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BAFTA-winning son of Claremont hasn’t forgotten hard lessons learned here

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

When Elliot Graham strode to the podium at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards show in London last month to accept his best editing trophy for his work on the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” he carried with him both the scars and the strength he acquired while growing up in Claremont.

Graham, 45, the son of Claremont residents Susan Seymour and Laurence Graham and 1994 Claremont High School graduate, won the British equivalent to an Oscar at the glitzy awards ceremony on March 16.

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It was a proud moment for him and his family; but it was a hard won victory, one that may not have happened but for some key figures in Graham’s development while navigating his way through the decidedly less tolerant early-1990s as a gay teenager in Claremont.

Graham now lives in Lisbon, Portugal and Los Angeles, and travels the world working on movie sets and in film editing bays. Still though, he’s Claremont through-and-through. He went to Vista and Sycamore elementary schools, El Roble Intermediate, Webb for his first year of high school then CHS for the final three. And make no mistake: he loves Claremont, despite the bullying he experienced.

His first two years of high school were awful. Always a bright student, the torment he encountered affected everything in his life. His grades suffered, with his GPA falling to 2.3.

Increasingly isolated, he spent weeks on end after school in the Claremont Colleges’ Honnold Mudd Library, trying to make sense of what was happening around him. His parents were supportive, but school was another story.

He read Kinsey’s groundbreaking 824-page 1948 “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Books on adolescent psychology followed. Soon, he said, he got past his depression.
“I was never sad about being gay, I was sad about being lonely,” Graham told the COURIER.

His bullies all through his public education in Claremont wielded the pejorative version of the word “gay,” but without any real understanding of what was going on with the young boy or his sexuality. It was a common bludgeon of the era. Graham, like so many adolescents who don’t fit the mainstream mold, didn’t yet have the skills or confidence to stand up for himself.

“I don’t entirely know why it is,” he said. “I think in part because I was such a victim of bullying, the one thing that sort of got me through, instead of slitting my wrists at Claremont High, was I did have one very good friend who is still one of my best friends in the world since I was one-year-old, Jeff McKenna,” who is now a lawyer in San Francisco.

He loved storytelling from an early age. History was of particular interest. From the time he was five years old, he wanted to be a film director.

“The thing that got me through the hard time instead of slitting your wrists, was going, ‘But I have this dream, and I should give it a shot.’”

But even with that determination and drive, the constant harassment naturally wore on him.

Graham credits two Claremont High teachers with playing a major role in his life: one was the late, much-admired Rosemary Adam, who taught American literature and creative writing for 22 years, and was also a widely published poet.

“She was not PC, and she broke rules that you could have been fired for, but she did it anyway,” Graham said of his influential teacher. “So, I learned a lot from watching her. And she saw something in me when I didn’t see something in me. That made a difference.”

The other early ray of encouragement came from recently retired chemistry teacher Pat Smolenski.

“He taught chemistry,” Graham said. “I don’t know anything about chemistry, but teachers aren’t always about what they teach when you’re that age; they’re about helping you understand life.”
He also had some bad experiences with teachers at CHS.

“This teacher, Ms. ______, told me that I would not succeed, that I had no hope, that I was the worst thing in the class. And for a guy who was gay and being belittled by all the kids around him, for a teacher to do that? Not okay.

“But then you have the Pat Smolenskis in chemistry, who goes, ‘I see something in you.’ And you have Mrs. Adam, who goes, ‘I see something in you.’ And they make all the difference in your life.”

Finally feeling seen and valued, his grades soared to a near 4.0 average over his final two years at CHS.

After graduation he flew off to NYU, intent on becoming a director. Soon he was making and editing his own student films, and found himself editing colleagues’ work as well. He had a knack for it and, more importantly, enjoyed the solitary work of “cutting” films.

He found the film business was all but closed off to young editors. He kept at it, gobbling up books by successful entrepreneurs from Richard Branson to Albert Einstein to Michael Jordan.

“And what you certainly gather was that nobody took the path that was laid out for them, right?” he said. It was, “That’s the stairway. Good luck. What I discovered in all the stories was you look for the invisible elevator, whatever that is.”

His work ethic was unassailable, as was his thirst for knowledge. Soon he was picking up internships. Things began happening for him.

“I got those breaks early, and you get those breaks and you just sort of let the ball keep rolling,” Graham said.

His first big film credit was on “Last Minute,” in 2001. Mentors stepped up, each offering vital encouragement and advice. That guidance, along with Graham’s work ethic and determination helped create opportunities.

For a year he worked nights editing music videos. That music video work led to what would be his big break, editing 2003’s “X2: X-Men United.”

He was 25, running a $200 million movie.

He’s since had more than 13 credits, including co-editing Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” in 2017, Marvel’s 2019 blockbuster “Captain Marvel,” and of course last year’s BAFTA-winning, “No Time to Die.”

Lisbon, where the COURIER reached Graham, is obviously a long way from Claremont, both geographically and for him, emotionally. He’s spent half his professional life working in Europe, and the Portuguese city was always a favorite destination, so much so he recently bought and is restoring an apartment there.

At 45, he’s now in a position to slow down, work a little less, and enjoy the view of the River Tagus from his old town Lisbon balcony.

“And you just want to drink some wine at the end of the day and watch the sunset, and just stay there for the rest of your life,” he said. “My cup runneth over in the sense that somehow I’ve ended up, later in life, with more good friends, real friends, who’d fly around the world for me and I would for them. We tell each other we love each other. It’s the reverse or where it started.”

Though Graham’s hard work and will to succeed have led him to a place of peace, the lessons he learned at Claremont High nearly 30 years ago are still with him.

“I still meet people like the teachers who inspired me and told me there was something worth going after in me, and the teachers who didn’t.

“My thing is, you want to be an actor? Go for it! Why should I not believe in you? You might have something special. So, I always tell people to go for it when I meet them in anything they do, and give them whatever advice I can give, and say ‘Believe in yourself.’”

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