by William Goss
Luke Benward as Billy in "How To Eat Fried Worms"
Only mere days into sixth grade, and Luke Benward has yet to meet any bullies or make any bets, unlike his character in the new family film "How To Eat Fried Worms." However, that doesn’t make him any less concerned about attending a new school.
“I had been going to school with the same 100 or so kids that I’ve known since kindergarten,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Now there are maybe 300 more people that I don’t know, so yeah, I am kind of nervous, but everyone’s been nice so far.”
In the film, his character, Billy, starts off fifth grade by inadvertently confronting the school bully (Adam Hicks) and subsequently agreeing to consume ten worms in one day, prepared in a variety of ways and armed with colorful names like Le Big Porker, Barf-Mallow, and the Burning Fireball. While Luke himself has never actually eaten a worm (although he did ingest a roly poly at his parents’ promise of a five dollar reward), he did have to hold one in his mouth for a climactic scene. All the other ones, he shared, were made by the props department out of gelatin and clay. “They were flavored, like one was fried with pig fat all around the edges and stuff. My favorite one was the Greasy Brown Toad Bloater Special, which was actually deep-fried with Portobello mushrooms and covered in molasses and syrup.”
Based on Thomas Rockwell’s award-winning 1973 book, the film maintains the central concept while updating almost every other aspect (for one, the bet is now ten worms in one day, as opposed to fifteen worms over fifteen days). “I did read the book, back in third grade. They’ve changed all of the characters, except for my character, Billy, and the bully, Joe. They also added Woody, who is my little brother, and Erika, the girl.” Then again, Luke didn’t just bite at the chance to eat some worms. “I thought it would be a really good role as an actor, and I liked how the storyline was about courage and friendship.”
The shoot took place in and around Austin, Texas over the course of two-and-a-half very hot months. “It was almost 100 degrees all the time and really humid,” he said. Thankfully, all of the young actors got along in spite of the heat. “It was a great experience to hang out with all the other kids. We would talk about each other’s movies, like Philip (Bolden) was in Are We There Yet?, and Alex(ander Gould), who plays Twitch in the movie, was the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo, so we’d all call him Nemo.” According to Luke’s mother, Kenda, all eleven kids were living in the same apartment complex, so “every day was like a big party. They would always be swimming, or bowling, or playing XBox.” Since the shoot, Luke says that all his “buddies” have kept in touch via e-mail and phone, and he looked forward to seeing them all again at this past weekend’s premiere in Las Vegas.
With an actress, Kenda, for a mother and a country performer, Aaron, for a father, Luke’s acting career seems almost inevitable. “My mom would bring me along on auditions if they needed a mom and son, and when I was five years old, in kindergarten, we went to an audition and all I said was the Pledge of Allegiance and I was cute enough to get the part.”
His mother is understandably proud of her son’s progress so far. “I mean, he’s only eleven years old, and he already has three movies under his belt,” she said. “He has far surpassed me at this point, and he works really hard and loves doing it, and we’ll support him as long as he does.” She added with a laugh, “By this point, I’m hoping that he’ll rub off on me a little!”
Kenda serves as Luke’s acting coach, so between herself and his father being a performer, “he kind of gets it from all angles, because he also loves to sing and dance.” She valued the cooperation of Fried Worms writer/director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) as she coached her son. “Bob was a real team player, unlike some directors who want complete control over the set and the actors,” she shared. “He didn’t care, as long as it meant that he was getting the best possible performance from Luke, so it made for a really great set experience, where you could feel free to work, explore, and create.”
However, getting the role in the first place wasn’t nearly as easy, since Luke auditions off tapes filmed in his Franklin, Tennessee home, a rare but effective method. “Well, he originally taped for Joe, the bully, but the casting director didn’t seem to like him for that role, so they set his audition aside. Then AnnaSophia Robb (with whom Luke co-starred in last spring’s Because of Winn-Dixie) auditioned for the role of Erika (which eventually went to Hallie Kate Eisenberg), and she had recommended Luke to the casting director for the role of Billy,” explained Kenda.
“They called us and asked Luke to tape for the role of Billy, which only gave him two days to learn his lines and film his audition, so it could be sent out to Los Angeles the next night. By the time we had finished editing the tape, it was 9:30 on Wednesday night, so I got all of the kids into the van, and since our normal location was closed, we had to go to the next closest one, which happened to be exactly thirty minutes away,” she shared with a note of mild weariness in her voice. “We ended up hitting construction and detours and a train crossing, and ended up lost. We found it by accident, but it was 10:20. The lights were off, but we could see the people in there, although they were shaking their heads and saying they were closed.”
“I finally got one of the ladies to come over to the door and I explained the situation, just begged and pleaded. Finally, she had me fill our the forms on the sidewalk and she took the package, and although she couldn’t promise that it would make it onto the truck, she would try,” continued Kenda. “Sure enough, it made it to LA, and we got a call the next day. We had that night to get on a plane and head out there, and the rest is history.”
Over a year later, Luke finds himself back in school, modest as can be. Of his acting career, he says that “classmates think it’s cool, although some of them get kind of jealous and are mean sometimes, but I just try to blow it off and be nice and humble to them.” That seems like a sound strategy from a young actor who knows better than to bite off more than he can chew.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1917
originally posted: 08/22/06 18:40:13
last updated: 10/17/07 03:26:35