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Fall Sneaks | StarTurn: John Robinson

Teen had hoped to be an extra, but Gus Van Sant saw him as a co-star

September 07, 2003|Mark Olsen

There are worse ways to start a career than by co-starring in a film that wins the top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

Appearing in "Elephant," director Gus Van Sant's look at a suburban high school, 17-year-old John Robinson attended the festival but missed out on the awards ceremony because he had to get back home to Portland, Ore., for the state lacrosse finals as well as end-of-term exams. Not bad, considering he originally auditioned to be an extra.

As Robinson explains, "There was a movie, 'The Hunted,' that shot in Portland, and my brother was an extra. So when I heard about a casting call for Gus Van Sant, I thought I wanted to do it. I waited in line for four hours to get my picture taken, and that was it." A few weeks later, the job was his.

The shoot for "Elephant" took place at an abandoned high school, and though Van Sant had a script, he also allowed his young actors to improvise scenes. At times the film seems aimless, letting a typical day unfold without comment until a Columbine-style attack erupts.

Robinson says Van Sant was guarded about his intentions, the "meaning" of the film, but forged a connection with his cast nonetheless.

"Actually what the film was about was spoken of less than I would have thought," Robinson explains. "I think Gus didn't want us to feel we were going for a goal. He was afraid to throw things off. We all knew what was going on.... It's obviously pretty provocative, and the intention is kind of obvious. Gus didn't really have to say it."

Next for Robinson: a role alongside Winona Ryder and Peter Fonda in "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," the adaptation of the book by super-hip writer J.T. Leroy (who wrote an early draft of the "Elephant" script).

-- Mark Olsen

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