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Writer turns the story of his paralyzing accident into 'Sympathy for Delicious'

THE SUNDANCE FESTIVAL

Christopher Thornton's film, directed by fellow actor and friend Mark Ruffalo, is about faith.

January 24, 2010|By Rachel Abramowitz

There is faith, the showy display of religiosity that is the trick-of-the-trade of faith healers, and then there is faith, a kind of belief in a transcendent reality.

In a plain Hollywood church, both were on display last February, as actor-turned-director Mark Ruffalo finished filming on his directorial debut "Sympathy for Delicious," an unusual story about a jaded, homeless, paraplegic disc jockey, "Delicious" Dean O'Dwyer, who suddenly finds he has the power to heal, although he can't heal himself. On stage, John Carroll Lynch, playing a kind of cut-rate faith healer (in the mold of televangelist Benny Hinn) is exhorting "that the holy spirit is upon you" to a congregation of would-be believers, including several rows of men and women in wheelchairs. Among the handicapped is writer-star Christopher Thornton,with grimy dark hair, several days of stubble and an air of furious desperation.

The 41-year-old Thornton has been one of Ruffalo's best friends for the last 20 years. Unlike most actors who play the handicapped, like Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot" or Tom Cruise in "Born on the Fourth of July," Thornton can't just get up from his chair when Ruffalo calls cut; he has been a paraplegic since 1992, when he fell and fractured two vertebrae while rock climbing. In "Sympathy for Delicious," Thornton channels his complicated feelings about his accident. The film is also the fruit of his long friendship with Ruffalo, a tie that sustained them both through Thornton's accident, as well as Ruffalo's subsequent battle with a brain tumor, let alone the nine years it took to bring "Sympathy for Delicious" to the screen. The $3.3-million film, which also stars Orlando Bloom, Laura Linney and Juliette Lewis, as well as Ruffalo, was scheduled to debut Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival.

During a break, Ruffalo, who has appeared in such films as "Collateral," "Zodiac" and the upcoming "Shutter Island," explains that Thornton first told him of his movie idea as Ruffalo was wheeling him to a liquor store on the fifth anniversary of his accident. The two, then roommates, had met in the early '90s when both attended acting classes at the Stella Adler Conservatory in L.A. with such future stars as Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek.

After the accident, Ruffalo and other friends had coaxed Thornton back on stage for a part in "Waiting for Godot." Nonetheless, the fifth anniversary was a moody time for Thornton.

"He was upset and sad," says Ruffalo, a woolly, warm presence in jeans and beat-up blazer. "I said, 'Chris, I've known you before and after your accident, and God forbid, I'm telling you this. Maybe I'm the only one who could say something like this to you, but maybe this horrible tragedy is a blessing in disguise. I've seen you become like this amazing, totally inspirational guy over all these years from this thing, just as a human being. Maybe there's a gift in it somewhere.' "

Even today, Thornton gets "annoyed" when Ruffalo says things like that to him, as he explains when he rolls up and joins the interview. "You hate being told that. It's like, 'Why don't you be the big guy sitting in the chair? I'd rather be the shallow walking dude," he jokes.

Thornton explains that he'd been brooding about the script since he started going out for acting parts in his wheelchair. "I wanted to write a story about a man in a wheelchair that was believable and three-dimensional and flawed," he says, pointing out there have been movies that show the hospital and the first aftermath of a paralyzing accident, but "there's two tragedies that happen with an injury like this."

After a person has recovered, he must face the rest of his life. "You're not dying. That circle of friends that was visiting you all the time has gone back, and you're just, like, sitting in a chair. And then what? It's one thing to lose your ability to walk, but if you have a passion in life or an ability in life and you lost that, that's really hard, and even more damaging in a way."

Thornton had zeroed in on a stage that he went through about 18 months after his accident, when reckless hope trumped rational thought. "You're ready to believe in miracles," says Thornton, who was dragged to a number of holistic practitioners and faith healers by friends. He was often caught up in the frenzy, but "then you resent it later" and get mad at yourself "for having been duped."

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