EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Indian American Rayna Vallandingham already has 11 world championships under her third-degree black belt, but now she’s gearing up to make her acting debut in Phillip Rhee’s “Underdog Kids.”
Combining the wacky sense of humor of the “Power Rangers” with the martial arts expertise of “The Karate Kid,” the film tackles the issues of poverty and integrity while maintaining a lighthearted tone.
“It’s a movie to teach kids to never give up, and it’s better to try and fail than to not try at all,” Vallandingham told India-West at a premiere of the film here June 16.
The 12-year-old star from Encinitas, Calif., plays Leticia Hernandez, a young Latina whose only wish — besides being a martial arts champion — is to get her nails painted instead of selling oranges on the side of the road with her father.
Leticia, like all the other kids on the Mid-City Community Center’s karate team, comes from a disadvantaged background and needs help being able to turn the negative things in her life into something positive.
Enter Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt,” played by Rhee, who also wrote and directed the film. Jimmy teaches the kids the three R’s: respecting others, respecting yourself and taking responsibility for your own actions.
In addition to being able to show off her acting chops, the young star also got a chance to demonstrate her martial arts prowess.
Having done martial arts for the last nine and a half years, Vallandingham said now she is trying to become more of an actress.
“My dream is to be an action hero — I look up to the Marvel series, the Avengers, Terminator,” she told India-West. “Action movies are my game.”
Along with actors such as Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, Vallandingham said she has always looked up to Rhee.
“I love ‘Best of the Best,’” Vallandingham said. “Master Phillip Rhee is in it. I’ve always looked up to him; he’s a role model to me.”
Though she wants to focus more on acting, the rising star is still training in martial arts and hoping to compete in the Olympics one day.
Vallandingham began studying Taekwondo when she was three years old and is currently training under Olympian Peter Lopez and three-time Olympic coach Jean Lopez, who helped her win the Nevada State Taekwondo Championship in February.
“It’s so harsh. You have to train at least three hours a day, on and on and on,” the young martial artist told India-West.
She added, “It’s great to be able to work with such great coaches. It really is hard and takes a lot of courage and determination to reach that goal.”
Her father, Jeffrey Vallandingham, said he initially got both his children involved in martial arts to help build up their discipline and work ethic, in addition to all the other benefits martial arts has to offer. He said he also wanted to help her break out of her shell.
“She was painfully shy,” he explained. “She would literally hide under the benches. Some of the really skilled young girls who worked there finally coached her out, and then she just took off. She just really had a knack for it and was able to excel pretty quickly.”
In addition to acting and martial arts, Rayna has also been active in “Child Prodigies” with her friend and fellow martial artist Channah Zeitung. The duo perform at county fairs, carnivals schools and events to promote anti-bullying.
Vallandingham’s mother, Joty Vallandingham (maiden name Sandhu), who also has a cameo in the film, said she wanted to make sure her daughter was using her celebrity status to contribute something positive to the world.
Coming from a Punjabi Sikh background, Joty said the values of giving back are deeply embedded in their culture.
The film also stars Adam Irigoyen, Ryan Potter, Cade Sutton, Mirelly Taylor, Patrick Fabian, Tom Arnold and Beau Bridges.
(“Underdog Kids” will be available on-demand on Starz Digital and for purchase on DVD July 7.)