Toronto is crawling with the movie stars you’d expect to see here, from Kevin Spacey to Colin Firth to Marion Cotillard. But there’s always room in the festival for a genuinely new face, and nobody at TIFF 2010 exhibits that quite as dramatically as Evan Sneider.
Sneider, a 31-year-old actor with Down Syndrome, is the star of “Girlfriend,” the sweet, beguiling and at times wrenching feature debut from writer-director Justin Lerner about a small-town young man with Down who romantically pursues a single mom.
Sunday night, after the first public screening of the film (and, in fact, the first time it had ever been shown on a big screen), Sneider stood in the Scotiabank lobby, signing autographs and graciously accepting congratulations and posing for photos with one fan after another.
It would have been heady stuff for any actor who’d come up in community theater and never before appeared in a feature film, but Sneider took it in stride and rarely appeared dazed by the crush of fans or the unexpected attention.
“I love watching myself onscreen,” Sneider told TheWrap in the theater’s green room before the screening. “I want to be in more movies, I want to be on TV, I want to do all kinds of acting.”
In “Girlfriend,” Sneider is the centerpiece of a film that co-stars Shannon Woodward (“The Riches”), Jackson Rathbone (“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”) and Amanda Plummer. Lerner wrote the film for Sneider, a high-school classmate who’d also appeared in his short film “The Replacement Child,” which won two Student Emmys in 2007.
The film, shot in Lerner’s and Sneider’s hometown of Wayland, Massachusetts, and looking for distribution at Toronto, follows a young man with Down Syndrome who comes into a substantial sum of money and uses it to pursue a romance with the young single mother he’s had a crush on since they attended high school together.
It's about one man’s yearning for connection and romance in unlikely circumstances – and also, Lerner pointed out at a Q&A following the screening, about kindness in tough times, certainly a universal (and timely) theme.
The film’s trailer, below, received more than 200,000 views in its first week on YouTube:
TheWrap exclusively followed Sneider from the “Girlfriend” premiere through his first day of TIFF interviews, photo sessions and parties – the public debut of Toronto’s unlikeliest and most winning new face.
SUNDAY, 7:30 P.M.
Waiting in a Scotiabank green room before the first screening, Sneider says he's wanted to be an actor for most of his life, which led him to community theater in Wayland. Whenever he talks about "Girlfriend," he continually deflects attention to Lerner and to his co-stars.
He watches the movie raptly, barely moving, then bounds down the stairs for the Q&A afterwards.
MONDAY, 11:30 A.M.
It's been a morning of interviews and photo sessions, all of which Sneider sails through with good spirits and an unruffled manner. As actor Dominic Cooper hustles through the hotel lobby with a couple of handlers, Sneider ambles into the bar and poses for photos with Henny Garfunkel, who is shooting many of the festival's stars.
MONDAY, 1 P.M.
Soon after his photo shoot ends, Sneider leaves his industry-heavy Yorkville Hotel with co-star Jackson Rathbone; as soon as he steps out of the door, photographers shout his name, while fans ask for autographs.
Trailed by a producer toting three bags of newly acquired swag (swag, by the way, to which he seems notably indifferent), Sneider gets in a cab for the quick ride to another nearby hotel for lunch. It’s another industry hotspot: Weinstein Company chief Harvey Weinstein sits at a nearby table with a large crew.
Sneider polishes off his veal scallopini and then goes to a different table to do an interview with a local reporter who’s come straight from the first press & industry screening of “Girlfriend.” When he finishes and comes back to the table, a producer asks him, “How are you holding up, Evan? Are you tired yet?”
“No, I feel good,” he says immediately. “I’m ready for more.”
On his way out, urged on by director Lerner, he stops by Weinstein’s table and introduces himself to the mogul, who greets him graciously and chats for a minute. “You worked with Amanda Plummer in ‘Pulp Fiction,’” Sneider says, “and I acted with her in my movie.”
A few floors above the restaurant, Sneider and Lerner sit for an interview with “E.T. Canada.” Near the end of the interview, talk turns to Jennifer Aniston’s use of the word retarded in an appearance with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa – and instead of deferring to Lerner the way he usually does, Sneider seizes the initiative to answer the question:
MONDAY 4 P.M.
Another location (this time, it’s TIFF headquarters), another hospitality suite (offering blue jeans and cologne, which Sneider ignores) and another couple of photo sessions. With Lerner and co-stars Rathbone and Woodward, Sneider poses again and again, tells everybody who asks that he’s doing great.
When the photo session ends, Lerner suggests they all go back to the hotel and take naps before the evening’s screening and after-party. “Remember, Evan,” he adds, “we have to be ready to go at 6:30."
MONDAY 10 P.M.
The second public screening of “Girlfriend,” which also takes place at the Scotiabank, is the best screening experience any of the cast can remember: the film receives a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, the Q&A goes well, and once again Evan is treated like a star.
Afterwards, they all head for a local club for the afterparty, where Sneider does his first-ever live TV interviews (see below) on the red carpet, and the music is provided by the band 100 Monkeys, which features Rathbone and “Girlfriend” producer Jerad Anderson.
And by the end of the night, about 30 whirlwind hours since his film first screened in public, Sneider remains a sweet, gentle, relentlessly enthusiastic actor making the rounds on behalf of a movie he loves – which is to say, he’s pretty much exactly the same guy he was before he turned into Toronto’s newest, unlikeliest star.