Raw Power

Matthew Helms is a martial-arts expert, a boy genius...and Hollywood's hair apparent.

Matthew is taking a break from competitive martial arts right now, in part because the expense of traveling to and from tournaments is so high, and partly because he wants to focus on acting. But Colorado's opportunities for aspiring child actors are few; most work for kids is limited to stage productions and print and TV ads for local and regional businesses. At the moment, there's not a huge demand for long-locked boys who boast a mean karate chop.

"Denver's definitely not a hotbed, but most cities between New York and Los Angeles aren't," says B.J. Kingsbaker, director of broadcast for Donna Baldwin Talent in Denver. "It's more of a training ground. There's great theater, which is great experience. But all that basically does is build resumés and get people prepared to move into one of the major markets."

Matthew doesn't have a local agent, so he hasn't gone to many auditions since he got here. But all of the Helmses expect that to change once Cabin Fever sets in.

Matthew meets his public at the Cabin Fever 
premiere with mom Becky.
John Johnston
Matthew meets his public at the Cabin Fever premiere with mom Becky.
Matthew Helms
John Johnston
Matthew Helms

"Eli [Roth]'s been going all over the place showing the movie, and he told us that everyone always mentions Matthew's scene," Tony says. "One guy on the Web site said he'd been going around his office saying, 'Pancakes, pancakes.' It's just been incredible."

"A lot of the kids who live around me, they're kind of bullies. They're like a little gang," Matthew says. "But I know that once they see me in the movie, they're going to tell people that they know me, that I'm their friend. But I'm not their friend, and the people who've been my friends will still be my friends. It's not like I'm suddenly going to get a big head and come down with Macaulay Culkin syndrome."

Officially, Matthew began growing his hair long at age eight.

"Really, I started growing it at birth, but I wore it as a pageboy for a while," he says. "I went to a couple of karate tournaments where some of the adults had long hair, and I just thought, 'Wow, that looks neat.' I guess it started as a karate thing. But now it's my thing."

By that time, he'd already earned a first-degree black belt in Tai karate, which he began studying at age three after viewing a particularly riveting Power Rangers episode. Matthew didn't want to just watch the Power Rangers; he wanted to be one, and soon he was enrolled in a martial-arts program at a nearby karate school.

As his hair grew, so did his resumé. Naturally athletic and able to quickly memorize forms and routines, Matthew worked his way through the ranks, eventually emerging as a star of the fiercely competitive sport-karate circuit. Once, one of his opponents was sent to the hospital after Matthew accidentally kicked him too hard in the head. Some of his spars and katas -- choreographed suites of karate forms and movements set to music -- were broadcast on ESPN, and he was frequently featured as a guest and presenter on everything from self-defense training videos to Christian variety programs.

In 1999, after snagging his ninth world title at the age of nine, Matthew appeared on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Seemingly unfazed by his surroundings, he broke boards, bricks and Leno's watch.

"Matt didn't even know who Jay Leno was," Becky says. "He was just as natural as can be. This is a child who is used to an adult environment; he can talk to anyone. He was there with Jay and Marilu Henner just like it was any other day of his life."

Through competitions and demos at professional sporting events around the South, Matthew caught the attention of a local talent agent who placed him in campaigns for a local furniture company, a children's program on the Fox network and, eventually, in featured-extra parts in films shooting in the Carolinas. Some of Matthew's roles were in straight-to-video films that few ever saw -- including Ding-A-Lingless, a title that still makes Matthew and his mom giggle. But two were major releases: The Patriot, with Mel Gibson, and Black Knight, with Martin Lawrence.

"Mel was still such a big movie star, but he was very nice to all of us," Matthew says. "I remember one day, I was practicing some of my moves for one of the battle scenes, and he rode up on his horse, like, 'Hey Matt.' And of course, I was like" -- he puts his hand to his chest to simulate pumping -- "puh-pum, puh-pum. It was my great privilege to be around him and everyone else on that set. But with Martin Lawrence, you weren't even allowed to look at him. He brought a whole bunch of big semi trucks to section off an area so that he could have his own basketball court. He was just weird."

Matthew enrolled in acting classes and, in the summer of 2001, landed an audition with Roth. That November, he was on the Cabin Fever set in Danbury, North Carolina.

"That was such a nice, easy set," Becky recalls. "Although there were times that I just couldn't look at what they were doing -- filling Matthew's mouth up with blood, putting these sores and everything else on the girls. It's just kind of like, 'Ewww. Yuck.'"

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