Bad Coaching Almost Cost Wil Wheaton The Lead Role In This Classic '80s Movie

Wil Wheaton landed his first professional acting gig in 1981, appearing in the TV movie "A Long Way Home." He was nine years old. Wheaton was impressive enough to become one of Hollywood's more in-demand child actors, and the next five years of his life were immensely busy. He appeared in films like "The Defiant Ones" and "The Last Starfighter," and TV shows like "Highway to Heaven," "Family Ties," and "St. Elsewhere." It was nothing but an upward arc for the young performer. 

Wheaton's first leading role came in 1986 with the release of Rob Reiner's 1950s nostalgia piece "Stand By Me," an adaptation of the Stephen King novella "The Body." In "Stand By Me," Wheaton played 12-year-old Gordie LaChance, a kid smarting from the recent death of his older brother and the familial resentment it caused. Gordie has three close friends — played by Rover Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell — and in the summer of '59, they trek into the woods of Oregon, alone and on foot, to locate the dead body of a teenager who had been killed by a passing train. Their sojourn begins as a way to prove their masculine mettle but eventually transforms into the four confessing their deepest anxieties. They bond, cry, and come of age. There are a lot of tears out there on the road. 

In a 2016 oral history of "Stand By Me," Wheaton revealed that the tears almost lost him the role of Gordie. It seems that he was given some terrible advice by one of his acting coaches when it came to on-screen crying. The coach said that directors typically rub lemons in actors' eyes to elicit tears, which is a lie. This made Wheaton nervous and had him nearly refusing to shoot crying scenes. 

They rub lemons in your eyes

Many, many young hopefuls auditioned for the four central roles in "Stand By Me," and Wheaton had to return multiple times for callbacks and tests. It wasn't just a matter of finding who was right for each role, but also if they got along together. "It felt like the audition process went on forever," Wheaton said. "They settled on a dozen potential actors and were mixing and matching us together." Wheaton, Phoenix, Feldman, and O'Connell were all perfect together, so the gentle alchemy of the film's casting agents was successful. 

But Wheaton recalled the story of the lemons during this extended casting process and decided to assert himself by refusing to film crying scenes. He hadn't considered that many actors can make themselves cry naturally and that he might be called upon to do that very thing. Wheaton likely thought he was standing up for himself, not realizing that crying and emotional moments were what "Stand By Me" was all about. Wheaton recalled:

"A couple years before that, I had been taken to an actor coach, and I remember asking what you do if you can't cry in a movie, and he said, 'they'll just put lemon juice in your eyes or onions.' It was a terrible answer. It really freaked me out. I remember saying in one of the callbacks, 'I'm not comfortable crying in movies.' And then I walked out of the room and one of the writers, Ray Gideon said, 'you've got to go tell the director you're joking, because that's an important part of the character.' I almost lost the role all because of that terrible acting coach." 

Wheaton doesn't call out the coach by name, but yes, it was bad advice. 

Living the parts

Wheaton recalled that the four central roles were altered slightly to match the personalities of the actors playing them. River Phoenix's Chris Chambers was stoic and serious but self-aware and kind streak. O'Connell was a funny, goofy kid. Feldman was a bit of a bully in real life, and Wheaton was a sensitive soul who, by his own recollection, cried a lot. Indeed, he recalled something of an antagonistic relationship with Feldman, who was far too brusque for the young actor. He said:  

"All four of us were very much like the characters that we were playing. I was a weird kid. I was shy, I was incredibly sensitive, and I was really awkward. It was really easy to make me cry. I was the one they picked on. Corey picked on me all the time to the point of it being like cruel. I remember River telling him to stop, and I remember Rob or one of the producers telling him to get off my back." 

Wheaton, while bullied at the time, gathered some perspective in the ensuing decades. He also learned what Feldman had suffered at the hands of the Hollywood machine, leaving him in a forgiving mood; he bears Feldman no ill will. Wheaton said: 

"I don't hold any bad feeling towards Corey at all. We're not close, but I don't dislike him or wish him ill. He had a really f***ed up childhood and he suffered a lot. As a 44-year old father I can see he was a young person who was in just an incredible amount of pain and didn't have any way of dealing with it."

Wheaton has continued to act, and has hosted numerous nerd-centric YouTube shows and documentaries. He's doing well for himself.