Speaking with PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly‘s Editorial Director Jess Cagle for the latest edition of The Jess Cagle Interview, the 42-year-old actor opened up how starring in the iconic movie at age 11 has had a lasting impact on him to this very day.
“That experience was one of the best experiences of my life,” said O’Connell. “That summer was maybe the best summer of my life!”
“River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton and [director] Rob Reiner were my best friends,” he continued. “We had a summer of just walking around in the woods and goofing around. Rob was really good at rehearsing with us. We didn’t even know we were rehearsing. We thought we were playing games.”
- Watch the full episode of The Jess Cagle Interview, streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.
O’Connell still remembers his first day on set, including an invaluable lessons he learned from Reiner.
“I had no experience,” he admitted. “The first scene we shot was Corey Feldman fighting with the guy who owns the junkyard — I was in the background of the scene. They get into a fight, and then we pull Corey Feldman off. Then the guy that owns the junkyard insults Corey Feldman’s father, and you see Corey Feldman has some real father issues. I guess everybody has father issues in Stand by Me.”
“He fights with him, we pull him away, and that’s it,” recalled O’Connell. “I’m standing there, and Rob Reiner says, ‘Cut.’ I had no lines in the scene. I’m not worried at all. I’m not even paying attention!”
“Rob Reiner goes, ‘Hey, Jerry. What are you doing here? What are you doing here in the scene? Like what’s going on?’ ” continued O’Connell. “I went, ‘Nothing. I don’t have any lines.’ He went, ‘No, no, no. You’re in the scene. Are you watching this fight? What would you do if someone was fighting next to you? You’re as important to the scene as [anyone here]. You all have to do this. You have to listen to every word that’s on set.’ ”
O’Connell went on to explain that he recently used Reiner’s coaching techniques while directing an upcoming Disney Channel show, Andi Mack.
“A lot of the things that Rob Reiner did with us as kids, I do with these young actors on set,” said O’Connell. “It’s so funny, because I think of that every day when I’m on a set and I’m listening to a scene — I’m like, ‘Oh, I better listen. Remember Rob told me to listen.’ I got to tell that to a 12-year-old who’s super talented and everything. Not to get too hakuna matata with everybody, but it’s the circle of a career. It’s just really fun.”
Of watching the movie back now, O’Connell admits it can be emotional — particularly the scenes with his late costar Phoenix.
“That’s emotional because his character passes away in the film. That’s a little tough to watch,” he admitted. “I watch it when it comes on late at night if I’m just flipping the channels. We have a TV in our bedroom. I know all therapists say that’s the wrong thing to do, but my wife and I love it, and you’re not getting it out of there. I’ll be flipping around at night, and I’ll come across it, and I’ll watch it. It’s such a good movie. It holds up so well.”