He didn't worm out of a thing

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Spotlight on Luke Benward

August 25, 2006|By Hanh Nguyen | Hanh Nguyen,Zap2it.com

LOS ANGELES -- Even though New Line Cinema's How to Eat Fried Worms takes a few departures from the popular children's book of the same name, Luke Benward knew that one thing wouldn't change: the main character's consumption of wriggly worms.

The filmmakers lucked out when they cast the 11-year-old, who had 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 Luke in a phone interview from Tennessee, where he lives with his family. "And when I was in L.A., my parents dared me to eat a roly-poly bug. I got $5 from that. It tasted like Sour Patch Kids, kind of sour and chewy."

Evidently, Luke 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 confident about his ability to follow through.

"My biggest challenge was when I ate `La Big Porker,'" says Luke, 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" and "The Burning Fireball." In one scene, Luke even had to put a live worm in his mouth.

"The Canadian night crawler wasn't too bad," says Luke. "I didn't bite into it, but it was kind of slimy and a little bit salty."

Although Luke 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 Ryan 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." 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 height and the first student at Billy's new school to support him.

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 Luke's parents, actress Kenda Benward and country musician Aaron Benward, gave him regarding performing in Hollywood.

"My mother told me, `Always do your best,'" Luke says, "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.'"

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