The first clue that Matthew Helms is not your average thirteen-year-old boy lies atop his pre-pubescent head. Long, flowing and cut with rough bangs that fall unevenly over dark blue eyes, his blond hair cascades over shoulders that are strong and toned, an anomaly of adolescent physiology. Another clue.
Clues three through one hundred include the following: By age nine, Matthew had won nine consecutive world titles in a competitive sport-karate circuit. He's hung out with both Mel Gibson and Martin Lawrence and prefers the company of the former. Because he is a certified weapons expert, proficient in everything from a spear-like staff to nunchakus, Matthew has to register with law-enforcement agencies in some states before he can legally enter them. An Elvis fan, he's prone to quoting Bruce Lee, speaks French, has a photographic memory and knows how to swashbuckle. And he just officially became a movie star, a featured character in the Hollywood grossout Cabin Fever, which went into wide release last week.
"Some people I meet are intimated to think that a thirteen-year-old boy can know all of the things that I know," he says. "I can't worry about that. 'Cause you know what? I've just got too much that I want to do."
Cabin Fever is a low-budget, independent film directed and co-written by a young filmmaker named Eli Roth, who crafted the story while on the set of Howard Stern's Private Parts. As Stern's production assistant, Roth had to stay up all night to make sure Stern got up in time for early-morning calls to the set, and he used his downtime to write. Cabin Fever is an homage to classic horror films of the '70s, a campy gorefest in which a group of comely college students meet their doom in a rural Southern town teeming with a flesh-eating virus. The cast includes Rider Strong, former star of the television series Boy Meets World, and Jordan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl. For approximately nine minutes, it also stars Lakewood's Matthew Helms.
Matthew plays the small but pivotal role of Dennis, a delusional backwoods boy who flies into a fit of rage and nearly gnaws off the hand of a principal character after he mistakes it for breakfast. Dennis doesn't talk much: His sole line in the film is a growling mantra of "Pancakes, pancakes."
"Dennis is a psycho, demented kid who communicates by biting people," Matthew says. "As my dad in the movie says, 'He's like a mongrel who will give you tetanus.' There's a sign that's been posted by my dad character, and it says, 'Don't sit next to Dennis.' When you watch my scene, you find out why.
"I like horror films, but I prefer the classics, like Dracula and The Thing and other movies no one has ever heard of," he adds. "I know when we see it in the theater, my mom is going to have to cover her eyes for a lot of it."
Matthew scored the Dennis role after impressing Roth with his martial-arts skills -- and his haircut -- during an audition in his home state of North Carolina two years ago. While reading for the role, he performed segments of a martial-arts routine that involved lots of high kicking and hair-flailing. Eventually, both elements were worked into the Cabin Fever script.
"When we were filming, we went through the scene a few times, and then Eli said, 'Show me some of that crazy stuff you did during your audition,'" Matthew says. "So I thought about it for a few minutes, and then I came back with an aerial-kick routine. I just brought some personality to it.
"It's like Bruce Lee said: 'You take an idea, develop it and make it better.' And that's what I did, with Eli's full approval. It was fun."
It's been nearly two years since Matthew and his mom, Becky, spent three days on the set with Roth, Strong, Ladd and the rest of the crew. But they have the distinct sense that Cabin Fever fever is about to catch on.
"We don't know exactly where it's going to lead, but we hope it leads to something," Becky says. "We just know that when people see this movie, they're going to get some idea of what this child can do. But you see so many things in this business, you never know. We're always just waiting for that next call."
Matthew and his parents have been waiting for that call for a while.
In May, the family moved from St. Pauls, North Carolina, to Colorado when Tony, Matthew's dad, found a job in the claims office of an Evergreen trucking and transport company. After settling in Lakewood, they quickly got back to work on Matthew's career. Tony mans the e-mail list and keeps up with Web sites on which Matthew is featured, while Becky routinely sends photos, press releases, videotapes and resumés to talent agencies and media outlets in Denver and, occasionally, to big shots in Hollywood.
"Anything with Wilshire Boulevard in the address line, you know it's not going to get to that person," she says. "But it's still better than nothing. I just sent one off to Quentin Tarantino. I have a feeling he would like Matt."
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.
"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.'"
Boosted by endorsements from David Lynch and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, Cabin Fever was a buzz feature at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival. A minor bidding war followed, and Roth eventually secured distribution through Lion's Gate Films. A scene featuring Matthew as Dennis has been a cornerstone of the company's marketing campaign for the movie.
"You are going to be a star," Roth said in a recent e-mail. "I would make your haircut into a wig and sell it for Halloween. Seriously!!! Kids are asking me for them. I'm not joking."
As the Gary Coleman gubernatorial campaign illustrates, for child stars, it can be a very short distance from the cover of TV Guide to a ringside seat at Celebrity Boxing. Pushy parents can make the distance even shorter.
Becky Helm is very aware of this.
"You always hear people talking about how you should never work with animals or kids. I think most of the time it's not the kids, it's the parents of the kids," she says. "Some of them are just awful, and the kids feed off it, demanding this or that.
"There is one surefire way to make sure that your child does not work," she adds, "and that's to be a pain in the you-know-what as a parent."
Blond and bubbly, with a honeyed Southern voice, Becky's been there for every competition, demo, television taping, photo shoot, audition and early-morning call of her young son's life. (She was enlisted as an extra on Black Knight because "Martin Lawrence is cheap and I was already there.") In addition to serving as her son's manager, counselor, driver, stylist, hairdresser, videographer, photographer and agent, she's also his teacher: Eight years ago, Becky gave up her career as a public-school teacher to home-school Matthew. When he completes his high-school curriculum, which Becky expects him to do by the age of sixteen, he'll have a diploma that's been equally shaped by reading, writing, horseback riding and theatrical fencing.
Becky is in the slightly skewed position of wanting to both promote and protect her child. All interviews take place outside of the family's Lakewood home, under the watchful eye and ear of Mom or Dad. But Becky says that she and Tony are hands-off parents: They only push Matthew to work as much as he wants to -- which, as it happens, is a whole lot.
"I go out of my way to show that it really is his idea," Becky says. "When we were on the set of Cabin Fever, I was really careful to keep my distance and not get too involved in what was happening moment to moment. I don't want the director to think that he needs me, that he can't function without his mom."
Matthew doesn't know that many kids in his neighborhood. In fact, he doesn't know many kids.
"Most of my friends in Denver are through karate," he says. "Those are just my basic kid friends. But mostly I'm really good friends with adults. I think that has a lot to do with my martial-arts background, which would never allow you to be disrespectful. Like, a lot of the kids I've met in Colorado, they go around and cuss. That would be really easy to pick up, so I avoid them."
Matthew addresses adults as "Sir" and "Ma'am," is a practicing Catholic and has never toilet-papered a house or made a crank call.
"I just don't see the point of that," he says.
"I have played a few tricks on my mom," he adds. "We had a magazine with gory photos from Cabin Fever in it, and I snuck around the corner and stuck it in her face, like, 'Blah!' And there have been times when she's said, you know, 'Don't eat chocolate,' and I ate chocolate. One time she told me not to hop a fence, but my ball went over the fence, so I hopped it."
Despite his apparent lack of a single mischievous gene -- clue 101 -- Matthew does resemble a thirteen-year-old boy in a few ways. His shoe size recently jumped to eleven, and his stretch-doll physique and newly long limbs hint at encroaching height. And if you bring up girls in his presence, you're bound to get a shy grin or a giggle.
"A friend of mine once asked me, 'Well, how many girlfriends do you have?' And I said, 'Too darn many!'" Matthew says. "Girls are always coming up to me. I think they like my hair.
"This one time, when I was ten, I was at a karate tournament, and this girl was following me around, like, 'Let's go do this, let's go do that,'" he continues. "She told me she was going to be the first girl to French kiss me. I was like, 'Um, no!' Most of the girls I know, I just want to be their friend. I don't want to be one of the kids who's a father when he's fifteen years old."
Still, the Helmses all recognize that a bona fide teen heartthrob has real marketing potential, and they wouldn't mind moving Matthew into that category. So earlier this year, Tony uploaded photos and bios of Matthew to www.BoyCrazy.com, a Tiger Beat-style online magazine where young girls weigh in on the relative cuteness of young boys. In an e-mail campaign, Tony asked friends, fans and the media to vote for Matthew as the site's greatest catch. He didn't win, but for the month that it was featured on the site, Matthew's photo was among the most popular. Some visitors to www.CabinFever.com have revealed burgeoning crushes, as well.
"Matthew's cousin in North Carolina sent us an e-mail saying she felt cool because her cousin was the 'hot' young Matthew Helms," says Tony. "People are taking about 'newcomer' Dennis and how cute he is."
A week before Cabin Fever's release, Matthew was recognized while shopping at Old Navy in Lakewood, picking out the outfit he'd wear to the film's local premiere at the Denver Pavilions. A woman who was waiting on him trotted him over to a group of her female co-workers, announcing that there was a celebrity in the house. Later that day, after a clerk at another store made a similar announcement over the loudspeaker, Matthew signed autographs and chatted with a couple of red-faced young girls who said they recognized him from the Cabin Fever trailers.
"That was cool. It made me feel good," he says. "I like girls. Yes, I do. But I'm not ready for a relationship. For now, that stuff can wait. I'm just going to focus on my career."
Matthew isn't sure what form that career will take. If Cabin Fever generates the kind of interest he and his parents are expecting, he'd be willing to move to Los Angeles. But if not, he's got plenty of other options.
"I see myself as either a doctor, or a lawyer, or a film director. But then again, I may like to open a martial-arts studio," he says. "When the time comes to decide, then I'll decide. When I see myself and my future, I think about Bruce Lee. He once said, 'Don't try to be a superstar. The word "star" is an illusion, something that someone calls you.' I don't want to be a superstar. I want to be a superactor."
With really super hair.
"I'd cut it for something really good," he says. "But not for an extra part. I'm just not going to do it. I don't want to have a cookie-cutter look. Long hair is myself, and I have to be myself. Some people want everyone to be the same. I just like to be different."
As predicted by Matthew, Becky spends much of Cabin Fever with her hands over her eyes. So do many other members of the capacity crowd that turns up for the film's premiere screening at the Pavilions on September 10. The movie starts out gently, with funny, talky scenes of the characters making out, smoking pot and challenging each other to beer-drinking contests. But the final thirty minutes are a barf-inducing romp in which almost all life forms -- dogs, deer, hillbillies, oversexed coeds -- are somehow mutilated. As Dennis, Matthew is one of the few characters who don't spend their screen time drenched in blood.
"I loved it," says Matthew. "That was just really cool to finally see it. I thought it was a good movie. I'll see it again soon."
Before the screening, a local publicist for Lion's Gate introduces Matthew, sending a minor ripple through the packed house. After the movie ends, Becky stands around the theater swapping business cards and regaling viewers with tales from the sets of both Cabin Fever and The Patriot. "Mel Gibson is really down to earth, that's true," she tells one wide-eyed woman. "And he's got a really nice ass." Tony hands out photos for Matthew to autograph; a couple of girls, around thirteen or fourteen, shyly approach and each snatch two.
Matthew shakes hands, gives high fives and fields congratulations and questions about his martial arts, his acting career, his hair. One Hispanic guy confessed that he thought Matthew was a girl when he saw him on screen.
"Yeah, well, I hear that from time to time," Matthew replies.
Eventually, the crowd files out and the cleaning crew comes in. Becky lingers a minute, taking in the empty house.
"Well, that was fun," she says. "I'm just happy to see my son get a screen credit. To get his name up there. And maybe now we can work on getting another one."
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