Three years ago, when Justin Lerner decided to give his friend, Evan Sneider, an actor with Down syndrome, a small role in his master’s thesis film, he did not know Sneider would eventually become critical to the launch of his own career.
“I put Evan in it as a kind of friendly gesture,” Lerner said. The role Sneider played, the mean boss of the protagonist, wasn’t written for someone with Down syndrome. But Lerner felt that an actor with the condition could, if talented enough, play the role perfectly well.
“Evan was in the movie for two scenes, but he blew me away,” said Jerad Anderson, a film producer who saw Lerner’s thesis film, “The Replacement Child,” in 2008. It won a flurry of student awards, and went on to screen at many film festivals, including Sundance.
Anderson immediately wanted to make a new film with Lerner, and had an idea for a deadpan comedy along the lines of “Napoleon Dynamite,” featuring a character with Down syndrome. But after talking with Lerner, Anderson shelved the plan.
“We should make a film about Evan,” Lerner remembers him and Anderson thinking. “We just hit the ‘Go’ button,” Anderson said, following him up.
The result is “Girlfriend,” which makes its New York premiere this week after a highly praised showing at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
“Girlfriend” follows Evan Gray, a character loosely based on Sneider, a Jewish actor with Down syndrome, as he courts Candy, the girl of his dreams. A single mother struggling to pay her rent, Candy plays along with Evan’s romantic fantasy, though never quite giving in. Her motive his clear: Evan is willing to give her money, the one thing she desperately needs.
“I’ve always loved acting, and I’ve always been involved in community theater,” said Sneider. “But working on ‘Girlfriend was a lot of fun, too.”
As with Lerner, 31, this is Sneider’s first feature-length film. Yet Sneider knows that having Down syndrome has limited the roles mainstream directors are willing to cast him in.
“To be honest, I’ve always been open minded and would like to play many roles,” Sneider said, meaning roles where Down syndrome was not part of the character. “I’m honored for what Justin did for me.”
Lerner makes it clear that Sneider’s character in “Girlfriend” does not need to have Down syndrome. “The character actually works perfectly if he’s a needy, dorky or socially awkward kind of guy,” he said. “But it’s less interesting.”
For Lerner, the challenge of making “Girlfriend” was to show how the character’s condition affected people’s perceptions of him —usually they underestimate his intelligence — without mindlessly perpetuating those perceptions himself.
“I don’t find films that have a social agenda interesting,” Lerner, the film’s writer and director, said. “They’re like Hallmark movies” — which is to say preachy and superficially uplifting.
“He’s as high functioning as they come,” Lerner said of Sneider. “He’s very self-aware; he knows he has Down syndrome … But the thing that makes Evan so unique is that he can empathize with anyone. He can understand how people are feeling better than anyone else.”
As far as Sneider’s acting went, his ability to empathize proved critical to his performance. His role required him to read an actor’s subtle cues — often wordless, and conveyed through facial expressions alone — which he intuitively had to react to.
Sneider would sometimes channel emotions he’s felt in real life to make his performance look more natural. “That’s a technique that only the best actors can pull off,” Lerner said. “His instincts are right on.”
There is nothing in the film about Evan’s character being Jewish. But the person upon whom the character is based — that is, Evan Sneider, the real person — says his Jewish upbringing is critical to him. “I haven’t been praying recently,” Sneider said, “but Judaism really means a lot to me.”
Sneider grew up in a Reform household in Wayland, Mass. Because he was highly functioning, his mother Donna made a point of keeping him in regular classroom settings — both in public school and Hebrew school.
Watching his older sister’s bat mitzvah was a significant moment: “Seeing his sister do it,” said Donna Sneider, “he was really looking forward to it. Experiencing his bar mitzvah was really important for Evan.”
Throughout high school Sneider took it upon himself to participate fully in school life: he ran for student council and won, asked his own date to prom and even picked on the new kid — Justin Lerner — who arrived in 11th grade.
“He definitely got the opportunity to haze me in front of everyone,” Lerner remembered, adding, “It wasn’t malicious in any way.”
Lerner and Sneider soon became friends and took electives together, like creative writing. But it was not until years later that their relationship became professional. While Lerner was in The University of California Los Angeles’ film school, he’d occasionally get calls from Sneider: “He would call me and ask, ‘You know, Justin, if you ever need a role, I’m around.’” Lerner recalled.
When it came time to make his master’s thesis project, Lerner was back in Massachusetts looking for actors. He let Sneider audition for a supporting role, and, realizing he really could act, put him in the film.
After Anderson approached Lerner about making another film featuring Sneider, they created “Girlfriend.” Soon they had a hit on their hands, with Sneider again becoming a star: “He even got us into some parties,” Anderson recalled. “He was a celebrity there.”
Of the roughly 350 films screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, only 15 were bought for wider distribution, “Girlfriend” among them. But not all of the reaction was positive. While Anderson was trying to raise money for the film over the Internet, a few anonymous writers posted nasty comments about Sneider on the website.
Evan’s mother, Donna, who lives with him in Massachusetts, remembers seeing Evan after he saw the comments — he was hurt, she said. She tried to console him, using the Holocaust and hate speech as analogies. “On the Internet, in private and anonymity,” Donna told her son, “they say mean things. They’re just cowards.”
But it was the “Girlfriend” film crew that ultimately lifted Evan’s mood. A few of the producers saw the comments, too, and knew Sneider was hurt by them. Later, when they all were reunited in Toronto, they gave him a binder with hundreds of personal letters supporting him — from the cast, friends, new fans and even Sylvester Stallone.
In a subsequent e-mail exchange with this reporter, Donna said there was more she felt she had to say about her and her son’s relationship to Judaism, and how it has helped them through adversity. But she found it was hard to convey in words.
“The relationship people have with God and their religion is rather intimate and personal,” she wrote, “so I fear we may have been less than articulate when speaking with you about it, with additional challenges for Evan.”
She added: “It occurred to me that what might express it best is to say that we try to live our lives by the ethical teachings of Judaism. I don’t think it is on a conscious level, but perhaps what was instilled in me growing up and then passed on to my children. To value integrity and fairness, to admit mistakes, to cherish diversity and challenge discrimination, and to work toward social justice, just to name a few.”
“Girlfriend” opens on Friday at the Quad Cinema, located at 34 W. 13th St. (212) 255-2243. Evan Sneider will be at several opening weekend screenings to participate in post-screening discussions. Call for more details.