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'Mighty' Good Pals

The close bond between on-screen misfits Kieran Culkin, Elden Henson lasts long after filming stops.

October 08, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Real life imitated reel life for Kieran Culkin and Elden Henson, the two young stars of the new film "The Mighty."

In the heartwarming drama, Culkin plays Kevin, a brilliant, disabled 14-year-old boy who becomes best friends with Max (Henson), an oversized, slow 14-year-old. Lifting Kevin up on his wide shoulders, Max becomes his legs. And in turn, Kevin opens the world to Max when he gives him a copy of the tales of King Arthur to read.

Sharon Stone, Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton and Gillian Anderson are the adult stars of the Miramax release, which screened at Cannes and the recent Toronto Film Festival and opens Friday.

The on-screen chemistry between Culkin, 16, and Henson, 21, is amazing. And just as in the film, the actors became fast friends on the set last year in Toronto.

"They'd laugh all day," says director Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song"). "They were great fun."

"Once we started working together we clicked," says the baby-faced Henson.

"I think it really shows on screen and the cool thing was it was never forced," adds Henson, who began his career as a baby model and has appeared in "The Mighty Ducks" films. "The idea of us becoming friends was never pushed upon us."

After a long day on the set, Henson says, the two would rent a video or play video games.

"We still see each other a lot," says the diminutive Culkin, who is two years younger than his famous brother Macaulay. "He'll call sometimes and say hello. After shooting, he sent me a gift and it was, like, an antique copy of 'King Arthur.' That is such a really cool present to get.

It is in this cool case. He wrote something in it, too. It's a nice message."

Both actors were drawn to "The Mighty," which is based on Rodman Philbrick's acclaimed young adult novel "Freak the Mighty," because both parts avoided the cliches of typical kids' roles.

Henson, in fact, originally went in to read for the part of Blade, the hood who makes life difficult for Max and Kevin. But he insisted on coming back in to read for Max.

"There are not a whole lot of roles out there for young adults or even kids where you are allowed to play something other than a one-dimensional character or a jock or a bully or the nerd or the stoner," Henson says. "This character starts out really bizarre. He keeps to himself in a little bubble and by the end he does a complete 180. He's writing a book and he's doing this and that. He is able to go through a whole world of emotions."

Though he was nearly seven years older than the part, Henson was right for the part, Chelsom said, because he had this "kind of big, soulful gentle giant about him. He walked in for another part, and I kind of sat staring at him because I knew he was right for the main part."

Speaking of Stone, both Culkin and Henson say they were initially nervous about working opposite the sex symbol.

"I tried not to think about it," Henson recalls. "I tried to be Mr. Cool Guy about it. The very first scene we did together--I, like, got introduced to her and then we rehearsed it. I didn't have time [to be nervous]. She made you feel extremely comfortable."

Culkin first met Stone when he flew from his home in New York to Los Angeles to do a screen test. "I didn't recognize her at first," Culkin recalls.

"I [envisioned] her with this long blond hair and [a sexy] dress. She was wearing jeans, a sweater and sneakers. When we talked, she made me so comfortable to talk to her. It was a good experience"

Chelsom says he's not worried that "The Mighty" is being released so soon after the similarly themed "Simon Birch," which is still playing in theaters.

"In fact," he says, "I'm kind of encouraged because 'Simon Birch' had done quite good box office for that kind of film, so that means there is a market for it.

"Our movie was made way before theirs," Henson says, adding: "I was really honestly kind of bitter about the whole thing just because our film was completed a year and a half ago. It was frustrating for me because we really worked hard. But Miramax [the film's distributor], they are geniuses. I completely trust them. They know what they are doing [releasing it now]."

Both actors have been busy since "Mighty' wrapped. Henson has finished two films, "Idle Hands" and "She's All That," and plans to move from L.A. to New York.

Culkin also appears in "She's All That," although he and Henson have just one scene together. Culkin also is filming the feature version of John Irving's "The Cider House Rules."

When he's not working or going to school, Culkin says, he and his brothers--he has four brothers and two sisters--and friends love to watch wrestling. "I don't know why I like it," he says with a shrug of his shoulders. "I just really like it. I've been to Madison Square Garden a couple of times to see matches. I would love to meet the wrestlers. I would like to become one too."

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