Robert Sheehan (The Mortal Instruments, Killing Bono), Dev Patel, and Zoe Kravitz star in the WellGoUSA dramedy The Road Within in theaters on April 17, 2015 (and also available on VOD). The film marks the directorial debut of Gren Wells who also wrote the script which follows three residents of a treatment center – one with Tourette Syndrome (Sheehan), one who’s anorexic (Kravitz), and one who suffers from OCD (Patel) – as they embark on a bizarre, life-changing roadtrip.
Kicking off our phone interview, Sheehan serenaded me with a few lines from Lionel Richie’s “Hello” before getting down to the business of discussing the challenges of playing someone with Tourette’s and his experience working on The Road Within.
Robert Sheehan Interview
What did you know about Tourette’s before you took on the role?
“Not very much, Rebecca, at all in the grand scheme of things. I was aware of the existence of Tourette Syndrome. I’d seen a few films portray it. I might have seen the documentary called Strange Behaviours which, if you’re curious, is well worth a look. Yeah, I didn’t really know much about it and it was nice to have this avenue to explore it.”
In talking to people who have Tourette’s, what did you pick up that helped you play the character that you didn’t get just from the script?
“I think one of the main things I noticed was the nature of physical tics and indeed vocal tics, which are called Coprolalia, which is that they’re not always that explosive. My first instinct was to [overdo them]and go over-the-top with the portrayal of the physical Tourette Syndrome, where in fact they can be done at a very conversational level. I sort of had to reprogram myself just a little bit, just to kind of not overdo it. I think I jumped in two feet first. We had a Tourette’s consultant, Jaxon Kramer, whose main job it was on set was to sort of bring me down in certain scenes, you know what I mean?”
How did you develop the physical mannerisms?
“They were developed over a period of time. I needed to come up with ones that felt natural in my own body, for whatever reasons. That was really good fun, actually, to just kind of come up with my own random tics. How could one movement feel more natural than another? Who knows? That was kind of fun exploring that.”
You not only had to do the physical tics but you also had to do an American accent while trying to connect with this character who the audience has to connect with. Was there something about him you could relate to that helped you get into the character?
“I think he was there very early on for me, or certainly a strong feeling very early on of who he was. And then it was trying to jump the hurdle of getting the Tourette’s under the skin so I could go back to focusing on him. I felt a strong instinct for the character straight off the page.”
Did having the director also be the writer help on this particular film?
“I think so, yeah, and how free she was. She was very, very free. Once I felt very comfortable with the Tourette Syndrome, I was free to orchestrate that whatever way I felt which, in the script, for clarity reasons, was written in a sentence. Gwen had written it in however way she heard it and if didn’t feel right for me I was… Essentially I reorganized the Tourette Syndrome for the character which was because it had to come from inside me. So, stuff like that we were very, very collaborative and she was really free and open with.”
When you say “reorganized” do you mean the tics would come out at different times than were originally scripted?
“Yes. And it was a constant re-imagination of where’s the tic going to come from. It kind of came down to a science, really, of just finding those moments piece by piece. It was from going through the script with a fine-toothed comb philosophy, pouring over it multiple times.”
This must have been a physically exhausting role. Was it hard to get the energy up for it every day?
“It really wasn’t. It really wasn’t for some reason. I think the energy that was sort of bopping around my body when was really beneficial to just having energy all day. It seems like that kind of nervous energy woke me up in the morning and kept me awake right throughout the day. I actually had no problem with exhaustion or anything. It was quite the opposite of what I thought it was going to be. That was great. But, I did have a bit of a problem sleeping just because I had to turn it off at the end of the day. You kind of sat in bed kicking yourself, like, ‘Oh, calm down now.'”
Was it a short shoot?
“It was, I suppose, in the grand scheme. It was like 25 days I think. But we went across a tremendous amount of locations. It was a logistical nightmare.”
I loved the chemistry between you, Dev Patel, and Zoe Kravitz and in fact would like to see a sequel so we can learn more about each character.
Let’s campaign for it now.
“Dev and Zoe were lovely. It’s interesting because we were all suitably terrified and it was nice to be in a room and get it wrong together. We could figure stuff out. I’d get frustrated, and we’d go through a whole cacophony of sh*t before we came to a point where we were all feeling comfortable. We all had our own battles so it was nice to be together. It felt like a little family. I think it was a nice dynamic that we ended up with, with myself and Dev screaming and hooting and whooping, and Zoe’s energy very much dampening us two. It was a nice dynamic.”
You said you were terrified. Were you really terrified going into this role?
“Yeah, I was. I think that was one of the reasons why I was motivated to do as much preparation as I possibly could. Sometimes the temptation is to just wait until you’re in a room with the other actors and just see what happens. But that wasn’t what happened with this and it was because I was just terrified of misrepresenting people with Tourette Syndrome. It would be a really f*cked up thing to have a movie that’s there forever and has a dishonest portrayal, so that was my greatest fear.”
What has been the reaction to the film of people who have Tourette Syndrome?
“Actually, it’s been really positive. Very positive, thank God. It’s been really nice. We’ve had a lovely bit of feedback from Tim Howard who’s a goalkeeper for the US. He has Tourette Syndrome and he’s completely focused on sports when he’s playing, but then he has Tourette’s. He’s suffered with it all of his life. He wrote this lovely, good review of how the film shows people with these kinds of disabilities can show courage and go out and live full lives, and not let the disability conquer you. It was sort of that flavor of feedback that was really fantastic to get.”
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