by Justin Tucker
Los Angeles-based actor and independent filmmaker Donavon Thomas is very passionate about his latest film, the gritty drama Wheels. He plays Mickey, a suicidal paraplegic grief-stricken after losing his ability to walk. He befriends Drake (Patrick Hume), a fellow paraplegic, and the two bond over drugs and hookers. Mickey feels like he can walk again while on heroin and has now found a reason to live. As his addiction spirals out of control, he and Drake must resort to desperate measures in order to survive on the streets.
Wheels premiered at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival and opened in limited release in theaters September 19th. Shortly before its limited release, I was able to ask Thomas, who transformed his body to take on the role, a few questions about the film. My findings affirmed the existence of driven, young filmmakers who care about telling personal stories. This kind of ardor for making independent films is what will save American cinema.
UR Chicago: What was the genesis of the story?
Donavon Thomas: The story came really from when I was in a dark place in my life and very isolated. I was living in LA and didn't really have any friends and it was just plain tough. Being an actor, I was doing a scene for an acting class that I was in where the character I was playing was paralyzed. I thought that if I was paralyzed I would want to kill myself and if I was going to kill myself I should probably at least try heroin — and what if heroin actually saved your life because it would give you something to look forward to? That goes against everything that society believes and talks about, but I felt that was a contradiction I was interested in. Then I started writing and I became fascinated with the characters. Two people who are the outcasts of society, virtually on edge and having nothing to live for, therefore nothing to lose.
UR: As an actor, how did you prepare to play a handicapped character?
DT: The paralysis in the film is really a metaphor for the character's internal demons. Mickey is a person who happens to be in a wheelchair, but it does not affect the way he lives. Both characters are still robbing people and stealing cars, etcetera. They do anything they want, except as completely, internally broken people. For the physical stuff, I wanted the audience to feel as if I had been in a chair for years. We spent many months rolling around, getting into trouble. I had a consultant who was also in a wheelchair. For the internal and physiological traumas of Mickey, those were all things I did way back when I was writing the script.
UR: How has playing a handicapped character impacted you as an actor? What did you learn from playing Mickey Cole?
DT: I think our marketing campaign revolves around wheelchair users, but the characters in Wheels are broken people. Mickey would live life as a traumatized person, whether he could walk or not. He would try to kill himself whether in a wheelchair or not. Mickey uses his limitations as an unconscious barrier to prevent people from loving him, until he meets Drake who is completely free of limitations and doesn't care about people's perception of him. Drake teaches him to be free. I think being in a wheelchair does not change who you are as a person.
What I learned from playing Mickey is tough to say. I would not say it was knowledge but more of an experience. The wheelchairs, the losing of 50 pounds, the 62 days of shooting, driving down PCH at sunset in a '69 Buick — it was all a crazy experience. I definitely grew as a person and matured through the process. Mickey has so many demons though, playing someone who is on edge all the time and willing to do anything for love is tough.
UR: How were you able to bring everything together to get the film made?
DT: I think if you believe, others will believe. We had an amazing crew that really banded together. Our shoot was tough. We were in the water a lot, shooting through downtown in not the best of places, but our crew was what made it possible. They were great.
UR: The performance of Patrick Hume is one of the film's high points. He's also a frequent collaborator. Tell us more about your partnership with him.
DT: Patrick and I met years ago on a little film I made called Scalpel. We cast for that film on a Friday and drove out to the desert for a four day shoot in New Mexico the next day. We have been great friends ever since. He really is a true friend. He was perfect for the role and I would have no one else on this planet play Drake. He was born to play this role and acting with him was the best part of this film for me.
UR: Are there any upcoming projects from yourself or Patrick Hume or both?
DT: I always have a couple of projects on the back burner but have not committed to anything yet at this time. Going through the whole experience, it's tough to commit to something that you will spend the next three plus years with. Plus, where I am as a person keeps changing and I like really dark material, but that takes a toll on you. Wheels is a dark piece and the themes and tone can wear on you. I am honestly not sure what's next. All I know is it has to be something that I have to make personally. If I can walk away from it, it's not worth it. If I have to do it no matter what, then I know that's the right fit.
Visit www.WheelsTheMovie.com for more details!