Finding the Heart of an Affliction

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.

"I know that sounds like something somebody would make up, but it's true," she laughs. "My family was working class so we were poor, but my mom has seven sisters--all of whom worked in restaurants and bartended together--and they all have lots of kids, so I have a huge extended family that's really close."

Tunney's infatuation with film began when she was 7 and saw "Grease." "I insisted on being taken to see it 13 times because I was completely in love with John Travolta," she recalls. "I wrote him a letter and told him I understood we couldn't be together because of the age difference, but that I'd love to be his little sister. I recently met him at a birthday party for Billy Bob Thornton, and my heart was just pounding! And no, I didn't mention the letter."

In 1990 Tunney moved to L.A. to pursue an acting career, but it didn't take long for "the industry" to take the wind out of her sails. "L.A. is tough if you don't know who you are yet," says the actress, who was just 18 at the time, but had an older brother living here who kept an eye on her. "I was really unsure of myself. An agent I knew from Chicago got me an audition for Tony Richardson's last film, 'Blue Sky,' and when I went to his office to read for him I was so nervous that I burst into tears and ran out of the room."

Things began to improve for Tunney in 1993, when she went on location in Canada to shoot the ABC miniseries "J.F.K., Reckless Youth," with Terry Kinney, co-founder of the legendary Chicago theater company, Steppenwolf.

"Terry Kinney is absolute royalty in Chicago, and he, along with all the other accomplished people on that set, treated me as an equal. When I realized all these wonderful people were from New York, I wanted to be part of that community, so I left L.A.," says Tunney, who can be seen later this year in "Montana," a film about organized crime that also stars Stanley Tucci, Kyra Sedgwick and John Ritter. "When I first got to New York I hung out with skateboarders, one of whom was Harmony Korine, who wrote the Larry Clark film, "Kids." Because I was friends with Harmony, they used the apartment where I now live with my husband as one of the locations in 'Kids."'

"Kids" and "Niagara Niagara" seem fairly far afield from one another at a glance, but in fact, both films are studies of marginalized outsiders.

"Seeing a therapist no longer has the stigma it once had, so in ways we as a culture are becoming more knowledgeable and accepting of mental and emotional illness, but these are small steps," Tunney concludes. "The level of awareness one finds in New York or L.A. isn't really reflective of the rest of the country, and we still have a long way to go.

"So, if one person sees 'Niagara Niagara,' then encounters someone in the street with Tourette's and is able to look at them with some understanding, that will be a real achievement for the film."

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