By Kristina Houck
Local martial artist Rayna Vallandingham is taking her skills from the floor mat to the big screen. The 10-year-old is co-starring in “Underdogs,” a film written, directed and produced by actor and martial artist Phillip Rhee.
“When I was little, I was so shy. I thought I would never like acting,” said Rayna, who lives in Encinitas. “Once I gave it a try, I really loved it. I just like being in front of the cameras.”
“Underdogs” tells the story of former mixed martial arts champion Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee (Rhee), who teaches karate to a group of underprivileged children. Rayna plays “Leticia Hernandez,” the only girl in the group.
With only a few auditions under her belt, Rayna said her martial arts background gave her the confidence she needed to land her first acting role.
“I always get nervous for everything,” said Rayna, a third-degree black belt, who holds 11 taekwondo world titles. “I was very nervous, but when I went in there, I just let go and had fun. I tried my best to make them like me.”
“She really wanted it because it was a martial arts movie,” added, Rayna’s mother, Joty Vallandingham. “She was like, ‘I want this,’ and the competition came out of her.”
Rayna began studying taekwondo at Church’s Martial Arts in Encinitas when she was 3 years old. Joty said her daughter started training at such a young age because she had no confidence and was very shy. In fact, she hid under her chair for the first month at the school.
Despite years of performing and competing before crowds, however, Joty was still surprised to see her daughter acting in front of cameras.
“She really went into character and surprised me,” Joty said. “It was huge for me to see her actually get out of herself and really try to portray this girl. She wanted to do the best job she could do and show Mr. Rhee that she was the right person for the job. I think that meant a lot to her.”
Filming for the movie, which is expected to be released next year, wrapped early August. Rayna said she will miss working with her co-stars, especially Rhee.
“I think he’s inspirational,” Rayna said. “He helped me a lot, not only with my acting, but with my martial arts. He helped me in many ways.”
Although she will continue training at Pride Martial Arts in Chula Vista, Rayna plans to take a year off from competition to pursue acting.
“I love being a different person,” Rayna said.
“It’s really fun. There’s no pressure.”