By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: September 19, 2008
EXTRAS From left, Adam Stein and Yaniv Gorodischer, with Regina Healy, right, and Nicole Holofcener, their director in a movie.
TAKING THE COURT The actress Catherinie Keener, left, stars in a still-untitled Sony Pictures Classics movie that used Regina Healy, 19, and other developmentally disabled recruits from the Yorktown- based agency Sparc in a basketball scene shot in Brooklyn.
JASON KINGSLEY, cast as an extra in a major motion picture, had an idea for the director and approached her during filming.
That’s not exactly business as usual on a Hollywood set. It is even less common for a director to accept an extra’s suggestions. But Nicole Holofcener, who was directing the movie for Sony Pictures Classics, decided to try the scene the way Mr. Kingsley suggested it.
Originally, the script had the actress Catherine Keener watching a basketball game. But soon, cameras were rolling as Mr. Kingsley put his arm around Ms. Keener, walked her to a basketball hoop and showed her how to do a layup.
“I did one scene with Catherine Keener,” Mr. Kingsley said. “I wanted to make that scene touching.”
Mr. Kingsley, along with nine other men and women from Westchester ranging in age from 18 to 34, was cast as part of a basketball team with special needs. The actors themselves have developmental disabilities.
The participants were recruited from Sparc Inc., a Yorktown-based nonprofit agency that provides social, therapeutic and recreational services to people with a range of disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism and other neurological impairments. The agency’s name stands for Special Program and Resource Connection.
In the movie, which is still untitled and is scheduled to come out next year, Ms. Keener and Oliver Platt play affluent New Yorkers who have purchased the apartment next door to their own. An elderly woman is living there, and they are waiting for her to die so they can expand their apartment.
Ms. Holofcener explained the context of the basketball scene.
“Catherine’s character is trying to find the right place to volunteer to assuage her liberal guilt, and she visits the kids with Down syndrome to see about helping them out,” the director said. “When she gets there, however, she finds herself overcome with sadness and pity — something the kids neither ask for nor require. They’re fine — it’s Catherine’s character who is a mess.”
On a recent fall evening, the actors from Sparc talked about their experience making the film. Their scene was shot in one day last May, but their enthusiasm was still fresh.
“When I first heard about the movie, I got so excited,” said Yaniv Gorodischer, 30, of Hartsdale.
The professional actors “looked like regular people,” said Stephen Capurso, 24, of Peekskill, and Caroline Brescia, an 18-year-old from Somers, said that Ms. Keener was “very nice.”
Mr. Kingsley, 34, who has Down syndrome, was the only one in the group who had significant professional acting experience. As a child he appeared frequently on “Sesame Street,” and he has also been on the television programs “Touched By an Angel” and “The Fall Guy.”
“This was my first experience as a movie star,” he said.
The group talked about the hot lights, the snack buffet and the tedium of having to repeat the scene over and over. It wasn’t easy for them to take time off from their daily responsibilities; most have jobs. Raymond Frost, 30, who works at a pet store in Hartsdale, said that at first his boss did not want to let him go.
That angered Mr. Gorodischer. He said he wanted to call Mr. Frost’s boss and yell at her, but realized that might get his friend fired. Mr. Frost, Mr. Gorodischer and Mr. Kingsley are such good friends that they call themselves the Three Musketeers and have shared an apartment in Hartsdale for six years.
Mr. Frost’s boss relented — “She had never had an employee in the movies before,” he said — and everyone was able to travel to Brooklyn for the shoot.
Regina Healy, 19, who graduated last spring from Somers High School, got a speaking part. As Ms. Keener cries in a bathroom stall, Ms. Healy asks her if she is all right and if she can do anything to help.
“It took seven times,” Ms. Healy said. “I was really tired.”
Adam Stein, 18, a classmate, was also in the movie, and according to Ms. Healy he bragged about it in school. “You talked about it all day long,” she teased him. “You told people 10,000 times.”
Ms. Holofcener heard about Sparc through Mr. Kingsley’s mother, Emily Perl Kingsley, a writer for “Sesame Street” and an advocate for people with disabilities.
Rose Rothe, Sparc’s executive director, said she initially had concerns about how the group would be portrayed.
“We wanted to make sure their lives would be celebrated and not denigrated,” Ms. Rothe said.
After reading the script and talking to the director, she was reassured. “It was all about portraying the kids with dignity and respect for their lives,” she said.
The actors in the group also have strong feelings about how people with disabilities are sometimes portrayed in movies. The movie “Tropic Thunder” came under particular criticism.
“That movie, they talk about people with disabilities,” Mr. Capurso said. “Ben Stiller says something really negative about people like us. I know another one — ‘Something About Mary’ — where they use ‘the R word.’ ”
“The R word,” Mr. Kingsley said, “is for a person who is retarded.”
“It’s not right,” Mr. Frost said. “It’s not nice.”
Several of the actors said they would like to do something to fight that kind of language. They might make it a project in “Sparc on YouTube,” a program in which they conduct interviews, create fictional scripts, do movie reviews and develop skills in camera work.
Mr. Kingsley described his favorite movie, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“The reason why it’s my favorite is because Quasimodo and I both have a disability,” he said. “We live in isolation. I long to be out there and counted in the community just like Quasimodo longs to be out there.”
Mr. Kingsley is hopeful about the new film. “In the scene, I accept Catherine Keener to be a friend,” he said. “People who watch this movie, strangers, will become our friends. That message might happen.”