"I just happened to be the right age, and happened to be, uh overweight," expounds Jerry O'Connell on getting the role of his life, as fat kid Vern in Rob Reiner's heartwarming youth bonding tale Stand By Me. "Vern was a little dopey, and when I went on the audition, I was so nervous I left my jacket behind, and I came back to get it and I was like, 'I, yuh, I, yuh, forgot my jacket.' Rob said later, 'That was pretty much when you got the part.' "
Not bad for the precocious young talent, whose prior acting career consisted of a pair of commercials and "lot of school plays and talent shows". Off it was, then, for our New York City born-and-bred lad for three months in the Oregon wilderness with three hardened teenage professionals from L.A.
"I was the youngest of all four guys," says O'Connell. "They were all 13 and 14, but they really did take me under their wing. I was picking up vibes along the way, you know, little habits that they do that sort of stick with you. The movie was about this summer experience that these four kids have and they'll never forget, and for me, it was really like this summer experience that these four kids have and they'll never forget."
O'Connell recalls it as one great big "bonding experience", with the quartet getting up to "rambunctious" hi-jinks around their hotel - "Hotel security had our photos and names and numbers" - throwing late-night group study sessions to memorize their lines, and avoiding Kiefer Sutherland. "Kiefer was a little older than us, and we were horribly afraid of his character," pipes O'Connell, "and he really did that so well, we were all horribly afraid of him too."
Now 19 and entering his third year in New York University's film studies program (he wants to be - surprise! - a screenwriter), O'Connell continues to dabble in acting, mostly in TV, including an ABC series he shot last year on sabbatical from NYU called Camp Wilder. His first film role since Stand By Me, however, is in the forthcoming coming-of-age-on-the-road-in-search-of-Marliyn-Monroe-in- a-1962-Ford-Galaxy tale Calendar Girl, opposite TV's Beverly Hills 90210 heart-throb Jason Priestly - "a really great guy, real funny." Even though no one rushes up to him any more shrieking, "Weren't you Big Vern?" - "I've grown about two feet. It'd be hard to recognize me" - Stand by Me continues to cast an inescapable shadow over his life.
"We just thought we were doing a cute little movie," says O'Connell. Little did he know. "It was my freshman year and I'm in this Fundamentals of film class, and there was this whole section in one of the chapters on Stand By Me. It was Directors Working With Actors, and it had interviews with Rob and everything. My classmates were bustin' my chops for that one..."