Directed by Joseph Kahn, written by Alex Larsen (former rap battler Kid Twist) and produced by Eminem, the sure to be controversial flick Bodied is the satirical story of Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), a grad student whose interest in battle rap as a thesis subject leads to him becoming an accidental battle rapper himself. As his success sparks outrage, his competitive obsession puts him at odds with his family and friends.
At the Los Angeles press day for the film (which is in theaters on November 2nd and available to stream on YouTube Premium on November 28th), actor Calum Worthy talked about why he wanted to be a part of Bodied, playing a character that you question whether he’s a hero or a villain, how he prepared for the shoot, what it was like to shoot the rap battles on set, and the most fun rap battle sequence. He also talked about the type of projects he’d like to do in the future, his journey as an actor, the Hulu series he’s signed on to do next, the current TV series he’d love to do a guest spot on, and whether he’d like to direct.
Collider: Joseph Kahn told me that this was not an easy movie for him to cast because people either dropped out or got scared and just wouldn’t do it. How did you get past the fear of taking on something like this?
CALUM WORTHY: Well, it was the smartest script that I’ve ever read. It was really an incredible script that I read, and one of the most different. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s very sensitive material. I will say that I was nervous taking on this role. I was nervous about tackling the subject matter. I was nervous about making sure that I could do the world of battle rap justice, and the character of Adam justice, as well. In order for Adam to work, you need the audience to question whether he’s a hero or a villain, and that’s a really fine line to walk. The script served that, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to serve that. The other thing I was worried about was that I was just coming out of a Disney Channel show, and I knew that this film could alienate a portion of my audience. However, the artists I look up to take risks, and don’t play it safe, but I want to continue to tell stories that I believe in, and this is one I really believe in. The way that I got past it was because of Joseph. I trust him. He really is a visionary director, and I knew that, in his hands, we’d be safe.
What was the atmosphere like on set, as far as the rap battles went and delivering some of the more intense dialogue?
WORTHY: Well, luckily it was mostly real battle rappers that I was rapping with, so whenever I approached it, I approached it like a real battle. Whenever we did one of the battles, Joseph set up a really safe space for everybody because he was working with battlers that aren’t necessarily actors, and actors that aren’t necessarily battlers. Only Dumbfoundead is the exception, where he has actually done a lot of both. It was really interesting to try to make that work and seem authentic. When we approached each scene, and when there was a big battle, we’d have a hundred extras on set, and we’d go front to back and do the entire battle. We wouldn’t stop, at all. We wanted to seem very authentic, for every single take, because we wanted to have that energy behind it. So, I didn’t really feel bad doing it because I was in character and I was in the moment, and in that world, that’s actually quite appropriate.
Did it ever get exhausting, doing the whole rap battle with each take?
WORTHY: Yes. Joseph, however, is the hardest working filmmaker that I’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t stop. He’s like a machine. So, whenever I looked at him, I always got a little boost of energy. I will say the final battle is about 25 pages long. It’s a really, really long sequence. Most of that was filmed in order, and a lot of it was filmed all in one, as well. We would do takes that lasted 15 or 20 minutes, which is really unusual for film. It was almost like doing a play, really. It felt like we were doing Shakespeare, or something, because we had these long soliloquies. The thing that really surprised me is that the battlers we were working with really are modern-day poets.
Was it ever hard not to get tongue-tied, doing that much dialogue, for that length of time?
WORTHY: It was hard. However, we had a long rehearsal period leading up to it. There was about three months before we actually started filming, and I worked with the other battle rappers, like Dizaster and Dumbfoundead and Kid Twist, for months leading up to it. We would talk almost every day and try to get me to that point.
Joseph said that when you came in to audition, you were the worst rapper he’d ever heard.
WORTHY: He told me I was the best. No, I’m kidding.
Did he tell you that you weren’t a natural rapper? Did you know that you had work you needed to do, on that aspect of it?
WORTHY: He didn’t need to tell me. I knew it was going to be a stretch. It was interesting because I loved the script so much, but I was worried about whether I could actually pull it off. I wasn’t confident that I could because these battlers are so talented.
I would imagine that they’ve also been doing it for a long time.
WORTHY: Some of them for decades. They’re some of the best battle rappers in the world. I knew about these guys before filming the movie. And Eminem’s name is attached to it, so you have to pull it off. I was like, “I really hope that I can do this.” However, I can’t take credit for any of the sequences going well. It’s really because of the other battle rappers that walked me through that process and spent hours teaching me how to go through every element of a battle.
Was there a sequence that you thought was the most fun, and was there one that was the most challenging to do?
WORTHY: The one that was the most fun and most challenging was the final battle. It was really emotional. It was basically like delivering a three-page monologue, back and forth. It was three pages each, of just words. Reading a feature script, you usually don’t see just dialogue. There’s usually some kind of stage directions. But with those bits, it was just dialogue that I had to remember. It was really tricky. It was a fine line to walk. And if it wasn’t for someone like Joseph leading the ship, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
This is a movie that’s going to spark conversation and reaction. What are you hoping audiences take from a movie like this?
WORTHY: The two themes that we’re tackling in this film are freedom of speech and whether there’s a limit to it, and also cultural appropriation, which are two of the most controversial topics in our world right now. So, I really hope that people who go see this movie walk out of the theater talking. I hope that there’s a discussion that is created because of this film, and I hope people continue to talk about it because I think these are really important things to discuss. They’re things that we’re still trying to figure out in our culture, at this time. It’s almost like this is the movie that represents 2018, in social media and in the news.
Where do you go from here? How do you find another project that’s equally as challenging and satisfying?
WORTHY: It’s really hard. There are not many scripts that are this well written, and there are not many filmmakers like Joseph Kahn. It really raised the bar for me, in terms of the projects that I want to be a part of. It’s hard to not want to work with people that you trust like that. Every day I’d show up on set and I was working with people that I really look up to. I just want to continue doing that. I want to work with storytellers that continue to challenge me and to take me out of my comfort zone because this film definitely did. Being able to trust Joseph was a gift because I was able to just say, “I trust you. Let’s just go for it and commit.”
What has your journey been like, as an actor, going from a Disney Channel show to something like American Vandal, which had this insane following, to Bodied, which is something that people are really talking about?
WORTHY: It’s amazing! I’ve been so grateful that there have been storytellers that have trusted me with their material because, so much of the time, you come off of a kids show and it’s really hard to get people to trust you with material that doesn’t match what you’ve already done. Luckily, Joseph, for some reason, did trust me, and that’s really rare for feature film directors to trust someone that has that kind of background. However, before going to the Disney Channel, I’d done independent films and mostly dramatic work. The Disney Channel was actually the unusual turn of events for me. I will say that it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been a part of because the cast was so talented and the writing was amazing. I felt the same way walking onto the Austin & Ally set as I did the Bodied set. I was working with people that I looked up to, just in a different way. Moving forward, I want to continue to work with storytellers that I admire and stories that I can really sink my teeth into.
Are there directors that are on your personal list of people you’d really like to work with?
WORTHY: There are so many. There’s the dream people to work with, like Paul Thomas Anderson, or Steven Spielberg. He’s everyone’s choice because he’s just an icon. When you think of a director, you think of him. And Joseph is like Spielberg, in terms of the way that he sees movies in such a cinematic way. There are a lot of similarities.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
WORTHY: Yeah, I’m starting a Hulu show (called The Act), right after this press tour finishes. In mid-November, I go to Georgia until the end of February.
That’s an anthology series, correct?
WORTHY: It is, yeah. It’s a true crime show.
What was the appeal of that series and character?
WORTHY: Similar to Bodied, where it was a really challenging role, the character of Nick is very complex and there are a lot of layers to him. He commits a murder, and it’s in a very interesting, unusual way. It was similar to Bodied, where I thought, “This is something that is really going to challenge me, and it’s with storytellers that I really trust.” The dream, as an actor, is that you get to explore things that you haven’t already, in your own life. A lot of actors who break out of the Disney Channel think, “I’ve gotta be edgy. I have to do something to break out of this mold.” I never really had that in mind. I just felt like, if I was working with storytellers that I look up to and on stories that challenge me, that will guide me in the right direction. Whatever the style is, whether it’s family films or comedies or really dark material, I knew that if I was working with storytellers that raise the bar, every time, that it would lead me in the direction that I want to go.