‘Footloose’ star Kenny Wormald on fame and humility
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Kenny Wormald has spent most of the last decade in the shadows of fame, dancing behind Madonna and Justin Timberlake in music videos or on tours. So when the native of Stoughton, Mass., landed the lead role in Paramount Pictures’ remake of the classic ’80s dance flick “Footloose,” he thought he’d arrived.
In reality, though, getting the part was the beginning of an exercise in humility. First came the realization that he wasn’t the first choice to play rebellious Ren McCormack, whom Kevin Bacon brought to life in the 1984 original: Producers initially wanted Zac Efron, then riding high off the success of the “High School Musical” films. But Efron dropped out and was replaced by “Gossip Girl” star Chace Crawford — but he also quit, citing scheduling conflicts.
Wormald got the part only after a weeks-long audition process — during which he was put through acting boot camp with director Craig Brewer to prove he could do more than just dance. Then came more acting lessons during rehearsal. With many months between the end of filming and the movie’s arrival in theaters, he’s struggled to accept his lack of public recognition.
“This summer, I was at an MTV award show, and Selena Gomez was in front of me on the red carpet,” recalled Wormald, 27. “Everyone’s like, ‘Selena! Selena!’ I wait a couple of minutes until she moves over, and then I get on the stage and all of the camera guys just have their lenses follow her. It was a great, humbling moment.”
To familiarize the public with Wormald and costar Julianne Hough — also a dancer — Paramount sent the two on a 12-city tour. And they recently appeared together on “Dancing With the Stars,” where Hough had performed for years.
On a recent Saturday, Wormald arrived to an interview 20 minutes late, having rushed from rehearsals for “Dancing With the Stars.” Asked by a waiter what he would like to order, a bleary-eyed Wormald replied: “Can I get a coffee with a shot of espresso in it, maybe?” “I don’t think we can actually do that,” the server said, looking puzzled.
“Maybe I want a Stella? No, how about the espresso and a be-ah?” he said in his strong Boston accent.
When he moved to L.A. nine years ago after high school, he decided to play up his accent after realizing that “chicks dug it.” Brewer also encouraged him to hang on to it — changing McCormack’s birthplace from Chicago to Boston in the film.
The filmmakers hired acting coach Cameron Thor to work with Wormald and Hough. Thor had Wormald watch James Dean films, as well as a wordless scene between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain.”
There was much to learn: Wormald’s acting experience consisted primarily of his performance in a sequel to the cheesy ’90s dance film “Center Stage.” (It aired on the Oxygen network and went straight to DVD.) There was also his stint on TV’s short-lived “Dance Life.” Produced by Jennifer Lopez, the reality show purported to depict the lives of dancers in L.A. as they went on auditions and struggled to make ends meet. Much of Wormald’s storyline revolved around his long-distance relationship with his then girlfriend, a member of the band the Pussycat Dolls.
“I wish she and I didn’t do that. It was so awkward. They had me drop her off at an apartment that wasn’t even hers — it was, like, the sound lady’s house,” he said, grimacing. “The producers told me it was gonna be shot like ‘The Hills’ or ‘Laguna Beach.’ They couldn’t hand us a script, but they’d tell us where to meet and light it an hour before and tell us what the concept of the scene was.”
Working on “Footloose,” Brewer employed a different style of directing Wormald.
“We had a code: I would make a helicopter sign with my finger, which just meant, ‘Look around once in a while. Take in your surroundings. Give me some gems in between the lines,’” the director recalled. “I told Kenny I was scared that we were gonna end this movie, and he wasn’t gonna want to be an actor. I didn’t want him to be a dancer that could say lines.”
Wormald seems to have taken Brewer’s counsel to heart; he said he turned down the lead role in the film “Step Up 4” because he wanted to avoid being labeled as the “dance kid.” Instead, he’s signed on to an independent thriller, “Someone in the Dark.” But asked whether he would like to emulate Channing Tatum — who started as a dancer in “Step Up” and has gone on to nondance dramatic roles — Wormald seemed ambivalent.
“I’m not trying to mimic his career, by any means, but I’d love to do some of the [stuff] he did,” he said. “Like, even that one scene in ‘Public Enemies.’ … Yeah, I’d do that right now. I want to do, like, ‘Rounders’ or some Ryan Gosling-type” stuff.
Despite his borderline cocky swagger, Wormald has a refreshing lack of pretense — a sentiment echoed by “Footloose” costar Dennis Quaid.
“A lot of people have attitudes at his age — and sometimes you get people in there who don’t know their lines or stumble and try to blame things on others. But Kenny had a lot of confidence and was such a gathered person,” said the veteran actor, who plays an uptight reverend in the film.
Until he lands a few more big parts, though, Wormald says he’s trying to be practical. He rents a house in Sherman Oaks because it’s less expensive to live there than in other parts of L.A., and he teaches dance classes if he needs extra cash.
“I’ve been out here for nine years, and it’s been a struggle — rent, even up until a while ago, was a struggle,” he said. “I used to make like 500 bucks shooting a music video. And if I taught, I’d make maybe $90 an hour. I make more than that now. And if I need to teach, I will.”
Wormald has seen his share of diva-esque behavior in the business: Mariah Carey, he recalled, had her assistant hold her straw while she was drinking.
“I don’t want to be like that,” he said, shaking his head. “I want to be how Justin [Timberlake] is. He talks to the people at catering. He looks people in the eye.
“Even now, like, I’m on billboards and everything. But I don’t consider myself famous. I’m not gonna be like, ‘I’m famous,’” he said, interjecting a synonym for a female dog, “’Give me some cheese.’”
-- Amy Kaufman
(Bottom) Kenny Wormald poses for a portrait at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles on Oct. 2. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times