Robert Sheehan on yelling the c-word in front of kids and wanting to play Richard III
Tourette syndrome has gotten the Hollywood spotlight from stars like Amy Poehler in “Deuce Bigalow,” Bill Murray in “What About Bob?” and Elle Fanning in “Phoebe in Wonderland.” Media representation of the tic disorder has ranged from irreverently comedic to sweetly tragic.
The new movie “The Road Within,” which opens in theaters Friday, aims for a bit of both – funny but also sweet and touching and respectful of those who have Tourette’s.
In the film, 27-year-old Irish actor Robert Sheehan (“Misfits,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”) plays Vincent, a teen dealing with Tourette syndrome following the death of his mother. He moves into a clinic, where he meets Marie (Zoe Kravitz), a girl with an eating disorder, and Alex (Dev Patel), a boy with obsessive-compulsive impulses. When the three teens steal their doctor’s car and escape the clinic, they embark on a road trip full of rebellious antics, clashing personalities, much-needed healing and new friendships.
Sheehan talked with HitFix about his preparation to play a character with Tourette’s, what pushes Dev Patel’s buttons, and which director got him thinking about taking on Shakespeare.
HitFix: When you read the script for “The Road Within,” what about it made you know you had to be involved?
Robert Sheehan: I was on my way to Los Angeles on an airplane, and I had a big bunch of scripts in front of me, about 10 or 12 – this sounds like a made up anecdote but it really isn’t I promise – because I was coming into town I was going to do meetings and auditions and what have you. So I just decided to take quite a fascist approach to the material because there’s so much of it. I was reading maybe 20 to 25 pages of the scripts, and if it didn’t intrigue me in some way, shape or form I just kind of put it aside and went on to the next one. And it was in that group of scripts “The Road Within” was above and beyond the best. Like anything, if someone’s put a lot of care and attention to something and is somewhat inspired by something, it comes across very, very strongly on the page. What it was about this script was certainly the tone and strength of the script. The comedy in this was very, very clever. And I thought it was terrifying, the idea of representing a syndrome for a mass of people out there in the film. But I thought I could do that. I can do that. I just had an instinct I suppose.
What kind of research about Tourette syndrome did you do to prepare?
A sort of practical research. There’s a guy from the Tourette Syndrome Association, a guy called Jackson Kramer who was very much an open book about the syndrome, about having Tourette’s, and he helped us out to no end. He became very much like a creative consultant since he was on set with me the whole time. I went to quite a few support groups. I also hung out with Ruth, who I’d met at a support group and she was the one chairing support groups in London. And she had a very, very different form of Tourette’s and coprolalia [involuntary utterance of obscene words]. And then just watched everything there was to watch about people with Tourette’s syndrome, documentaries that have been made over the years. You look back there’s documentaries made in the ’80s, which are fascinating because it seemed like the disorder – it’s so incredibly rare.
And people who have the compulsive profanity are even more rare.
Yeah, and in the early ’80s, people just being ill-equipped to deal with a family member who has Tourette syndrome. It just must be tough. You get a real sense of tragedy of the thing. To go through your adolescence – Christ, in your adolescence you have no idea who you are, really. You’re just sort of clamoring around for some kind of sense of identity. To do that and have Tourette syndrome, it just seems like a lot on your plate.
It is tragic, but Vincent’s tics, some of the things he’ll blurt out are funny, and they’re meant to be funny. How do you embrace the humor in that but also approach it respectfully?
I don’t really know what is that particular ingredient that makes it okay to laugh. I suppose there’s great care and attention taken to the situation. Someone with Tourette syndrome or coprolalia, where they vocalize stuff – it tends to be very responsive to the environment, to stimuli in the environment. There’s a good example in the movie when we’re at the first gas station. And I go in, and the guy behind the counter tells me that my credit card won’t work. This actor has no front teeth. We did a whole load of vocal tics that made reference to the fact that he had no teeth. So playing it sort of honestly. It’s just about having an honest intention as opposed to playing it just for the laugh.
You continued acting out Vincent’s tics throughout your time on set, even when cameras weren’t rolling. Why that approach?
It kind of ended up being a bit easier that way. I had a sort of an energy on the film that I think came about from every day in the morning working the body up to that sort of level of energy with Tourette syndrome bubbling up to the surface. I developed a kind of compulsive comfort in ticking all day.
When production ended, was there a part of you that missed being able to get away with just cussing and saying inappropriate things all the time?
No. I mean, I think it definitely affected me a bit. I’m someone who has no shame in cursing in public anyway.
I wouldn’t give a f---. Within reason. We were actually at the L.A. Zoo once. We went there as a little field exercise for me to have Tourette’s in front of strangers. And it did get to a point where I just turned to [director] Gren [Wells] and Jackson and said, “I can’t shout c--- in front of these kids.” There’s no need for it.
With your character and Zoe Kravitz’s and Dev Patel’s characters, there’s a lot of teasing each other, a lot of pushing each other’s buttons. What pushes Zoe and Dev’s buttons? I’m sure you figured that out at some point during shooting.
Dev has an adverse fear of insects. Anything flying, an insect, he might just have a freak out and nearly crash the car. So the real Dev and the character Alex – there’s definitely an intersection there. And poor Zoe – she was in a sensitive way because she was on this controlled diet. And she did the whole dieting thing. She did it carefully with a nutritionist. She was probably more sensitive than she usually is, so more stuff was pushing her buttons.
Zoe has spoken out about how playing an anorexic girl was very personal since she’s had eating disorders in her own life – as a co-star did you find yourself in a place where you were supporting her as she delved into that again for a role?
Yeah, we were really, really supportive. Took a real interest in how she was going about doing her dieting. It was really fascinating. Before she started the diet, she did things like a clay cleanse, which essentially is drinking liquid clay which that will absorb up any sort of extraneous stuff in the bowel. It cleans you completely out. Yeah man, I think she had the toughest gig out of all of us. I never had to worry about having to not eating.
This being a road movie, there are a lot of beautiful locations. Did you have a favorite location to shoot in?
Yosemite National Park. We went to a lot of locations on the film, which was great. And I think it really drove home the actual road trip experience. But Yosemite was just a f---ing profound place. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s sort of an awe-inspiring quiet that you get. It quiets the mind. And that’s a very sort of spiritual place, whatever that might mean to each person.
And then, as Vincent, you had to shout out into that quiet.
Yeah, which felt disrespectful almost. Shouting into the valley and the glacier beyond. A gorgeous place. That was a true joy getting to go there.
I also wanted to ask you about the “Mortal Instruments” TV show that's in development at ABC Family. Is there any chance you would play Simon again on the small screen?
No. No, I think that’ll be a whole new incarnation separate from the film.
Is there anyone you can see playing Simon?
Who should play Simon? Let me see. Let me see. I’m so bad. This is why I would never make a good casting director.
It’s a tough job.
It is. You have to have this imagination. But they’ll be younger hopefully in the show, won’t they? They’ll be 16, 17. They should be. In the books, they’re all in their teens, so they should find some blithe young teenagers to take up the mantle!
You know there are some fans of another series who are playing casting director – have you heard of the comic book series “Y: The Last Man”?
No, I haven’t.
I’ve seen a few different “dream casting” lists by fans of the series who hope it gets adapted into a movie or TV show, and they have mentioned you for Yorick, the lead character.
Hey, Yorick. Like the clown from “Hamlet.”
Yep. The character in the comic books – his father is a fan of Shakespeare, so he named both his kids after Shakespeare characters.
Really interesting. Intéressant. Good, a job offer! You know, I was talking with Trevor Nunn recently. Maybe it’s time for me to do Shakespeare. Maybe the universe is telling me something.
If you could be in any Shakespeare play, what would it be?
I don’t know why but probably “Richard III.”
Are you old enough to play Richard III?
Funny you should say that because Trevor told me an interesting thing about Richard III, which is he wasn’t like 40, 50. He was actually 32 when he was killed.
Richard III is still Ian McKellen in his 50s or Laurence Olivier in his 40s in my head.
Yeah. Or Kevin Spacey, who I saw do it. Or Mark Rylance, who’s in his 50s. There’s that misconception. I think you can massage Shakespeare in whatever direction you want.
So were you talking with Trevor Nunn about possibly doing “Richard III” with him or –
Oh no. I just met him in a casual way.
Got it. Well, I would like to see your take on Richard III. I also encourage you to check out that comic book series “Y: The Last Man” since the fans have been bouncing around your name for that.
I’ll tell my agent.
"The Road Within" opened in theaters Friday, April 17 and is also available on VOD. The film is the directorial debut of Gren Wells and also stars Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Patrick.