Back in February, a simpler time when our brains were not fully consumed with the anxiety of a global pandemic, the internet debated a grave question: Was Leonardo DiCaprio famous before Titanic hit theaters in December 1997?
Some argued 1996's Romeo + Juliet had made him a superstar, while others (incorrectly) felt he was merely a working actor. For eight-year-old Alex Owens-Sarno, he was "my friend Leo."
Credited in Titanic as Alexandrea Owens, she played a tiny, wide-eyed steerage passenger named Cora Cartmell who got to dance with DiCaprio who told her and be told with a wink that she was still his best girl despite him abandoning her to do a jig with Kate Winslet instead.
When she came home after her first day of filming and gushed about her suspender wearing, center-parted new pal, her mom promptly popped What's Eating Gilbert Grape? into the VHS player.
"She was like, 'Do you know who your new friend is?'" Owens-Sarno told VICE. "' This is your new friend, Alex. We need to understand the gravity of the situation.'"
A fortuitously crying sister
From the moment she was named after Jennifer Grey's Flashdance character, Alexandrea Owens-Sarno didn't have a typical childhood. She grew up on a ranch with her parents and little sister Rachel in San Diego, where she rode horses "since the day I was born, basically." Her glamorous young mom, Kathryn Owens, was a barrel racer and beauty queen who also did rodeo pageants, which appear to be similar to beauty pageants but on horseback and in rhinestone-adorned cowboy hats. Owens-Sarno's distant acting hopes mainly centred on becoming a Barney & Friends cast member.
But when she was 8, her mom spotted an open casting call for extras in James Cameron's buzzy new film, Titanic, which had already begun filming at Fox's Baja studio in Rosarito, Mexico. Sensing that her two daughters were exceptionally adorable – and having a flair for the spotlight herself – Kathryn packed up the car and drove them across the border.
As they waited with hundreds of other potential extras in the crowded studio by the sea (built especially to accommodate Cameron's full-size replica of the Titanic and massive water tanks), Kathryn regaled her young daughters with the story of what exactly happened to the ill-fated ship. Alex took it in stride, but for Rachel, who was around 4 years old at the time, it was too much to bear. Rachel started bawling.
"The casting director, Mali Finn, just happened to walk by at that exact moment," Owens-Sarno recalled. "She was like, 'Get that kid in a costume. Get her on a lifeboat right now.'"
Rachel's crying had made her a perfect contender to play the random small child Billy Zane grabs when he's trying to score a spot on a lifeboat by pretending he's a single dad. But "it was a stressful situation for her and she was crying too much. She kind of couldn't control herself," Owens-Sarno said. "James Cameron was like, 'Someone find this girl's mom! This is really bad.' So, that part didn't work out for her."
Because of Rachel's tears, however, Finn noticed Alex standing stoically nearby and sent her to audition for the role of Cora, a part originally written as a 5-year-old blonde girl. With no previous acting or auditioning experience, an older, chestnut-haired Owens-Sarno managed to book the part.
"I think it was probably just my giant eyes, honestly," she said. "I have these big eyes that people are like, 'Oh my gosh, they're so emotive.' I can't really hide things."
Rachel and Kathryn also scored gigs as extras – and the latter somehow parlayed her rodeo experience into doing stunt work on the perilously lowered lifeboats – and within a few weeks, they were all back on set to shoot what would become the highest-grossing movie ever at the time.
Hanging with Leo
Filmed over the course of 160 days on a $200-million budget, Titanic was a massive production, especially for a third grader getting her first taste of the industry. Fortunately, Owens-Sarno had the perfect scene partner in DiCaprio.
From their very first moments on set together, the then lanky 22-year-old playing Jack Dawson made sure Owens-Sarno felt comfortable and had fun regardless of the demands of the shoot.
"He was a child actor, so he knows what it's like to be on your first set," she said. "He was really good about that. He would run back and forth and pretend to pick his nose to make me laugh. I think he knew that I really enjoyed him."
During Owens-Sarno's roughly ten days on set between October 1996 and early 1997, DiCaprio also brought her a steady stream of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from craft services, a move she appreciated despite his bread choice. "I just remember being like, 'I don't really like wheat, but this is very nice of you,'" she said.
She eagerly invited him to go trick-or-treating with her in San Diego, and he politely told her he’d ask his manager, saying, “I really want to, but I don't know if I'm gonna have time.” (He did not, in fact, have time.)
For their pivotal scene, twirling merrily around the dance floor at a rowdy third-class party, DiCaprio put her "awkward" dancing fears at ease, walking her through each move they’d do, like "Okay, I'm gonna spin you around now and I'm gonna throw you out and bring you back, and let's just have a good time," as they filmed take after take.
Another deleted scene featured the two of them drawing together on a bench as Cora sweetly called him "Uncle Jack."
"It was the scene that leads up to them being on the deck when Jack shows Rose his drawings for the first time," she said, adding that the unseen sketch they created together was a picture of "God above the clouds crying and that was the rain over the earth. It was really deep, very existential."
Also on the cutting room floor: Cora's death. The young immigrant's fate was sealed in a deleted scene, which showed her trapped in a rapidly flooding lower deck corridor with her parents.
"I didn't realise that Cora was going to die until I met my stunt double. He was a grown man and he was in full makeup," she said. "He was very sweet, but it was so creepy."
The set for the scene was a narrow hallway hanging from a crane and lined with doors to nowhere. To create the illusion of flooding, the crane raised and lowered the corridor into a water tank. And for reasons unknown, Cameron decided on the day that Owens-Sarno was capable of doing her own stunts, instead of the trained grown man.
"James Cameron was just like, 'All right, Alex, you're gonna be completely safe, but I do want you to imagine that Mom and your little sister just died. How does that make you feel?'" she said. "I was like, 'Ok, this is horrifying.' He got me crying, and then we went and did it."
Taking care not to ruin her carefully permed hair, Owens-Sarno treaded water and screamed a pitiful "Daddy!" as the 60-degree tides rushed around her. But ultimately, test audiences felt knowing Cora perished was simply too much tragedy on top of an already tragic film, so Cameron cut the distressing scene.
The biggest movie on the planet
Shockingly, Owens-Sarno didn't score an invite to the Titanic premiere. But she did attend the cast-and-crew screening, where she was absolutely not prepared to see an icy DiCaprio sink to the bottom of the ocean.
"I didn't know how it was going to end," she said. "I had never seen it in full until the cast-and-crew party, and I was sobbing, openly sobbing. I was this little tiny girl crying my eyes out like, 'Oh my god, not Leo! Why!'”
Still, she saw it 11 more times in theatres as Titanic-mania swept the nation and her school. While the other kids were mostly in awe of her brush with fame (and with Leo), some bullied her and assumed she was a "rich bitch" from her role in the film that made more than $2 billion worldwide. In reality, she only got paid a “featured extra” fee, and she never saw a dime of residuals. "I know at some point I was probably being a little snotty," she admitted. "And people were probably like, okay, you need to get over it."
Although the film was nominated for 14 Oscars, she didn't get to walk the red carpet in 1998 and instead watched the ceremony at home on TV. In an essay for school soon after, she wrote, "On the Oscars there was a clip for Titanic and I, Alexandrea Kathryn Owens-Sarno, was in the clip. I was so proud of myself. I couldn't believe it. That was the start of my career."
Back to normalcy
But a child acting career just wasn't in the cards. Post-shoot, Owens-Sarno got an agent and started going to auditions in L.A., while continuing to live in San Diego. The two hours-plus drive took a toll on the family. No parts materialised, and after losing out on the role of Penny in 1999's Inspector Gadget to Michelle Trachtenberg, she called it quits.
"It just never really panned out, which I actually ended up being fine with because I had a fairly normal childhood despite Titanic," she said. "It was really weird being recognised in public, being approached by adults who were like, 'Oh my god, are you that little girl?' It was very strange. I kept doing plays, and I did drama in high school. But it just wasn't on the same scale."
After attending California State University, Long Beach, where she first studied chemistry and then writing, she decided to turn her sights on the industry once again.
She moved to LA, got back into acting with a role in a friend's homoerotic evangelical exorcism film, and also filmed an upcoming indie with All That's Josh Server called The Haunting of Grady Farm. She now bartends five days a week and creates comedy sketches and web series with her roommate Mackenzie Ogden and others on the side.
Plus, she's working on a coming-of-age screenplay called "Ranger," about a teenage girl dealing with depression and her mom's remarriage, which she says is "definitely rooted in personal experience."
"I feel like when you're young, you don't really know what that feeling is of not really being happy. Especially when you have stability and a roof over your head and friends. And we don't talk about kids having these feelings enough," she said. "You have so much potential and you feel like you're not really living up to it."
Her heart will go on
Now 31, Owens-Sarno recently jumped out of a plane at 14,000 feet and has three tattoos and a septum ring. (At various points, she's also had a dermal anchor, lip ring, belly button and Monroe piercings.) "I'm getting to the point where I'm in my 30s now, so I'm like, let's just live," she said. "Let's just go for it."
But no matter how old she gets, the ubiquity of Titanic and her trademark giant eyes means she'll never really escape being Cora.
At least one adult male has a large tattoo of her in character on his arm, and she said, "I definitely get hit up in my DMs a lot on Instagram. It varies between, 'Hi, how are you?' and 'You're still my best girl, Cora. Guys are just gonna shoot their shot any way they can. I'm kind of seeing this guy right now, and he did text me, 'You're still my best girl,' the other day. I told him he was fired."
While she hasn't kept in contact with anyone from the film, she's forever cheering for Winslet and her best boy DiCaprio from afar. "I love them so much. They're already so incredibly talented and then to know that they're amazing, genuine human beings that saw these little kids [on set] and were just like, 'Hell yeah, we love it,'" she said. "I'm always on their team, always rooting for them. I mean, how could you not?"
There's only one aspect of the movie she's less than attached to: Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
"It is so problematic. That song haunts me. It follows me everywhere. I can't shake it. I'll go out to karaoke with my friends, and inevitably, someone [else at the bar] will sing it," she said. "Every time I hear it, I have a visceral reaction. It's a forever thing, and I understand it's a beautiful song. But oh, man. It's visceral."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.