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The Damage Done by a Hollywood Stereotype


Robert Capron wasn’t thinking of himself as a “fat kid” on the day that Roger Ebert described the eleven-year-old as “pudgy.” Instead, riding high during the national press tour for his first big supporting role—Rowley Jefferson in 2010’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”—the young actor felt like a star on the rise. It wasn’t until Capron settled into his Washington, D.C., hotel room to scroll eagerly through Rotten Tomatoes that his confidence began to dip. Packaged alongside the disappointment of each negative review was the unexpected confusion of being identified by body type—a queasy sensation heightened by the red warning lights of the Washington Monument visible through the window.

“Every critic is specifying that I’m fat: ‘chubby,’ ‘overweight,’ ‘moon-faced’—‘cherubic,’ if we’re getting a little artsy with it,” Capron said, the clipped repetition agitating the gentle hum of his voice. “I register that the comments are weird. But I’m going on hot-air balloons. I’m travelling across America. I’m in a movie my entire sixth-grade class goes on a field trip to see. There’s so much good. I almost can’t think about it.”

Such adjectives no longer apply to Capron. Last seen in a 2018 arc on the television show “Elementary,” the twenty-three-year-old maintains a tight, wiry frame, with veins taut from bench curls and a face winnowed to a stern definition. The presiding impression that Capron casts these days is hardy, well nourished—a resting air of strength that he nevertheless struggles to internalize. More frequently, he’ll look down at his phone and find Instagram messages from old Rowley fans: “I liked you better when you were fat.”

Raised in Rhode Island by protective parents who, he says, knew “jack shit about Hollywood,” Capron came to his leading-man aspirations independently, inspired by after-school theatre classes and Jimmy Stewart performances. Early casting coups—“cutesy kid” walk-ons in films like “Bride Wars” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”—were likewise organic. Presumably what caught the eye of casting directors was Capron’s sweet-faced, youthful presence. His steadily mounting weight played only a small part in his development. “[My weight problems] just seemed like a familial conversation. I didn’t correlate it with outside perception and I can’t recall anybody ever calling me fat,” Capron said, waving away assumptions about bullying. “I was, like, an overly nice kid.”

Capron’s dewy-eyed confidence would vault him past all the other child actors who answered the casting call for Rowley Jefferson. As the cheerfully dorky best friend of Greg, the titular wimpy kid, Rowley emanates inborn self-acceptance—a pointed contrast to Greg’s flailing efforts to become the coolest boy in middle school. And, although Capron was clearly born for the part, there’s a nagging have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too quality to the character’s conception. For, even as Rowley’s social ignorance enables the franchise’s “be-yourself” moral, it also lets the filmmakers deliver lacerating insults at the character—“Chunk E. Cheese” and “baby hippo”—for Capron to smilingly blink away. “The word for Rowley is ‘thick,’ ” according to the publicly available script. “His head, neck, torso, and legs sit atop one another like a stack of blocks.” At a shirts-and-skins game of gladiator, while another character laments the cruelty of forcing all the unathletic students to be skins, Rowley is off to the side, playfully manipulating his fat folds. Whether throwing his weight to the ground to stop Greg’s teen-age brother, or tumbling from a chair while animatedly dancing along to Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK,” Capron rarely considered the image he was projecting. “You’re having relationships with all of these people independently of what’s onscreen,” he said. “I trusted people. I said yes to things. I had no reason not to. I felt like life was being handed to me on a silver platter.”

But, when the “Wimpy Kid” franchise began earning him supporting roles that depended upon his weight, Capron’s awareness outgrew that of his blissfully unaware fictional alter ego. Not even voice acting in “Frankenweenie” could free Capron from chubby comic relief. Neither would his long-coveted chance at a leading part. The role was for an adaptation of Robert Lipsyte’s “One Fat Summer,” a coming-of-age novel about a self-loathing fat kid who receives motivation to lose weight while working for a stern older man. Invited to L.A. for a screen test, Capron was instructed to remove his shirt, eat a sandwich, and face the camera. Told afterward by some of the creative team that he was “a lock,” all that Capron could hear was “You’re fat? You’re perfect.” After the biggest opportunity of his career collapsed in development, he was silently grateful.

However, Capron’s ultimate humiliation came earlier, and the culprit was Rowley Jefferson himself. At a 2012 screening for the third “Wimpy Kid” film, hosted by the N.B.A. player Carmelo Anthony’s foundation, the fourteen-year-old actor filed to the back of the movie theatre, hoping to keep a low profile. As the giant screen filled with images of Rowley shirtless at a pool, Capron began to notice rows of giggling kids turning to stare at him. At first, the actor was confused. “Nothing funny was happening,” he said. And then it hit him. “Oh, my God—they’re laughing because my man-boobs are jiggling,” Capron recalled thinking. “At that moment, the truth of my life became that being fat is a very bad thing.” Two years later, he says, he “just stopped eating.”

Capron, still a growing teen-ager, began restricting his consumption to five hundred calories a day, his energy sustained by dreams of losing enough weight to play Spider-Man. It took only a few months of counting each Cheerio to drop Capron from a hundred and ninety pounds to a hundred and ten, then his management started to submit him for loftier parts. When he was caught in the act of throwing out a ham-and-cheese sandwich made by his father, Capron began a recovery process that ultimately saw him spend what felt like more of his late-teen years in nutritionist offices than he ever did on set.

“I really thought I was going to be the male lead with the fat best friend,” Capron said. “But, once I was thin, Hollywood couldn’t quite peg me.” Even worse, the old chubby kid offers kept coming in—Capron’s lack of work gave casting directors the misleading impression that he was “still fat.” Whether persistence will result in a breakthrough, Capron cannot say. When each day is spent concealing an eating disorder from a world that refuses to forget you were fat, maybe there’s no energy left over for finding a new, self-assured niche. “I never stopped feeling scrutinized. It killed my confidence,” he said. “I entered acting completely uninhibited. By the end, I was feeling insecure about things I shouldn’t have been insecure about.”

Capron’s inability to land roles that didn’t force a mocking identification with his body at an impressionable age had dire consequences. He joined an unhappy lineage of weight-derived characterizations that dates to Chubby in “Our Gang,” through Mike Engelberg in “The Bad News Bears,” and Chunk in “The Goonies.” I spoke with Aaron Schwartz, who is one of the few former Hollywood fat kids to have led his own movie, “Heavyweights,” from 1995, in which he plays a child sent to lose weight at a hilariously ineffective fat camp. It’s in this surprisingly utopic environment that he finds his place—one “fat kid” among a diverse cross-spectrum of overweight youths, encompassing confident tricksters and sensitive sweethearts alike. When judgmental society imposes itself, arriving in the form of a new staff of fitness nuts led by a self-loathing ex-fat-kid played by Ben Stiller, it’s the sweats who end up looking absurd.



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