Calum Worthy knew his appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival for Thursday’s world première of Bodied would be dramatically different than his last official visit.
Worthy, 26, was just a kid when he made his festival debut in 2002. It was to promote I Was a Rat, the BBC children’s series he starred in with Tom Conti and Brenda Fricker.
“That was one of the first times I saw myself on a movie screen in a theatre, so I was blown away,” said the red-haired actor.
“He’s not in the children’s section anymore,” said his mother, Sandra Webster Worthy, with a laugh. Webster Worthy and her husband, David, reunited with their son for his return as star of the controversial R-rated rap satire.
The Claremont Secondary School graduate plays a grad student thrown into the battle-rap culture in the film, produced by Eminem and directed by Joseph Khan, whose credits include directing the music videos for Eminem’s Without Me and Love The Way You Lie.
While Worthy hadn’t met the rap icon before Thursday’s première, he had become fully immersed in the world of battle rap, which features competing rappers who artistically brag and insult each other.
His co-stars in the film include Alex Larsen, a.k.a. rapper Kid Twist, who co-wrote the screenplay with Khan, as well as Madness, Dizaster, Loaded Lux and Hollow Da Don. As part of a heavy promotional push for the film, which the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and Rolling Stone have described as one of the festival’s most hotly anticipated entries, veteran battle rappers Kid Twist and Madness had a showdown on King Street Thursday night.
“I had a sneaking suspicion it was going to create a little controversy and be talked about, because Joseph did such a wonderful job putting it together,” Worthy said. “He really is a genius.”
His character’s proficiency at pulling off a style of rapping that originated on the streets before going mainstream sparks anger and tension in the film.
“I was aware people would have different opinions,” said Worthy, the only battle rapper who isn’t an internationally known competitor in a film that tackles racism and other hot-button issues.
“We don’t say anything [about racism]. We just ask a lot of questions, and when people leave, they’ll have their own discussions about topics like cultural appropriation and race and freedom of speech.”
While Bodied is another example of Worthy’s decision to stretch dramatically, he’s aware his character’s profanity might raise eyebrows after his success on Austin & Ally and other Disney projects.
“It’s definitely not for the Disney Channel audience,” he said.
“I love the fans I’ve gained from being on Disney Channel, but I also want to work with great storytellers and that involves taking some risk.”
Describing Eminem as “the soundtrack of my life since I was about 14,” Worthy said he has watched Eminem’s hit movie 8 Mile at least a dozen times.
He also watched several rap battles online, and worked with Larsen to discover what he’d sound like as a rapper.
“I’ve been a fan of rap music, but I never thought I’d ever rap myself,” Worthy said.
“These guys are such unbelievable artists and poets. When I worked with them, I realized I was in over my head. But they were amazing and got me to a place where I could pull it off.”
For Worthy, a big plus was getting to work with Anthony Michael Hall, the former 1980s Brat Packer who plays his father in Bodied.
Worthy said in acting class, he had done Hall’s monologues from The Breakfast Club. “So it was really cool to work with him,” he said. “There’s not that many gingers out there, so we’ve got to stick together.”
In addition to his star turn in Bodied, Worthy will be seen as Speedball in Marvel’s New Warriors, Freeform’s new live-action comedy series premièring next year.
He also stars in American Vandal, the Netflix satirical true-crime series premièring Sept. 15. He plays a student at a high school rocked by an act of vandalism — phallic images painted on teachers’ cars.
“When I first auditioned, I didn’t even know what the show was,” Worthy said.
A combination of scripted and unscripted material, the eight-part mockumentary skewers true-crime series such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx.
Cast members were given brief descriptions of their characters’ back stories after filming began, then subjected to lengthy on-camera interviews, answering questions as if being filmed for a documentary, he said.
“Every day, it was as if we were making a dramatic piece, but instead of saying the word ‘murder,’ we said the word ‘penis,’ ” he said.
“I had so much fun.”