Interview: Robert Sheehan talks about portraying a character with Tourette’s in The Road Within

As we reviewed yesterday, Irish actor Robert Sheehan stars in the newly released film The Road Within, alongside the likes of Zoë Kravitz, Dev Patel and Robert Patrick. In the film, Sheehan stars as a teenager suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, and takes us on a spontaneous road trip he makes with Kravitz and Patel, through the hills of California. While he was in London preparing for his stage performances in The Wars of the Roses, I caught up with Sheehan to talk about his role and the production:

We’re here to talk about your role in The Road Within – it must be a strange time to be talking about it for you though – as you’re so focused on the play (The Wars of the Roses – which he talks about HERE) right now… 

Yes I’m sure I’ll be slightly hazy on the plot, having not thought about it or seen it for quite some time. But I’ll give you my best!

I guess to start with, how far back did you film this? It had its initial screenings last year, so I’m guessing we’re talking… 2013?

Yeah, it was when I was 25. So it was the Summer of 2013. In the November previous to that, I was cast in the film, so I had about 5 months knocking around with the character before we were actually able to film anything. I think it came down to scheduling. Dev (Patel) got cast, so we were waiting for his availability whilst he was filming (the US TV series) The Newsroom – so we weren’t able to start filming until the 1st of July (2013). But it was a good thing in a way, because I was able to go from being quite crap at portraying a character with Tourettes to being quite good at it. I had a bit of time to practice and spend time with people who had Tourettes. So that was a blessing, having six months to prepare!

It’s obviously a massive undertaking to take on a role like this and “get it right” – you don’t want to misrepresent the condition. You mentioned that you spent a lot of time with people with Tourettes to prepare for the role as such. What was that experience like? 

Yeah exactly. There are a vast number of people out there who suffer from Tourettes. That was the fear I had going into this, the idea of misrepresenting Tourettes. As you said, not giving an accurate representation can be incredibly damaging. I think it’s quite a misunderstood ailment still. I think there’s a huge amount of awareness of it, more so than there was even 10 or 15 years ago, because it’s been looked at through documentaries and such.

But yes, it was definitely the cause of a lot of restless nights and dreams, trying to figure out how to do it. But I had a lot of help. I was working with the guy who’s very much the spokesperson for the Tourettes society of America, a guy called Jackson Kramer, who’s exactly the same age as me, who does a lot of public speaking about Tourettes syndrome, and he’s now doing a psychology degree.

Did that challenge of bringing that to the screen, and doing it justice, attract you to the role in the first place?

Yeah, I think so. I think that’s my whole attitude towards these things. It’s one of those things, where if they ask you to ride a horse, you say “Absolutely! No Problem!” And then you realise there’s a lot more required than that. I have somewhat of a delusional attitude going into these things. It was great though, because we did have the time to rehearse it and get it right. So my fears were allayed more and more as the process went on. Thinking it won’t provide a challenge doesn’t hold any interest for me.

And you got to spend your time filming with two other amazing actors, traversing the hills of California. What was it like working with Zoë (Kravitz) and Dev and filming in those beautiful places?

It was lovely. For the modest amount of money they had for the budget, they were able to fit in a lot of locations. That’s the most expensive thing about filmmaking, changing locations and going from place to place. It’s much cheaper when you’re set around one haunted house, or some central location like that. But it was fantastic, we shot in and around Los Angeles, in a few satellite places, particularly for the scenes in the clinic. That was in a place called Sylmar, which is a rattlesnake ridden satellite town of Los Angeles, and we were in fact surrounded by rattlesnakes quite a bit.

And we got to go to Santa Cruz and Yosemite (National Park)… they were the extraordinary highlights. We got to Yosemite and on the first morning, the camera crew, having driven right up to the plateau of Yosemite, and then they had to try and helicopter in another camera, due to the remoteness of the place… it was quite bonkers and surreal and not without its challenges.

Working with Dev and Zoë – these are two amazing actors who had just come off some pretty huge productions. I’m sure they took a cut on their pay packet to do this film, just for the dramatic challenge. And so everyone was there for the right reasons. They were there because they loved the script, they found a great challenge in their characters. We had a good 7 days of rehearsals together before we went off to shoot, which again was incredibly beneficial, all of us clashing around and figuring stuff out. So it was really lovely.

When you agreed to be a part of the film, did you know that they’d be approaching the production in this way… actually taking you out on the road? 

Because on the page, you read “Exterior: Yosemite”, you never truly know how much of that is actually going to be the reality of the situation. It might say that, but  you might be in a small studio in Burbank. So I didn’t know how much of the film would be genuinely on the road. So it turned out that all of it was. So I was pleasantly surprised that we were all moving in convoy,  and hitting so many locations, especially with the modest means they had money wise. So that was a joy because we got to do a lot of Northern California, where I’d never been. And once you get everyone out of their comfort zone, and away from their houses – crew and cast included – it takes on a bit of a gypsy spirit, the whole thing. It was an extra added bonus that we weren’t doing everything in studio.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about the film. I hope everyone takes the time to watch your performance!

I’m delighted it’s coming out in Oz, it hasn’t even come out in the UK or Ireland yet. It’s been on in a few festivals, premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival, but it’s not been out in cinemas, which is a real shame. I really hope it comes out on my own home turf.

The Road Within is available now in Australia on Video-On-Demand, DVD and Blu-Ray. 

Read our review of the film HERE