Cedric Begley on the power of ‘Bully High’

Monet Weir, Cedric Begley, Taylor Jabara, Caroline Stella in Bully High. Photo credit: Bully High.

Cedric Begley stars as Zack Walker in the Bill McAdams Jr. coming-of-age drama Bully High.

Written and directed by Bill McAdams Jr. (Gallows Road, Jose Canseco: The Truth Hurts), Bully High is both a love letter and a scathing commentary about the prevalent and controversial issues of religious prejudices, sexual orientation, and bullying.

Bully High centers around a Pakistani exchange student, Maryam Ali (Aneesha Madhok), who proudly wears her hijab to her new high school, triggering bigotry and harassment from school officials and other students, particularly the class bully Scarlett Smith (Taylor Jabara) and the school’s Government teacher Bob Walker (Bill McAdams Jr.), whose traumatic pasts are the basis for their personal resentment toward Maryam. Bob’s son and star of the school baseball team Zack Walker (Cedric Begley) falls for Maryam, causing conflict between him and his Christian father. Meanwhile, Maryam’s new friend, a Christian lesbian named Nicole White (Caroline Stella), also fights to strip away stereotypes and stand up for her right to live in peace.

The cast also includes Joseph Baena (son of Arnold Schwarzenegger) in his first significant film role, Moroccan fashion model Abla Sofy, Betsy Russell, Brent Anderson, Monet Weir, Grace Pippas and Duke Van Patten.

Check out our interview with Cedric!

What was it about the story that really drew you to this project?

Cedric: The draw for me was the cultural, social, and moral significance of the story. The film illustrates so many different perspectives through this great ensemble of characters, all dealing with their own respective struggles and finding their own respective strengths throughout the course of the story. The main draw and most important journey being illustrated is, of course, the main character Maryam Ali. The strength, resilience, and love the character holds resonated with me. I am especially connected to the cultural and social struggles she faces because I myself am a child immigrant. I moved to Los Angeles from rural Japan with my family at the age of 10. And because I don’t look Japanese I was considered a foreigner in Japan and then a racially ambiguous immigrant in America. The culture shock, bullying, and identity crisis that comes with it can feel crippling for a child. And this particular story has an important example of these situations because of America’s generally discriminatory, ignorant representations of Muslim people and their culture. These struggles speak to the strength and resilience of both Maryam Ali and all misrepresented, discriminated cultures.

What was it like working with Bill McAdams Jr. as your director and on-screen father?

Cedric: It was a really inspiring, creative process with Bill. He immediately took me under his wing and gave me a lot of creative freedom both as an actor and as a storyteller/filmmaker. For example, before shooting a scene we would discuss it like we’re peers creating art together then he’d call action and suddenly we’re father and son. Because we were so comfortable together, the transition between director and scene partner felt pretty seamless. Also, I’ve never seen a director care so much about each of his actors and the integrity of each character. If I felt a part of the character was missing in the scene, he’d always adapt and we’d create something new together. He is a true and honest storyteller. I learned a lot from him. I’m just looking forward to the next time we work together.

Bill McAdams Jr. as Bob Walker and Cedric Begley as Zach Walker in Bully High. Photo credit: Bully High.
What was it like working with Aneesha?

Cedric: There was never a dull moment working with Aneesha. Her passion and enthusiasm was unmatched. She came straight out of theater school into the lead of a feature film and she had no fear. She always fought for the character. She always took great care in the responsibility of her character culturally, socially, and artistically. Her huge heart and honesty definitely made the character and made the film.

What would you say was the most challenging part of creating this film?

Cedric: The most challenging part besides the work you put in as an actor was the time it took to finish the movie. We started this project in the fall of 2018 and finished it in 2022. Covid was a big factor, of course, but there are many constraints in creating lower budget indie films that are centered around the integrity of the message rather than making a nicely packaged product for the current climate of the film industry. But despite all the struggles, Bill and the rest of us stayed true to the heart of the film and we did everything we could to create something for the cultural, social, and moral significance. So even though it was tough to properly keep the essence of a character over 4 years, it was an honor to do it.

What would you say was the most rewarding part of creating this film?

Cedric: There are many things that are rewarding: the accomplishment of leading a feature film, being a part of something that has a purposeful message, seeing the smiles on my peers’ faces now that the movie is completed. But the most rewarding has to be: people of the Muslim culture being touched by the movie. Hearing that Muslims have respect for the movie and the character of Maryam Ali is what makes me proud. That proves the message and movie has integrity. If people of the culture we’re illustrating tell me it touched their heart, it resonated with them, and it made them feel something positive, I feel as rewarded as I could ever be.

What do you hope people take away from watching Bully High?

Cedric: I hope people can respect the reality of discrimination, trauma, and struggle certain groups go through in order to strengthen the love and growth as one unified species. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s not about self-victimization. No one can lobotomize evil, only strengthen the good. So I hope people can see Maryam Ali and see that strength in one’s own conviction, strength in one’s own love, strength in one’s own respect for others can significantly affect people’s ways of thinking for the better.

What’s up next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?

Cedric: I’m just auditioning constantly, searching for my next role like a good actor. Beyond that I have two music projects, in which I write and record all of the music myself, if anyone wants to check it out. One is called Ceddy Braugs, a progressive-metal project, which some say is my alter ego. The other is under my name Cedric Begley, an alternative rock project, straight from the heart.

If people want to stay up to date with you and your work, how can they find you? Are you on social media?

Cedric: You can find me @cedricbegley and @ceddybraugs on Instagram.

Photo credit: Bully High.
Bully High just premiered at the Catalina Film Festival and Chicago South Asian Film Festival.  The film will continue on the festival circuit before screening publicly.