Originally created 01/19/98

Columbia native steals elevator scene in big budget Titanic



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- "I'm going back up!" "I'm going back up!"

Say those lines from an elevator scene in "Titanic" and they seem so trivial, especially considering the blockbuster movie's three-hour sprawl.

Now try them 30 times. Standing in freezing water. With the hint of an English accent. While acting terrified. And forget all those cameras and Kate Winslet at your side.

That's what Sean Nepita, a 24-year-old actor from Columbia, had to do for a speaking role in this season's biggest movie.

Nepita, who graduated from A.C. Flora High School in 1992 and attended the University of South Carolina, plays an elevator operator in "Titanic." He actually has three lines, but they happen fast.

"Originally it was just two (lines)," he said by phone from his home in Hollywood. "Can you imagine that: Auditioning for two lines? It was weird."

But perhaps not nearly as weird as seeing a kid from the neighborhood in Hollywood's most expensive movie ever.

Nepita, who has lived in Los Angeles for two years, has appeared in nine other TV shows and films, including an episode of "Murphy Brown." Still, the part in "Titanic," which has earned about $197 million since opening Dec. 19, is clearly his biggest break.

"It surprised me," he said. "It was the smallest speaking part in the movie and they actually didn't want any non-English (supporting actors). But I convinced them."

Nepita's part occurs during the long sinking sequence. Winslet stumbles across an elevator while trying to access the lower decks. She's looking for co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, who's handcuffed to a pipe.

So how was it working with Winslet? "Oh, she was a doll ... real mothering."

DiCaprio? "He's a nice guy. Nothing special. I didn't hang out with him too much."

And director James Cameron? "You gotta give it to him; he had a vision ... a real man's man."

In keeping with the secretive filming of "Titanic," Nepita told only his immediate family he had the part. While on location in Rosarita, Mexico, he didn't tell them about filming or his scene. Even now, Nepita has only one Polaroid of the three-month job where he "physically worked one week," although making union pay (about $520 daily) the entire time.

"He was so professional," said his mother, Janice Nepita, a nursing supervisor for Hospice Homecare Resources at Baptist Medical Center. She has seen the movie seven times. "We knew he was in Mexico because of the phone calls, but he didn't share anything. It was very exciting."