Luke Benward discusses playing a captured soldier in his new film Wildcat, as well as his background as a child actor.
Having been acting professionally since 2002, it’s likely you may recognise Luke Benward from several projects. Whether it’s his work for Disney Channel, or acclaimed feature films such as Because of Winn-Dixie or Dear John, to name some examples.
Luke chatted with Courageous Nerd all about Wildcat, in which he plays an imprisoned soldier named “Luke”. The film was written and directed by Jonathan W. Stokes.
Welcome, Luke and thank you for taking the time to do this!
Luke Benward (LB): Yeah man, thanks for having me.
We’ll be chatting today about your new film Wildcat. Before we get into that directly, you’ve obviously been acting for a long time. How did you first start?
LB: I actually kind of fell into it. My Dad’s a musician and my Mom was an actress before I was born. She stopped when I was about 3, she had my sister after me and gave it up to focus on raising us. I was in Kindergarten, about 5 years old… I’m from Nashville, Tennessee originally. She had a commercial agent there who called her and was basically like: “There’s a movie coming to town, a Mel Gibson film called We Were Soldiers about the Vietnam War. Any interest in taking Luke to this audition.” I mean, “Sure!”
She picked me up early from school and I was stoked about that, obviously had no idea. The audition basically, I think I had to say the Lord’s Prayer. It was a really small role, no real lines. I think that was the main speaking part in it, one of 5 or 6 kids. Colonel Hal Moore was a real person, it was about him.
I didn’t know how to read at that age yet, so I went in and did what I knew; the Pledge of Allegiance and this thing from my school, the Citizenship Pledge – pledging to the good people, be nice to our neighbour, all that kind of stuff. I went in, did that, ended up booking it. Went and filmed and ended up meeting my agent through one of the actresses who played my sister, signed with him. I’ve been with him ever since, now he’s my manager.
I just started auditioning out of LA, shortly after that I booked a pilot, which didn’t end up going, but that was kind of a good confirmation. And the ball got rolling. I booked a movie called Because of Winn-Dixie a little bit after that, based on a book. Basically, it was like a hobby – I would play football in the summer and in the off season when I wasn’t doing that, I’d act, audition and was lucky enough to work. Yeah, it was a really cool childhood.
You said you started acting really young. Did doing anything else as a career ever cross your mind?
LB: Sure, I thought about it. My parents did a really good job of not putting any pressure on me, always allowing it to my decision. It was just in the same emphasis as football which was athletics for me. You’ve got to make the good grades, if you ever want to stop, stop. It’s not… you know, it’s okay. That allowed for me to have the room to make those decisions.
When push came to shove, I think I ended up making the decision to stop playing football and take it seriously around the age of 16. I took a step back and was like: “I love doing this. Clearly, I am already kind of on my way into a career in it.” It would be dumb, for lack of a better word, to throw that aside and try to do something else.
Sure, I could go and pursue football, that would be a whole other animal and that kind of thing. Acting is something that excites me, allows me to create and activates that side of my brain that I already use so much. Every day, I was playing make believe. When I was a kid, I literally thought I was a lion. I’d walk around and roar. It was always a part of being and eventually I was like, “Alright, yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to make movies for the rest of my life.”
For anyone who is unfamiliar, Wildcat is a thriller set in the Middle East. Who do you play in the film? How are they involved with the story?
LB: Yeah, so I play “Luke”, surprisingly enough. Not myself, but a character named Luke. Wildcat is basically… the short version without giving too much away is that I play a soldier and Georgina Campbell plays a diplomat. We have, at the start of the film, been captured by an extremist group in the Middle East. We are basically trying to figure out where we are, who’s captured us and how we’re going to get out.
That’s kind of the whole arc of the sequence of events, the constant heartbeat of the film pushing it along. That ticking clock, the urgency. Behind that is two really complex and grounded characters, locked away with each other. They end up having to work together, but might not necessarily be on the same page from the get-go. It allows for these really beautiful scenes to take place, really profound dialogue.
Something that I think is really beautiful about this film is that it lives in the grey area. It does allow for a lot of subjectivity and a lot of taking liberties as an audience which I think is vitally important to art. It needs to be put through everyone’s filters individually, so it can actually touch someone in a real way, forces them to think and feel. I think that’s what this movie does very brilliantly.
Jonathan W. Stokes wrote and directed the film. Is there a difference creatively on a project when the writer and director are the same person, compared to when that is not the case?
LB: For sure, yeah. Sometimes, it’s hard, sometimes it makes it harder. Jonathan was a special energy, he’s a special creative. He was obviously so connected to his story but always open to conversation. Always an open mind of what we had to add, any issues or things that could make it better. Anything, this word or this sentence feels out of place.
He was always open to conversation, it was so easy to create with him. But, on the other side of that, which is extremely important, he was able to maintain that vision of what he wanted to say or the story he wanted to tell. It was this beautiful thing… collaboration is the key to making great art and great films. There’s definitely an art to it.
He was, I think, perfectly able to balance both sides of hearing out and maintaining his vision, which is really insanely hard. I’ve worked with writer-directors before where it’s really hard for them to hear… not criticism, but it’s hard for them to hear different viewpoints and allow them to make sense in their head. I think Jonathan did that really well.
As an actor or a viewer, do you enjoy more the kind of realistic story such as Wildcat, or the fantasy genre?
LB: Both, for sure. I’m a die-hard Star Wars [fan], I have a Star Wars tattoo on my arm. I love the fantasy realm…. I think the amazing thing about Star Wars is that it has these through lines that connect it to reality. Yes, it’s larger than life… the Death Star is something we will never see in our lifetime. This idea of The Force is something I think we do all understand and we do feel.
There’s obviously so many different words for what that might look like in our reality. It is something that ties me into Star Wars. Obviously, good and evil, the fight between it and the middle ground of finding balance. Yeah, I think the key with something especially that is larger than life is finding that reality.
One thing I thought Wildcat did incredibly was the character Mido [Hamada] plays, Abu Khalid, is one that is not just the bad guy. He’s incredibly complex, you come to know him in a way where… yeah, he’s doing really gruesome things where it’s tough to watch and you’re like: “this f*****g guy”. Overall, you sit back and you’re like: “Man, this dude was attacked. Hate was thrust upon him. This is the product of… he didn’t start off that way. He wanted life, love and family and that was all taken away from him. He’s had hate just thrown on him constantly. That’s what we’re dealing with now.” It is this beautiful grounded depiction of humanity that allows this film to live in the grey area and keep that subjective netural state.
You worked extensively as a child actor, [on projects including How To Eat Fried Worms, Minutemen and Because of Winn-Dixie]. From your own perspective, how did your experience in the industry as a child prepare you for life as an adult actor?
LB: You know, I wish I could say “It gets easy!” It’s a tumultuous industry and I constantly have to remind myself how blessed I am to be in it and to have had the successes I’ve had so far. The pandemic has been a tough time for everyone and I’m just happy the world’s opening back up and getting to work again.
Growing up auditioning and hearing a lot of ‘no’s’, I’m sure you’ve heard from many actors, it’s a lot of no’s. It can tend to make you a little bit jaded. Going inwardly recently, getting back to that place of gratitude and openness that I think yields ultimate success and joy in life. I think that’s one way it’s affected me, it’s also given me a piece in the freedom that I don’t have control of everything. I have control over doing my best, putting my best foot out there.
Committing and giving my life to pursue things that are larger than me. Then, at the end of the day, releasing that grip and saying, “Alright, let’s see what it yields and what life has to offer.” That’s something because of that process growing up, it’s taught me those lessons that I can definitely rely on.
How does your character “Luke” in Wildcard stack up against other characters you’ve played?
LB: Yeah, that’s a good question. It is such an extreme set of circumstances… it’s interesting to think what he’d be like if this was a college party movie, you know? I don’t really know what character he would be, that’s interesting. I found the through-line from me to him was this sense of undying loyalty, service of his country and the people that he held dear. His brothers and sisters that he grew up with, in the army. That’s kind of what connected me to it.
Obviously, I think that is what is ingrained into the Armed Forces, that servitude and loyalty, what you’re fighting for. If this was him at West Point, it’d be interesting. Maybe that’s the spin-off!
Where can people keep up with Luke Benward on social media?
LB: I’m on Twitter and Instagram – @LukeBenward on Twitter, @labenward on Instagram. I’m not super active, but I do try and keep it up with my phone and emails. So, there, mainly.
Good luck with Wildcat and whatever else you have planned for 2021. All the best!
LB: Thank you man, thank you so much.
Wildcat will release in select theatres on April 23 and On Demand on April 27.