Benward Hooked on 'Fried Worms'
Young actor tests his stomach in adaptation of kids' bookLOS ANGELES --
The filmmakers lucked out when they cast the 11-year-old, who had already read Thomas Rockwell's book in third grade and also had a pretty strong stomach for eating unusual things.
"[I've eaten] twigs and leaves," says Benward in a phone interview from Tennessee, where he lives with his family. "And when I was in LA, my parents dared me to eat a roly-poly bug. I got five dollars from that. It tasted like Sour Patch Kids, kind of sour and chewy."
Evidently, Benward doesn't get grossed out easily, unlike his character Billy Forrester, who gets nauseated at the slightest provocation -- whether it's from smelling strange odors, riding in a car for hours or watching his little brother Woody's (Ty Panitz) sloppy eating habits. So when he bets Joe Guire (Adam Hicks), the bully at his new school, that he can eat 10 worms in one day, Billy isn't exactly confident about his ability to follow through.
Benward's squeamishness was tested to the limit. He admits that spinning in circles upsets his stomach, something Billy has to endure on the playground, and that how many of the edible prop worms were prepared wasn't terribly appetizing.
"My biggest challenge was when I ate 'La Big Porker,'" says the actor, referring to the first worm in the film that is supposedly fried in lard. "I had to do that scene over and over again, and the fat made me sick. On the outside they made it look like it had fat hanging off of it and made it look like some of the worm slime melted into the fat. The special effects people also made it squirt goo."
Like an "Iron Chef" episode gone wrong, "Fried Worms" dreams up numerous creative ways to cook the worms for Billy's delectation. Benjy (Ryan Malgarini), Joe's right hand man, is the culinary mastermind behind the likes of "Radioactive Slime Delight," "The Barfmallow" and "The Burning Fireball." In one scene, Benward even had to put an actual live worm in his mouth.
"The Canadian night crawler wasn't too bad," observes Benward. "I didn't bite into it, but it was kind of slimy and a little bit salty."
Like "Fear Factor," "Fried Worms" will appeal to audiences who like projects with a high gross-out factor, something the actor accepts, but doesn't quite understand.
"I don't know, but I like to scare myself," he says. "Not with scary movies, but like I'll think about a robber being downstairs. I like things that make me scared, and I guess some people like things that make them barf."
Although Benward was the only one required to eat the fake worms in the film, he wasn't alone in tasting the odd concoctions. One of the prop guys appointed himself the actor's official taster, while co-stars Malgarini and Tom Cavanaugh, who plays Billy's dad Mitch, also got in on the worm-eating action out of curiosity and a strong sense of solidarity.
In fact, the actors all bonded quickly and dubbed the Austin, Texas set "Camp Worms" because of its fun atmosphere. Director Bob Dolman encouraged the cast to call each other by their character names, which not only promoted camaraderie, but also made it easier to remember who was who since a total of 10 boys played principal roles in the film as members of Billy or Joe's "teams."
The lone girl on set was Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who portrays Erika Tanzy, an outcast because of her tall stature and the first student at Billy's new school to support him. As an outsider, she watches the boys scrambling around to feed Billy worms and observes, "Boys are pretty weird." In real life, however, Eisenberg had an active part in Camp Worms and even impressed Benward with her skills.
"Hallie was so cool," he enthuses. "She learned to ride a unicycle and she could use the devil sticks. I think that's what they're called. It's when you have two sticks and another one bouncing back and forth between them."
In the end, Billy finds the courage to overcome his weak stomach and learns the value or true friendship over popularity. These lessons echo the advice Benward's parents, actress Kenda Benward and country musician Aaron Benward, gave him regarding performing in Hollywood.
"My mother told me, 'Always do your best,'" reveals the young actor, "and my dad says, 'It's important to be humble. That's the key. They're not there for you. You're there for them.'"
"How to Eat Fried Worms" wiggles into theaters nationwide on Friday, Aug. 25.