The entertainment world was shocked and saddened in July, 2019 when it was announced that Cameron Boyce — the popular young star of tthe Disney Channel’s Jessie and The Descendants — died from an epileptic seizure during his sleep at age 20.
Boyce was regarded as one of the most affable up-and-coming performers in the business.
“He was just a great kid, and everybody misses him,” Adam Sandler told us a year ago while promoting the Netflix horror-comedy Hubie Halloween, the actor’s third project with Boyce after two Grown-Ups movies.
He was also an undeniable talent primed to make a seamless transition from child star to adult performer, as the gravitas and weighty, emotionally raw performance he brings to his final role — this week’s new drama Runt — makes clear as day.
Boyce plays Cal, an artistically talented California high school senior drawn into a cycle of violence after being bullied by a group of football students. In many ways, the film — directed by William Coakley — feels like a darker, contemporary twist on the John Hughes catalog of ‘80s teen movies.
“He put a lot of energy and effort into his role in this movie because it was really far away from what he'd done typically in the past, especially the Disney stuff,” Cameron’s father Victor tells Yahoo Entertainment during a recent interview alongside his wife, Libby. “This was gritty, it was adult, it was hardcore. Some of it is hard to watch. It's like, ‘Wow, this is much, much deeper.’”
“Anybody who knows Cameron, you know how well he acts in it because it’s so different from him,” adds Libby, who says her son stayed in character throughout the film’s production.
“He was so visibly passionate and hard-working and had such a drive,” says Nicole Elizabeth Berger, who costars in Runt as Cecily, a classmate, ally and love interest of Cal. “That really resonated with me. I mean, he went method for this film. He didn't even let his parents come on sets.”
While Boyce’s death was mourned by millions of fans around the globe, it goes without saying that the tragedy hit his family the hardest.
“You know, every day is a struggle,” Victor says. “Everyone's gonna pass, but this was obviously something we didn't expect. It was not like he had a terminal disease that we knew he was going to die from. We were blindsided by his death.”
From Boyce’s death, though, came the need for his family to continue and build on their son’s inspiring work as a humanitarian. At only 18 Boyce was working to bring clean water to underdeveloped countries (though The Thirst Project), and soon after aligned himself with causes to combat homelessness (United Way), raise awareness on sexual assault on college campuses (It’s On Us) and help families with children who are diagnosed with sickle cell disease (the Lucstrong Foundation).
“He was incredibly philanthropic,” says his mother Libby. “He wanted to be more involved in using his voice to help young people find creative outlets that steer them away from negativity and violence.”
The Cameron Boyce Foundation was launched in 2019 with an emphasis on reducing gun violence. Within months the family expanded the organization to focus on curing epilepsy as well.
“It’s been a couple of years now and while we'll never be over it, we're moving forward with keeping his legacy alive and building the foundation and making sure that his work doesn't disappear, and in fact, will continue to grow,” Victor says.
The foundation that bears the late actor’s name and his final film Runt are intrinsically linked. A prevalent theme that runs throughout the drama is that the kids in this story resort to violence because the adults in their lives are not involved or present enough to steer them in the right direction.
“The film depicts how troubled youth resort to violence as a way to manage that stress and anxiety, especially those who don't have the proper guidance,” Berger says. “And I think the film does a good job of showing just how difficult it is to come back from that once you go down the wrong path. It's hard to turn back. So I hope it's a wakeup call to some people.”
The Boyces, who first screened Runt at the Mammoth Film Festival in February 2020 before the film’s release was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, say it’s “bittersweet” watching their late son now.
“It was a tough thing,” says Victor. “I say this all the time. It’s double-sided. I love to see him animated. I love to hear his voice because I don't hear it anymore. I love to see him do what he loved to do and what he was very good at. So that's always a joy to me, but the thing that makes it bitter is that I can't congratulate him. I can't hug him. I can't talk to him about the experience. I can't talk to him about how it's doing or what he wants to do next. So it's always going to be bittersweet. But I’d rather the movie come out and be seen and have people appreciate him than not.”
Runt is now playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and premieres on video on demand Oct. 19.
Watch the trailer: