Alice Dubois and Marin Gerrier, real-life friends and schoolmates, act… (Adopt Films )
While making the 1997 movie "Los Locos," Jean-Marc Vallée was befriended by a Down syndrome actor who was an extra in the production.
"I had a special relationship with him," the French-Canadian director ("The Young Victoria") recalled. "Every time on the set he was coming to me. I was like his hero. He was very welcoming every day. I had a very nice connection."
Actor-turned-filmmaker Travis Fine was a regular on the ABC 1989-92 western series "The Young Riders," when he met Chris Burke, the Down syndrome star of the acclaimed drama "Life Goes On," which was also on the network at the time.
"We met at an ABC party," Fine said. "He liked my character on 'Young Riders.' He was a hell of a nice guy."
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And a few years later, Fine had a great experience working on the USA movie "My Antonia," which featured Down syndrome actor Blair Williamson.
Both these filmmakers' memorable encounters were the inspiration for crucial Down syndrome story lines in their new films. (Down syndrome is a physical and mental disorder caused by having 47 instead of the usual 46 chromosomes.)
Vallée's French-Canadian drama "Cafe de Flore," which opened Nov. 16, stars Vanessa Paradis as Jacqueline, a single mom working in a beauty salon in Paris in 1969, raising her young Down syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), and striving to give him a "normal" life, including education at a private school.
But their relationship changes when a young girl with Down syndrome, Veronique (Alice Dubois), arrives at the school. Laurent and Veronique quickly develop such a tight bond that Jacqueline becomes jealous.
In Fine's "Any Day Now," which opens Dec. 14 after winning several awards on the festival circuit, Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt play a gay couple in Los Angeles in the late 1970s who take in Marco (Isaac Leyva), a teenager with Down syndrome, after he is abandoned by his drug-addled prostitute mother. But social conventions won't allow the couple to adopt Marco.
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"I wanted to create a love story and talk about soul mates and pure love," Vallée said of "Cafe de Flore." "I thought of Down syndrome children because to me they represent pure love."
He began the casting process in Montreal, France and Belgium to find youngsters with Down syndrome who could act.
While in Paris, they met Dubois, who was 10 at the time. "She told us about her boyfriend at school," Vallée said. "They wanted to get married. They hugged. They kissed."
Her boyfriend just happened to be Gerrier, who is now 12. Because they were so attached in real life, Vallée said he "got some magical moments in their performances."
For Gerrier's scenes that didn't involve Dubois, Vallée made acting a game "with some rewards," he said. "For instance, I hired this kid close to his age that looked like Marin because I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do everything with him. I was going to use the kid as a double."
But Vallée realized that Gerrier could easily repeat every action Vallée showed him. So the young actor became part of the game playing, especially in a scene in which the boy is tied up to the bed and screaming for his mother.
"I did the scene first and then the other kid did it," said Vallée. Because Gerrier was extremely competitive, he stayed in bed the longest and earned a ride on a merry-go-round that night.
"Any Day Now" was inspired by a true story about the relationship between an eccentric named Rudy, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and his relationship with a young disabled boy.
George Arthur Bloom wrote the script some 20 years ago; Fine was introduced to it by Bloom's son. With Bloom's permission, Fine began reworking the script. He moved the action to Los Angeles in the 1970s; Rudy was turned into a gay singer working in a drag club who falls in love with an attorney, Paul, who has just come out of the closet.
"The original kid never spoke," Fine said. "He just kind of mumbled and muttered. I wanted to understand why Rudy fell in love with this kid so quickly. I know Down syndrome kids are often referred to as love children because they have a sweet, gentle nature to them."
Casting directors sent out calls to schools and Down syndrome organizations looking for boys with Down syndrome who could act.
"I saw Isaac's taped audition on my computer and instantly saw his ability to do what I think is the most essential thing for an actor to do: listen," Fine said. "At the end of his audition, he smiled and his smile literally lights up a room."
Fine was equally impressed when he auditioned Leyva in person. "The good news was he was wonderful and charming and sweet," said Fine. "In the audition process he broke down and started crying. Through his tears he said, 'The dream of my life has come true.'"
Leyva, now 22, has been a student at the Performing Arts Studio West for adults with disabilities in Inglewood for the last two years. He said he fell in love with acting when he saw the Disney Channel's "High School Musical."
Needless to say, his favorite scene in "Any Day Now" is when he gets a chance to dance.
"I want to do a musical on television," he said in a phone interview.
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