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From Disney dream to tragic teen: How Cameron Boyce was on the cusp of indie film stardom

'He elevated every scene he was in': Cameron Boyce
'He elevated every scene he was in': Cameron Boyce Credit:  AFP

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Those who knew Cameron Boyce are still processing his passing. The actor was just 20 when he died, on Saturday, from a cause related to epilepsy. He was one of the latest bright young things to emerge from the Disney stables; still on the up but with a legion of online fans who knew him from the studio’s television shows, including Jessie and The Descendants. With boy-next-door good looks and instant appeal, Boyce was a kind of Zac Efron for the Snapchat generation. 

But he was also on the brink of a certain career maturity. In recent times Boyce had seemingly embarked on making more leftfield material. He is still due to appear in Runt, an indie film that looks at the violent side of adolescence and had landed a role in the anticipated HBO dramatisation of erotic novel Mrs Fletcher. That programme’s writer-director, Tom Perrotta, told me that “everyone involved with the show is heartbroken. Cameron was a lovely human being and a tremendously gifted performer.”

At a time when the young actor was starting to tread new boards, it’s worth assessing what Boyce’s impact and legacy are, throwing his death into even starker relief. Everyone seems accorded on the actor’s talent and kindness. “Cameron was honestly one of a kind,” said Seth Maxwell, “A truly good, honest, kind, loving, sweet, sincere, incredible young man.”

Boyce was born and raised in Los Angeles, into a family of mixed race, with Afro-Caribbean roots on his father’s side and Jewish heritage on his mother’s; he had one sister, Maya. The young Boyce started performing early, showing an early aptitude for dance, particularly breakdancing. In turn this love of performance led to commercial gigs and then roles on television, via music videos for bands such as Panic! At The Disco, as early as 2008 – when he hadn’t yet reached double-digits. 

He got into movies swiftly, played the son of Adam Sandler and Salma in the 2010’s commercial hit Grown-Ups (2010), and seems to have made a mark. Earlier this week Sandler posted a tribute on Twitter: “Too young. Too sweet. Too funny. Just the nicest, most talented, and most decent kid around. (...) Thank you, Cameron, for all you gave to us. So much more was on the way. All our hearts are broken. Thinking of your amazing family and sending our deepest condolences.”

Boyce with Adam Sandler in Grown-Ups

Even in these early roles and performances there was something notably grown-up and professional about Boyce, who displayed a lightly ironic persona and had the air of a seasoned performer even early on. His biography on the Disney Channel acknowledges this, stating that Boyce was “dubbed an old soul by many who have encountered him.” The same words were used by Seth Maxwell. “Cameron was an old soul, wise beyond his years, but also fun-loving and talented,” he told me. “He was an absolute gentleman.”

This slightly old-fashioned maturity in someone so young made him, perhaps, a bit of an oddity in the Disney camp, where he started appearing in a series of made-for-TV movies and series at the age of 12. There, the actor’s professionalism and obviously sweet manner made him approachable in the series Jessie, in which he played Luke, a dissipated cool-kid and self-professed Casanova. “Cameron never carried himself with anything but kindness, humility, effortless grace, and great humor,” posted Charles Esten, the actor who played Luke’s father. “Even as his star ascended with Jessie, and he began to receive the type of fame that can change people, I never saw that change.”

In Jessie, Boyce’s dancing skills are evident, along with a particular ease in front of camera. What gawkiness he had as a child would soon fade, translating into an occasional, slight awkwardness.

By 2015, Boyce was beginning to confirm his status as rising star and household name for a certain generation. Descendants, a fantasy Disney villains spin-off in which Boyce played Carlos, the fair-haired teenage son of Cruella DeVil, was a runaway hit in the vein of High School Musical, luring in millions of viewers and spawning two further TV films and an animated show.

Many are the Disney Channel stars who have subsequently disappeared from view; the main difficulty for actors often lies in transitioning to more complex material while retaining their core audience and scoring industry-wide recognition. But Boyce, at the time of his tragic death, was showing all the signs of being able to do this, as he struck out into more edgy material. Runt, for instance, bears all the hallmarks of the break-out movie. The thriller, which sees Boyce take a leading role amid a group of disaffected teenagers who get caught up in a cycle of violence, paints a stark contrast to the wholesome image Boyce had cultivated with Disney. 

“Cameron played a tormented teen, Cal, struggling to get by,” explained Nicole Elizabeth Berger, who co-stars in Runt, and spent several months filming it in the Simi Valley last year. In it, she says, “we see that all the adults that the teens depended on failed them in their desperate attempts to succeed.” Early promotional material for the film depicts young and aloof-seeming teenagers in muted colours, sometimes in violence scenarios - Boyce’s angelic face stands out in stills, making him seem particularly vulnerable.

“You could tell he was a pro, very intense and thoughtful about his performance, but without any sense of arrogance or entitlement,” said Perrotta, of Boyce’s work on Mrs Fletcher. He, like many people over the age of 30, admits that he “wasn’t familiar with Cameron’s work before he joined us… I knew that he’d been on Disney shows, but I didn’t fully understand how well-known and well-loved he was as a result of those roles. I immediately liked his low-key personality and his quiet confidence and good humour.” 

But Perotta’s comments also hint at the promise Boyce had as an actor beyond children’s television. “I was very impressed by Cameron’s comic abilities, especially when he improvised. He was very inventive and had great timing. 

“It wasn’t until I got into the editing room and was able to really focus on the nuances of his performance, that I realised just how good an actor he was. He elevated every scene he was in, and brought a formidable emotional intelligence to even the smallest moments. He was a remarkably gifted young actor.”

Aside from his all-dancing, all-quipping show kid schtick, it’s perhaps this emotional intelligence that set Boyce apart from other Disney graduates. “Despite being immensely talented, he was always modest and humble. There was so much he still wanted to do and see,” Berger says. “He always made sure his work reflected who he was as a person.”  

As with all stars who die young, Boyce’s tragedy was that his talent and promise had seemed to herald brighter things ahead. With the appearance of Runt and Mrs Fletcher shortly, fans and admirers of Boyce’s work are certain to confirm their appreciation for his talent but perhaps even see glimpses of a new direction, of other qualities heretofore untapped. From the distraught testimonials of colleagues, friends, fans and family alike, it’s certain at least that in his short time Boyce made a mark on a certain generation.