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Finding the Heart of an Affliction

Tourette's syndrome inspired an actress' demanding new role.

March 15, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

L.A.'s large homeless population behooves we who live here to know a thing or two about mental illness. Many of the beleaguered souls living on our streets are ill, often with rather exotic afflictions. Tourette's syndrome is one such affliction. Tourette's is also the unlikely subject of "Niagara Niagara," a haunting love story opening Friday that marks the directorial debut of New York filmmaker Bob Gosse.

"Niagara Niagara" also announces the arrival of Robin Tunney as a 25-year-old actress to be reckoned with. Last seen in the 1996 low-budget hit "The Craft," Tunney plays Marcy, a mercurial outsider afflicted with Tourette's who teams up for a road trip to Niagara Falls with Seth, an alienated young man played by Henry Thomas; Seth grows to love Marcy not in spite of her Tourette's, but in a sense because of it.

First identified in 1885 by French physician Georges Gilles de la Tourette, Tourette's syndrome typically surfaces in childhood with the development of motor tics. Some patients make uncontrollable sounds, others have coprolalia, which is the involuntary screaming of profanities. The exact cause of the illness is unknown, but research suggests it's the result of an abnormality of the central nervous system, and that it has a strong genetic component. Medication can control it (Haldol is the drug of choice), but it's not curable.

Needless to say, the role of Marcy isn't exactly glamorous, and several actresses--Kate Winslet and Juliette Lewis, to name two--passed on the part. Tunney, however, felt "it was the kind of role an actress waits her whole life to play."

"People who don't know about Tourette's initially find it funny and the script read like a black comedy," says the actress during an interview in the breakfast room of a swank Santa Monica hotel. "In researching Tourette's, however, I found it to be unexpectedly profound and inspiring. Most Touretters have a great sense of humor about the disease, and there's very little self-pity involved with this illness. Those things made the character of Marcy even more compelling to me.

"The challenge in playing her was to make her human and not just a freak," she says. "There's a scene, for instance, where she involuntarily beats up the one person who's been nice to Marcy and Seth, and I was afraid the audience wouldn't forgive her. So, without going for the sympathy vote, I had to make it clear at all times that she's ill."

To prepare for the part, Tunney read loads of medical journals and watched "Twitch and Shout," a documentary produced and narrated by Lowell Handler, who wound up being both the Tourette's consultant and still photographer on "Niagara Niagara."

"Lowell wasn't diagnosed until he was 21, so up until then he just thought he was crazy and drank a lot," says Tunney. "He's 40 now and is on medication, but he still has his tics, which are always changing."

Having Handler on the set was a boon to Tunney, but she gives the lion's share of the credit for her work in the film to Bob Gosse.

"He's a wonderful director and he cleverly tricked me into doing all kinds of things," she enthuses. "For instance, when we began the shoot he told me, 'Whatever you do, don't practice ticcing.' Then, after Henry and I had rehearsed every scene three times and I'd done all my research, he pulled out the video camera and said, 'Bring me in a new tic every day.' If I'd been practicing tics without first understanding who the character was, the performance would've looked like it was coming from the outside in--and that's something Bob understood intuitively."

Tunney was so impressed with Gosse that she married him last October. "I didn't know I was in love with Bob until the day after the film wrapped," she insists, "then he proposed two months later. He's now in pre-production on a film he wrote called 'A Violent Act,' which I'm unfortunately too young for--the female lead in this one should be 35 or 40."

Despite the fact that she was falling in love during the making of "Niagara, Niagara," Tunney recalls the shoot as "really difficult. I was so concerned about the ticcing that I never considered the emotional roller coaster this character would take me on, and it was a depressing film to shoot. I felt ugly, lonely and tired, and I got a pinched nerve in my neck as a result of one of the tics I do. I saw a chiropractor when I first started having pain and he told me to stop doing whatever new action I was doing, but I couldn't stop because my head flying back had been established as a part of the character. So I just took Advil a lot, then didn't work for eight months after the film wrapped. It was really draining."

Born in Chicago in 1972, Tunney is the youngest in an Irish Catholic family of four children. Her mother is a bartender and her father is a car salesman.

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