By LYNN BARKER
Front Row Features Contributor
In “Words on Bathroom Walls,” based on Julia Walton’s YA novel, the lead character Adam Petrazelli gets expelled from his high school, is diagnosed with schizophrenia and dreams of becoming a chef. At a new school, he connects with Maya, who inspires him not to be defined by his condition. With the support of his family and his newfound romance, Adam becomes hopeful that he can be honest about what he struggles with and triumph over the challenges that lie ahead.
Adam is played by 21-year-old Charlie Plummer whose screen credits include playing a rich kidnap victim (“All the Money in the World”) and a bullied teen (“King Jack”). Plummer was on the short list of candidates for the role of Spider-Man, but lost out to Tom Holland. He is set to star in the upcoming big-budget sci-fi actioner “Moonfall.”
“Words on Bathroom Walls,” from Roadside Attractions, will arrive in theaters Aug. 21.
Plummer discussed his newest role by phone. He says Adam’s story may help other teens who may be experiencing similar struggles. He also shared how he prepared for this very “deep” role.
Q: What attracted you to this story?
Charlie Plummer: A few different things—the people involved, the subject matter then the way the filmmakers wanted to go about talking about the subject matter (a young guy dealing with a serious mental illness). That really pulled me in because mental health is one of those things that should be talked about much more than it is. People don’t really know how to talk about it. It’s still something that is uncomfortable and unknown and that’s very understandable. It was clear to me that the intent behind this was, hopefully, educating people but doing so in an entertaining way and making a good movie in the process.
Q: How did you prepare to play Adam? Did you research or talk with someone who has this condition?
Plummer: Yeah. I did honestly go, “Oh crap!” at the beginning because I knew going in that if I were going to play this character, I needed to know that I did everything I could in terms of research and trying to understand what his experience was like. That really started with having conversations with (director Thor Freudenthal) and understanding the process he had started for himself and looping myself into that.
He connected me to this psychiatrist whose specialty is working with young men who’ve been recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. Getting to talk to him at length about what having a psychotic break is like, what psychosis is like for the first time, how long it takes to understand these things and also what his patients are in the midst of in every other area of their lives when it comes to their family or relationships (helped so much).
Q: Learning how they think about their illness?
Plummer: Yeah. There are 16-year-old boys who don’t want to think about the illness unless they absolutely have to. They want to think about their dreams and people they may have crushes on. Getting the information from that (doctor) was so helpful in terms of reminding myself as an actor that it’s so easy to get lost in the technicalities of what this illness might be and let that be the story instead of always bringing it back to a really human place with this character.
Q: What was it like working with all your co-stars, imaginary and real?
Plummer: The whole gang. The cast and the entire crew were genuinely so wonderful and I think everyone had their own stake in the story as well which made it that much better. It was a trusting, safe space to be in and, to tell this story, you need that. Those guys were so helpful to me because it is a lot to have going on in my head all the time and the days were long. Even if you have the greatest team, it can be really tough at times. To look to them for support was so helpful especially with the hallucinations. If you didn’t have good actors playing those parts it could so easily have been written off.
Q: It’s such a heavy subject but were there any good times on set?
Plummer: Definitely good times. Devon Bostick (who plays “Joaquin”) was always making me laugh. He’s a fun person naturally. When he shows up in the bathrobe in boxers (it) is very much in the spirit of the character. I think it was really hard to keep a straight face. Andy Garcia (who plays a helpful priest) as well. He would kill me and crack me up so much. That was tough, obviously, because Adam is in a chaotic headspace for a lot of the movie, so having these guys who would accidentally pull me out of that with their charm was sometimes tough but well worth it.
Q: Adam is worried that the secret of his mental condition will come out. Were there any secrets from your childhood that you felt the same about?
Plummer: I had such a specific upbringing. I started working when I was 10. I think I experienced the normal embarrassing things that people go through when growing up but nothing that ever felt like, “Oh my gosh, I have to hide this.” That more manifested later for me because I wasn’t in that school environment with kids and wasn’t having to think about that. I was just with my family (home-schooled) so they know everything about me, for better or worse. (He laughs.) Later, I was better able to understand what fear and secrets can do to a person. The idea that “I can handle this,” or “I can put up with this myself,” might be the case in one moment but the curtain is quickly pulled away. For me, I learned I was really scared and I (had to) accept that and move on from that place. You move on with the support of other people. That happens in the movie.
Q: With everybody today more anxious and depressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you hope audiences take away from seeing “Words on Bathroom Walls?”
Plummer: I hope they take away an earned sense of hope for themselves and the people that they love and for the future of the world really. I mean, this movie is really going after the topic of secrets and shame. I think that is just a universal truth.
Everyone, in their own way, experiences that. In regard to mental health, if someone is suffering, then that pressure to hide that can make it worse and worse and they go down this rabbit hole.
I hope this movie can be a lighthouse for people who might find themselves in a similar position; feeling they don’t have safety or a place to put their feelings. They might be able to find that in the movie. I hope the movie encourages them to be able to make (helpful) connections in their own lives as well.