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


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.”

On that fateful walk to a liquor store, Thornton told Ruffalo about his idea of a jerky, selfish guy in a wheelchair with magical faith-healing powers, and the actor perked up. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ that’s a story.” In 1999, Ruffalo, who’d directed Thornton in a variety of plays, came on officially as the director and the pair began reworking Thornton’s script. The hero evolved into a scratch DJ, and they moved the story to the world of rock ‘n’ roll, a chaotic arena of self-promoting tricksters who have a lot in common with faith-healers. In the film, Bloom and Lewis play druggy punk rockers who create an act featuring Delicious’ healings and start a nationwide sensation.

Despite his handicap, Thornton continued to work in theater and TV and shot five pilots that didn’t get picked up. After years of struggling, Ruffalo’s big break turned out to be the 2000 Sundance hit “You Can Count on Me.” In 2001, however, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Chris was the only one I told,” Ruffalo says. “I couldn’t tell my wife because she was about to give birth” to their first child.

The tumor turned out to be benign, but Ruffalo underwent brain surgery to have it removed, surgery that initially left his face partly paralyzed.

Ultimately, however, Ruffalo made a complete recovery and returned to acting, starring in such films as “13 Going on 30” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He and Thornton returned to finessing the script and hunting for financing. “For years, we couldn’t get it done. Everybody turned it down who was in a position to finance the film, all the independent houses,” Thornton says. “Mark personally brought it to most of them, and they couldn’t see the movie or they wanted a star to play Dean.”

Along with producer Andrea Sperling, Ruffalo and Thornton cobbled together equity backing from various sources, including the new indie financiers Corner Store Entertainment. As they veered into pre-production at the end of 2007, Thornton and Ruffalo’s relationship evolved again, from one of two guys in the trenches who do everything together to that of writer-star and director. “Mark stepped back and said, ‘I’m going to separate myself and bring my own point of view to this,’ ” Sperling says. “There’s a lot of love and friendship, mutual respect and admiration between them, and also some torture. They’re almost like brothers.”

Then another tragedy struck. Ruffalo’s brother Scott was found in his Beverly Hills apartment with a fatal gunshot wound to his head, a homicide that hasn’t yet produced an arrest. They pushed the start date of filming several weeks and as a result lost James Franco and another lead actor. Orlando Bloom and Laura Linney, who played Ruffalo’s sister in “You Can Count on Me,” were able to step in at the last minute to play the rock star and conniving music agent, respectively.

Not surprisingly, Ruffalo and Thornton related on a profound level to their hero’s desire to be healed. Ruffalo says, “If you’re going down in an airplane, everybody’s all of a sudden like, ‘Oh, God. Oh, God. Please, God.’ ”

This said, both take a dim view of the possibility of miracles. “That’s all a crock,” Ruffalo says. “I’ve never experienced a miraculous healing. For me, the theme of the movie is that you get the healing that you need. Not the healing that you want.”