I think it would be easy for a lot of actors to read the script and kind of objectify Gabriel emotionally. He didn't do that.

Rory Culkin has enjoyed a unique relationship with the limelight. Before his claim to fame with the likes of Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and Wes Craven’s Scream 4, Culkin was fine-tuning his talent, co-starring to portray bite-sized versions of his big brother actors Macaulay (The Good Son, Ri¢hie Ri¢h) and Kieran (Igby Goes Down). Not long ago, it still seemed at least a little bit reasonable to ask him about his older siblings. Now, it seems entirely unnecessary. For proof positive, look no further than his star turn in Lou Howe’s Gabriel, which launched the World Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.

Gabriel documents all the despair and degradation of an innocent-eyed, endlessly baffled teenager succumbing to a whirlpool of a debilitating mental illness. Somehow convinced that reuniting with a girl from his past holds the answer to all of his problems, Gabriel (Culkin) risks it all in his desperate and increasingly disturbing pursuit of happiness and sanity, testing the limits of his grief-stricken mother and brother (David Call), at the end of their tether. At the breaking point in his own race against the fleeting nature of time—and the dispiriting sense of mortality looming over his turbulent journey—Gabriel’s skewed perception of the world begins to slip into a sobering reality.

We pulled Culkin and Howe aside for a brief chat at the Carlton Hotel in New York City.

Gabriel opens in select theaters on June 19.

How did this collaboration begin?

Lou Howe: Rory and I met through a casting director. We grabbed lunch or coffee, I think. We immediately connected in our reading of the story and how we would approach the overall film. We were on the same page about who Gabriel is. Although I tried to lay the foundation for the mental illness stuff, it was really more about approaching Gabe as a person, first and foremost.

Why was the subject of mental illness important to you?

Lou: The seed of an idea for me was a close friend of mine who was diagnosed with a mental illness in his late teens. The film came out of this desire to understand my friend’s experience through the world. But it then quickly became a fictional character and everything grew from there.

This is a dark role for you, Rory. What was your personal entry into your character?

Rory Culkin: Well, I didn’t want to overthink anything. It didn’t really matter to me what his diagnosis was, or anything like that. It was more about him not trusting the people around him and his thinking that he’s smarter than everyone else. Gabriel thinks everyone around him has bad intentions and are ignorant, which is obviously wrong. But he knows it to be true in his mind, if that makes any sense. [Laughs]

No, it totally does. And why do you think we’re all so intrigued by watching characters—and people—coming apart at the seams, be it related to a mental illness or not?

Lou: I think part of the reason why its compelling is because you can’t really know what’s going through their heads. You might not know what Gabe is diagnosed with, but that’s something you learn throughout the course of the narrative. Just spending time with this character is inherently intriguing, I think. I’ve always loved that kind of storytelling. Gabriel is an unreliable narrator, not literally since there’s no narration, but he’s still our guide through the story in which you’re constantly trying to figure out what he’s up to.

What was it about Rory that you felt was the right fit for Gabriel?

Lou: I loved Rory’s previous work and I was a big fan of his. And as soon as we met, I found that we had a very similar working process. He really connected to the character on a personal level. I think it would be easy for a lot of actors to read the script and kind of objectify Gabriel emotionally. He didn’t do that. And I knew Rory had so much potential in playing the character.

Gabriel is searching for a lot of things, although on the surface it’s to track down a girl from his past. What is he ultimately after?

Rory: As complex as he is, Gabriel is very relatable. We all miss our childhoods. These are moments in his life that are so important to him. He’s now as close as he’s ever going to get to getting that back—in his mind, at least—and he tragically drifts further and further away from it. I think we all do that sometimes. It’s just that some of us are better at adjusting to growing up.

You submit yourself to all kinds of emotional extremes in this role. It’s a joy to watch.

Rory: [Laughs] I tried not to think about that too much. I didn’t have to get super physical, but I was definitely worn out by this role. It was all mental.

Lou, are you territorial when it comes to your writing? Are you open to improvised lines from your actors?

Lou: No, I’m definitely not precious about the words like that. The script evolved a great deal through working with Rory and the rest of the cast. The scenes got richer during in our conversations and the rewrites. I really tried to take off my writer’s hat and focus on the individual scenes. It wasn’t so much about saying the right words, but getting the emotions right.

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