's untimely death — and her volleyball team's determination to pull together during a time of overwhelming grief.
It's a loss that she has experienced first-hand.
Zacharias comes from a family of volleyball players. She plays on the Saskatchewan provincial team, and this summer she trained under the Youth National Development Program. Her two older sisters play volleyball for their college team in Caronport, Sask.
Then there's her oldest sister, Jordan. That's where two stories collide.
Jordan Zacharias was 15 when she learned she had ovarian cancer. She was the oldest of the Zacharias girls and played for the Saskatchewan provincial team in 2009.
In December 2011, she died, at the age of 17.
Search for body double
Hundreds of women turned out for the open casting call for volleyball players at Killarney Secondary School in Vancouver in July.
They were there to fill the roles of "special abilities extras" for the film, Live Like Line.
The film chronicles the true story of an Iowa City high school volleyball team and its quest to win the state championship after the death of their star player, Caroline "Line" Found.
Found, a bubbly and light-hearted 17-year-old, died in a moped accident in 2011.
Less than two weeks later, her mother Ellyn passed away from pancreatic cancer. The community was devastated. And then her team pulled together to honour the legacy of their teammate and friend.
Mark Ellis is the film's sport co-ordinator. He was responsible for finding enough players to cast the on-screen teams.
But after the casting call he was still missing one player. He needed someone to double for Erin Moriarty, one of the lead actors in the film.
"Erin just happens to be a really petite, real petite girl. She's athletic, but at five feet six inches, 108 pounds, you don't find many college athletes — volleyball players specifically — that meet those height and weight requirements. So I knew it was going to be a difficult search."
With filming dates fast approaching, Ellis headed to the Richmond Oval, where teams were battling it out for the National Team Challenge Cup. He said there were eight courts set up when he arrived on a Saturday afternoon.
"And we walked in, and it just happened to be the first court that we went to. I saw this setter, and she was amazing," he said.
That setter was Jess Zacharias, who was playing for the Saskatchewan provincial team that day.
"So I hung out until after the game. I saw her coach, went up and introduced myself. And I know he was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is this Hollywood guy. What is he talking about? What do you mean you like my setter?'"
Ellis said the more he learned about Jess, the more he thought he'd found his girl. That is, until he asked where the team was from.
"'And he said, 'Saskatchewan.' I said, 'Is that like an hour, an hour-and-a-half away?' He says, 'Maybe by plane. We're 1,200 miles away.' And my jaw just dropped and my heart just dropped. I'm like, 'What?!'"
Ellis, who is from South Carolina, says he tried to find someone else. But he couldn't get Zacharias out of his head.
"I just felt like, this was the right girl. There was just something about it."
'Yes, Hollywood's calling'
Derek Zacharias was at home in Caronport, Sask., when the man with a southern accent phoned about his daughter on a Monday night.
"I said, listen, 'Yes, Hollywood's calling,' Ellis said.
Ellis went into pitch mode. He started explaining the story, the logistics, that Helen Hunt would be starring in the film.
"And he [Derek Zacharias] basically said, 'Mark, can I interrupt you real quick?'
Ellis says Zacharias then told him, "You know, it's not by accident, but I think Jess can be a great fit."
And that's when Derek Zacharias shared the story of his daughter Jordan.
Jordan Zacharias, like Line Found, was also a setter on her volleyball team. She was also 17 years old when she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2011, the same year as Line Found.
Derek has coached all four of his daughters in volleyball, and he said the story hit really close to home — as a father, of course, but also as a coach.
"We had some of those same decisions to make. Do you not keep the team going? And how do you pick up the pieces after you have a tragedy in your life?"
"As soon as I heard Derek tell me his story, I knew it was meant to be," Ellis said. "And I said, give her to me. She needs to do this.'
"I just felt like she was supposed to be here. What's the odds?"
'As soon as I heard Derek tell me his story, I knew it was meant to be.' - Mark Ellis
For Jess Zacharias, it's been a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On set at UBC's Thunderbird Sports Centre, Jess is dressed in her volleyball gear, hair pulled back in a ponytail, waiting for her set call. She says the story of Line Found is a familiar one.
"Even like the T-shirts being made, like, we had that. We had T-shirts like 'Jordan's team.' Similar to 'Live Like Line.'"
As filming got underway, Jess's parents came to Vancouver and spent a few days on set. That is where they met Line Found's real-life father, Ernie.
Ellis says it was a powerful moment and gets emotional as he recalls that day.
"It was great to put the two dads together. It was big. It was big," he said.
To hear more of this story, click the link: Saskatchewan teen cast in film that mirrors her own family loss