Following their success with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors in 1987, writers Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont updated the classic 1950s B-movie picture The Blob, with Russell once again in the director’s chair. While the 1958 classic featured scree heartthrob Steve McQueen as the local rebel, the ‘80s remake starred Kevin Dillon as teenage delinquent Brian Flagg, a Jim Morrison wannabe who has attracted the unwanted attention of the town sheriff.
While Meg Penny, a wholesome high school cheerleader, could easily have been written as a generic blonde bimbo, seventeen-year-old Shawnee Smith (later of the Saw franchise) plays against type as a headstrong and resourceful heroin. When the military are called in and the community is placed under quarantine, the residents soon discover that they have as much to fear from their protectors as from an extra-terrestrial monster that has been devouring the locals.
In a supporting role as Meg’s younger brother Kevin was twelve-year-old Michael Kenworthy. 1988 would also see him play the pre-teen hero in Ken Wiederhorn’s horror comedy Return of the Living Dead Part II, but it would be The Blob, with its groundbreaking special effects and a cast that included Eraserhead‘s Jack Nance and future Baywatch beauty Erika Eleniak, that would prove to be the biggest hit with critics and audiences alike.
Michael Kenworthy talks about surviving The Blob, working with Shawnee Smith and life as a child actor.
Following your role as Jesse Wilson in Return of the Living Dead Part II, how did you come to be cast as Kevin Penny in The Blob?
Unlike the Return of the Living Dead Part II, the casting process was really short. I basically had only a few meetings with the producers and director and that was it. With the Return of the Living Dead Part II, I must have gone to more than a dozen interviews with different people before being told I had been chosen.
When did you first meet Chuck Russell and what were your impressions of him?
I first met Chuck during the brief auditions, but on-set I could tell he was the most experienced director I had worked with yet. He had a sense of command and respect about him, and he had the ability to get everyone motivated and focused with only a few words over the megaphone. Not everyone could do that. On a set there are dozens and dozens of moving parts, but he was the kind of guy that never let you see him sweat. He handled all the moving parts with an apparent ease and had a calm, measured demeanour throughout the entire shoot. I really looked up to him.
Being of such a young age, there were strict laws for child actors working in the industry. What kind of routines were you forced to work under on the set of The Blob?
After a while you began to feel bad for the rest of the production, because everything would be set up and you would be working away and someone would be there saying the kids only have ‘so much’ time left. So, in effect, it felt like being a minor always held back the production in some way or another. Typically, we would go to school for three hours a day, whenever it fit in, then we would be available to work for a period of hours after that with no overtime. I loved all of it, and would have worked until I fell asleep standing, but it just wasn’t up to me. As I got older I completely understood why older actors that looked younger would often play children’s or teenagers’ roles.
Having already starred in one horror movie, was this a genre you were a fan of at that time and how different did your friends treat you at school because of this?
Having started when I was five-years-old doing commercials and the occasional TV show here and there, I was still ripe meat for older kids at school to pick on me or call me names. Especially if I had done a funny commercial for something, like for a pest control company. But the release of these movies stopped all of that. It was as if they were much more legitimate and the same kids that used to pick on me were suddenly quick to say they knew me.
How was your relationship with your older co-stars and were you close friends with Douglas Emerson?
I got along great with Douglas; he was a lot of fun. I remember that a few years later when Aaron Spelling had offered me a six-year contract to be on Beverly Hills 90210, they also offered Douglas a role for the first season of 90210. Unlike Douglas, I changed my mind at the last minute and decided I wanted to go to college instead of signing away my life for six years. To this day, I still think it is one of the best decisions I ever made. I moved away from acting and my acting crowd and became a student and started several businesses based on cutting edge technologies being developed at the time.
Meanwhile, many of my friends that never took a break from acting since they were a child were not doing very well, both personally and professionally, and many of them ended up in bad places. I don’t know about Douglas, he’s probably a very happy and successful guy somewhere, but many others ended up miserable. Because I stopped and took a break before I got too well known I got a chance to live a normal life and I would not trade that for anything!
As far as getting along with the rest of the cast, they were great. I remember running into Kevin Dillon several times over the years and he was always really supportive and kept telling me to keep up the companies I had started and to stay out of the acting world if I could. Of course, this was before he got his great role in Entourage and, to be honest, it has been so many years since I have seen him I doubt he would remember me without a little help.
You have confessed to having a crush on Shawnee Smith during filming, can you elaborate on this?
It was Shawnee Smith! How could a young boy not have a crush on her?! She was the kind of person you met, like when I met Angelina Jolie when she was sixteen or Milla Jovovich when she was also just a teen, and you instantly knew that this person was going to be a star. Shawnee had that quality about her, and everyone treated her that way, especially the crew and the director. But, alas, I was a small boy at that time, so a crush is all that it would ever be. Especially when you’re up against Kevin Dillon.
Did you watch the original 1958 version of The Blob prior to filming?
Definitely. It was not nearly as impactful as the original Night of the Living Dead movie for me, which scared the heck out of me, but I remember watching it and was glad we were making a modern version of it in colour. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so modern anymore.
The remake was very special effects-orientated. What do you recall of working with prosthetics and blue screen?
A lot of that was done in post, so as far as during filming it just resulted in us having to react to something that they would tell us was there but we could not see. Coming off ROTLD II, where nearly everything was done live, it was a bit different, but I didn’t mind at all. If anything, it made the first viewing a lot more interesting because there were a lot of things we saw for the first time then.
Did you enjoy the various action sequences and did you find these physically demanding?
They were always my favourite parts. Especially in the tunnels they constructed on the sets and filled with water. It was hard at times to wade through the water for hours on end, or just to stay warm when the water started to cool. But the action scenes naturally got one excited, which would always translate well to film, so I think they were welcomed by all.
What was your favourite scene to shoot?
All the tunnel and sewer scenes involved so many people and so many elements, not to mention it would get dark and cold, so they were by far my favourite to shoot.
The filmmakers made a bold move by killing off one of the child characters, Eddie Beckner. Did you find this sequence disturbing and did the movie encounter any controversy because of this?
I did not encounter any controversy over it, just a lot of people saying they did not expect it. What I remember most is how fascinating it was when they pulled the stunt guy playing Eddie away in his harness at lightning speed! Even knowing what was going on, it was still scary to see someone standing next to you one second and then flying away into thin air the next!
Have you considered returning to the industry?
Recently, since joining Facebook for the very first time in my life, not only have I been overwhelmed by the huge amount of fans still out there, I have been approached to go to conventions all over and meet fans. I was a bit unsure at first, but after attending my first convention I realised that the fans were not only still out there in numbers but were really happy to meet me. As things sometimes go, one thing leads to another, so by reappearing, so to speak, after all these years, a great deal of new acting opportunities are presenting themselves and the timing feels perfect.
I never really meant to stop altogether; I just meant to take a break. But now I am being given a chance to get back into acting and it feels like my life is coming full-circle. When one does something from the time they are five-years-old to seventeen, it kinda defines them in some deep way, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope I can pick up where I left off and take it to the next level now that I can draw on so many years of living a much more real lifestyle!