When Devon Werkheiser was 12 years old, he landed the starring role of Ned Bigby on Nickelodeon's "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide." The hit TV show aired for three seasons, during which Ned and his best friends Cookie (Daniel Curtis Lee) and Moze (Lindsey Shaw) battled bullies, insane teachers and gross school lunches at James K. Polk Middle School.
MTV News recently caught up with the actor and singer-songwriter to talk about what he's up to now and what his updated "Ned's" declassified ~life~ survival guide would look like. (Tip # 1 is to "always be learning.")
MTV News: To start off -- this is a bit of a throwback -- what was it like landing the role of Ned Bigby?
Devon Werkheiser: I still remember being in my bed when my mom came in to tell [me] ... that I had booked it. It was huge to book the lead role on a Nickelodeon show as a 12-year-old. I mean, it was one of the most exciting things in my life. It was THE most exciting thing at the time.
MTV: You played Ned from ages 12 to 15. How did the show shape your childhood? Those are some really pivotal years.
Werkheiser: Yeah, they are. It was interesting because for at least the first few seasons of “Ned’s," I would spend a semester back in Georgia [my home state] in public middle school. Then I would come out to Los Angeles for the second semester of school and shoot "Ned’s." It was my childhood. While we would shoot nine and a half hours a day, three of those had to be schooled.
It helped so much that we had 16 kids on the cast, because we were able to still have that social life. When you’re working as a kid, you don’t get a chance to hang out with anyone. There is no social life beyond the work, because you’re so exhausted when you get done filming all day. It helped so much that it was like a real school experience.
All of us kids on the show became best friends. We would play tag, foosball, football, dodgeball and everything at lunch. We all became really, really close. I’m still close to most of the cast today. And shooting it was one of the most fun [experiences] I’ve ever had. We all remember it so fondly because all day we got to run around and play and do what we love.
The credit for that goes to Scott Fellows, who was our ["Ned's"] creator. He was such a funny, silly, amazing executive producer who encouraged us to go really big and make the show the live-action cartoon that it was. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work, but it felt like three years of a dream -- playing and getting to be the lead on Nickelodeon at the age while I was watching Nickelodeon.
MTV: That sounds awesome. Since you were in public school for part of the year, did you use any of the tips from "Ned's" in real life?
Werkheiser: This is so bad but it sticks in my head ... the tip that if you need to -- let’s just be frank (laughs) -- if I had to go poop in school, my mom always told me, "Go tell the nurse you have a stomachache, and they’ll let you use the private nurse’s bathroom." I used that one before "Ned’s," so when I saw that one in the show I was very surprised, and I laughed a lot because I had used that tip. I was weird about pooping in school. (laughs)
It’s been awhile so I can’t remember a lot of the tips specifically, but what I liked about the show was that it was silly and over-the-top, but you really could connect and learn from it. That was the intention of the writers. They weren’t just writing it for entertainment. Scott [Fellows] really did want to help kids through those awkward middle school years. People still tweet me or contact me [saying], "You helped me survive school" [or] "I use all the tips and I wrote them down." And that’s awesome. That’s a great feeling.
I like that Ned wasn’t a nerd, but he wasn’t popular. He was sort of friends with everybody. Ned’s message was it’s OK to be who you are. It’s OK to be weird if you’re weird, it’s OK to be a nerd if you’re a nerd, there’s people out there for you and sort of do what you like and here’s tips to avoid bullies and stuff like that. I really still am aligned with the message of the show.
MTV: I saw on your Instagram that you recently went to Burning Man. This might be reaching a bit -- I don't know much about Burning Man, to be honest -- but in the series finale of "Ned’s," you became what was known as the "wild boy." Are there any parallels between those two experiences?
Werkheiser: That’s hilarious, I love it. I mean, sure. (laughs) But Ned became wild boy on accident [after] a series of unfortunate mishaps and shenanigans. I go to Burning Man by choice, I don’t stumble upon it. It’s a lot of work. This was my fifth time [going]. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.
MTV: So how did scoring such a big role like Ned early on influence what roles you take on now?
Werkheiser: (laughs) Let’s talk about that. So I got done with the show at 15, and I thought that coming off the lead title character on my own show for three years that got great ratings and had a good fanbase -- I thought it was going to mean more than it did out in the rest of my career. Meaning, it didn’t give me as much of a head start in auditions as I thought it was going to. I actually had a -- what are they called? -- a rude awakening coming off "Ned’s" because I hadn’t auditioned in three years. I really thought this was a great stepping stone to a long career. I still have a lot of fans, a lot of people that I love to talk to, but it didn’t give me the upper hand with roles or big movies that I wanted to get into.
Because it’s Nickelodeon and Disney, it’s just a different type of acting than movie acting -- it’s massive, it’s cartoony. So I had to realize that it wasn’t going to give me any shortcuts in the industry. It was a good thing, absolutely. I love "Ned’s" ... [but] ultimately I realized if I want to be in the movies that I want to be in, if I want to be in the TV shows that I respect and love, I’m gonna have to work my butt off and earn it like everybody else. So I got into acting class and just started training again.
I worked really hard for years to be capable of the work that I want to do. And I realized ... there was so much deeper to go within myself and my acting and so much harder I can work. So yeah, since then, that’s been the game -- working really hard in class, auditioning a lot. I’ve worked a lot since then, over the last nine years, but nothing has quite broken through like "Ned’s" did. So that’s what I’m working towards -- the next role that people will recognize me as and go, "Oh yeah, AND he was on Ned’s" not like, "Oh, that’s Ned forever." I’m looking for the next role that’s poignant and contemporary and big like that.
MTV: That totally makes sense. How did you get into music from acting?
Werkheiser: I started learning guitar on "Ned’s" because a lot of the boys [on set] played. ... I started teaching myself and after "Ned’s," I was contacted by Universal to go have a meeting with them. I was actually not excited for the meeting because I had barely written songs. Someone at Universal had just read that I play guitar and sang. I had a great meeting and found out that the woman at Universal, she wanted me to co-write with a lot of people and wanted me to have a lot of say in what I did. I didn’t even know I wanted to do music for real -- like I wanted to do acting -- until that moment. So I’m really grateful for her and that meeting.
I was with Universal for two and a half years, and I wrote with songwriters all over L.A. I wrote like 45 songs, and we were going to make an album and all this stuff, and it just fell apart. We just stopped being able to collaborate together, me and Universal, and it felt like an album was never going to get made. I didn’t really know who I was as an artist at that point, but I was figuring it out and so I left. We parted ways, but that was my intro into realizing that I really love songwriting and it brings me a lot of fulfillment.
[With] acting, I’m always working to get someone to see me and hire me. Music, I can make anytime. I can sing at any point. I was literally singing before I got on the phone with you. I can write a song every day and express myself for me and have control over what I create with it. It was once I started writing by myself that I realized what an outlet it is for me.
I put out my first EP [I Am] that I self-produced in 2013. I put out my second one [Here and Now] a couple months ago, and that just came from having so many songs and wanting to put something out. Music is fun by myself, but I really want to give it to anyone who might feel something from it. I’ve done only two EPs in three years because it costs a lot [to record music], but I write all the time and I probably have like 40 songs. My next big music project will be recording a full album, but I don’t know when that’s going to start.
MTV: For sure. In the meantime, we'll keep watching your covers and original music on YouTube. Last February, you performed at Penn State's annual THON dance marathon to raise money for the Four Diamonds fund, which fights childhood cancer. How'd that come about?
Werkheiser: All my family lives in Pennsylvania. My mom’s side is all from Scranton, and my dad’s side is all from Philly. My parents met at Penn State, so I’ve been going there since I was a child to go to games and go visit their friends. If I did go to college, I might’ve gone to Penn State because it’s one of my favorite places. ... [My dad's] taken me to THON the past two years and I got to play at it last year, which was crazy. I played at like four in the morning, I think. That was definitely the biggest stage and biggest crowd I’ve ever played for. That’s like stadium level. That was jumping ahead a few steps in my music career, playing for 15,000 people. The crowd was amazing. The energy was incredible.
My parents, mainly my dad, are really involved in the [Penn State] alumni chapter out here in L.A. They came up with the idea of doing a THON out here. My dad started his charity, Lights Camera Cure, [and] 50% goes to THON and the Four Diamonds and 50% [goes towards] Teen Cancer America. They have a UCLA program, so part of it's donating to California and part of it’s donating to Pennsylvania. And we have a six-hour mini-THON out here every year, which I host and sometimes perform at. It’s really awesome. I’m really proud of my dad for making that change and putting his energy into giving back. I’ve started to learn in life, when you take your focus off what you want to get and instead focus on what you want to give, you end up getting so much in return.
MTV: That's amazing. Looking back now, what advice would you give to your younger self -- 12 to 15-year-old Devon -- just starting out his career?
Werkheiser: There's so much I want to say to young Devon. Hey little guy. (laughs) Hey little man, work hard. And fall in love with the work. There are no shortcuts. It's about practice. The more you practice, the better you'll get. So fall in love with the practice of it and know that all your dreams will come true. Everything that should happen in your life will, and everything that doesn't happen wasn't meant to be.