Zack Ward is under no illusion about the mean little bully he brought to cinematic life three decades ago in the otherwise whimsical film, A Christmas Story.
"Just a brutal, nasty little boy is what I was," the Toronto native says, recalling his on-screen antics as Scut Farkus, the nemesis to Ralphie, the wide-eyed child at the centre of the 1983 slice of Americana that was partially shot in Ontario.
Ultimately, Ralphie lands some punches of his own and wins the day over Scut Farkus. But now the Los Angeles-based Ward is turning his attention to winning over bullies, taking inspiration from his on-screen character to fight one of the more significant issues facing children and teens today.
"I don't believe that children who are happy and content and feel loved and supported — those children don't go out and bully anybody," says Ward, who went on to roles in films such as Transformers and Almost Famous and numerous TV shows.
"I think both the bully and the bully's victim have an issue and it can be addressed, and we can help them get the support they need, see that they have other options and believe in themselves."
Coinciding with this year's 30th anniversary of A Christmas Story, Ward has launched an online fundraising campaign for bully prevention and after-school programs in underserved schools and communities in the U.S. and Canada.
"I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to use Scut Farkus as a lightning rod for the conversation and make it funny."
'Target on my chest'
Ward's understanding of what it is like to be a bully, or to be bullied, comes from more than the role he landed after cutting his acting teeth in ice cream and Jell-O commercials.
He grew up the son of Canadian actress Pam Hyatt, following her from set to set and stage to stage, including time at the Stratford Festival in southern Ontario.
"I grew up following my mom around Canada, and I went to at least six different schools before junior high, so I was a new kid at a bunch of schools named Zack with red hair," the 44-year-old says. "I didn't play hockey because I was a single-parent kid, and so basically I had a target on my chest so I got beat up a lot."
Playing Scut Farkus was, he says, "revenge against his bullies."
Being the bully in A Christmas Story, however, wasn't the role he auditioned for.
'It's an amazing thing to share with strangers who feel so vested with you.' - Zack Ward
"Originally, Scut Farkus was the sidekick to [bully] Grover Dill. Scut Farkus was a toady in the script that they had written. And I had very few lines," Ward says.
That changed, though, when Ward, who had done his auditions via video tape, met director Bob Clark.
Clark, an American who spent several years working in Canada on films such as Black Christmas and Porky's, took one look at Ward and the boy who'd landed the Dill role.
"When we showed up on set I was standing beside Yano Anaya, who plays Grover Dill, and he's about a foot shorter than I am, or was back then," says Ward. Clark saw the height difference and made the switch on the spot. Ward became Scut Farkus the bully.
'Cry, baby, cry'
Ward remembers many of his lines: "Listen, kid, when I tell you to come, you come." He recalls lots of laughing, pointing, punching and urging the kids he was taking on to "say uncle," or "cry, baby cry."
For all the fun on set, however, the experience playing Scut Farkus was something a young child like Ward could not fully understand. For him, it was difficult to distinguish the nuances of role-playing, and the distinction between the character and the person playing him.
That challenge was front and centre one day when Ward went with his mother to see Clark and look at the day's raw footage.
"He was showing the scene where I'm coming around the corner and I'm laughing and I'm being evil, and Bob is just tickled pink, so happy about it, and he slapped me on the side like 'Great job, great job,' and he leaves."
Ward, though, had tears in his eyes. What he saw on screen was a child who was "so ugly no one will like me," with braces and a broken tooth.
"When I was a little boy, I didn't really understand how to portray a character. My mom was the one who said, 'Sweetie that's not you, that's the character of Scut Farkus and the fact that he's being ugly is what he's supposed to be.' [It] kind of made me feel better, but it took a while."
Now, Ward embraces everything that came with playing the character in a movie that has become something of a Christmas cult classic, and says he's recognized daily for it, an occurrence that makes him feel honoured.
"People are very kind. It's not like being Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise where you get swarmed by people trying to grab or hold on to you, or they start crying because you're a Beatle. They look at you like a long-lost cousin that they have fond memories of and they can't wait to see you again."
Sharing with strangers
People wander up and tell him he's Scut Farkus and shouldn't be a bully.
"It's an amazing thing to share with strangers who feel so vested with you. In one way it's kind of like being Norm from Cheers. Everywhere you walk in people are like… 'It's you, good to see you.' It's kind of nice."
Looking back, Ward ultimately finds that while he may be seen as the guy who played Scut Farkus, very few people actually thought he was Scut Farkus at the time.
"There's no star system in Canada. I think that kind of saved me as a child actor," he says.
"No one treated me better. No one saw the movie and gave me a high five. No one even mentioned it. The only thing that ever happened to me due to my acting career in Toronto is that I would have members of the hockey team turtle me, aka pull my sweater over my head and punch me in the face."
But even that, he says, grounded him.
"I see the American kids who were child stars and the difficulty it was for them to overcome the lack of celebrity once they passed that age of being cute," says Ward, who now writes, produces, edits and directs.
"I would say thank you to the guys on the hockey team for punching me in the face because I think it saved my future."