Little Towson actor bears witness to the whims of fate

October 26, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

If you want to break your kid into show business, forget the primping and preening for diaper and breakfast cereal commercials.

Forget the casting calls where you stand in line with 300 other mothers who think their bratty kid is the cutest.

The trick, if you have a kid like 10-year-old Ben Faulkner of Towson, is simply to make him go to school when he doesn't want to go.

On a June day last year, as Ben sat in his third-grade Stoneleigh Elementary School classroom, casting agents for the film "Silent Fall" walked through his school as part of a nationwide search to find a young actor to play a 9-year-old autistic child. They saw Ben, liked Ben, and put him on the list of finalists for a lead role, which he eventually landed.

And on that fateful morning, Ben recalls, he had pleaded with his mother to let him stay home because he felt ill.

Luckily, she said no, it's just end-of-the-school-year angst. Off you go.

"And at the end of the day," recalls Mary Faulkner, "he came home and put his arms around me and said, 'Thanks, Mom, I love you.' "

"I've never done any acting at all before this," says Ben as he bounces up and down on his living room couch.

The film takes place in the movie's fictional Maryland county of Waterville, where Ben plays a 9-year-old autistic child who is the sole witness to his parents' grisly murders.

Because the boy can't talk, an empathetic child psychologist played by Richard Dreyfuss attempts to reach within the child to solve the crime.

Ben will be on hand at the Baltimore premiere of the film at the Senator Theater tonight at 7:30 p.m., and will help unveil a new "Silent Fall" commemorative signature block in front of the theater. "Silent Fall" opens in other theaters on Oct. 28.

The film is basically a murder mystery, says Ben, who himself, as it turns out, is quite a connoisseur of blood and guts.

His two favorite movies are Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and "The Birds." He proudly displays a handmade, fold-out cardboard triptych of clippings from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies. Mom and Dad haven't let him see any of the movies yet, but that's not stopping him from dressing up as the movie's Freddy Krueger for Halloween.

Ben says he didn't know what autism was until his preparation for the role brought him and the film's cast to the Linwood Children's Center in Ellicott City, a school for autistic children. There, Ben observed them and tried to emulate -- and understand -- their actions and behaviors.

"I was only in the third grade," he says, "but I think I was pretty good at being autistic. I could match their actions. I watched them for two hours and tried to understand what they were doing."

He also marveled at what the children could do, like play beautiful piano music, even if they couldn't talk.

By many accounts, his portrayal of an autistic child and silent witness to murder was tack sharp, especially for an untrained, 9-year-old actor.

"His intuition was excellent," says Dr. Mark Komrad, a psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, who served as psychiatric consultant to the film's director and writer. "He was a particularly sensitive child and was able to mimic the children. It was a pretty good portrayal of a high-functioning autistic."

Ben's role also gave his brother Andy, who was 6 at the time, a chance to appear as an extra. Because almost all of the filming was in and around Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, Ben could live at home with his family and continue to attend fourth grade.

As for now, he's content to look at his film debut as "not a job, but more of a good experience," so it may be some time before he develops into a new Hollywood wunderkind. He's still an innocent 10-year-old, insists his mother, and still more interested in playing with friends than turning his newfound fame into celluloid superbrat status.

Not that that couldn't happen, though.

When asked who the star of the movie was, he offers a shy half-grin.

"I don't mean to brag or anything," he answers, "but my mom and a lot of other people say I'm the star."

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