John Robinson knows firsthand how the life of a typical teenagercan change in an instant. Last fall, he was just another student ata Portland, Oregon, high school, playing lacrosse, wakeboarding,and taking acting classes in his free time. Then he showed up foran open casting call for Elephant, director Gus VanSant’s stripped-down, unflinching take on a Columbine-likemass murder. “I heard from a friend they were castingextras,” says Robinson, 18. “So I took along a copy of[Chuck Palahniuk’s novel] Survivor and waited fourhours in line.” After the audition, Van Sant (Good WillHunting, My Own Private Idaho) asked Robinson to star inthe film, which would go on to win the Palme d’Or and BestDirector prizes at this year’s Cannes film festival.
A similar impulsiveness is on display in Elephant,a baffling, bloody nightmare that provides many scenes of graphicviolence but few clues as to the motivations of its teen killers. “It’sa movie about how school can make kids feel insecure, desperate,trapped,” says Robinson. “People who don’t want to think will hate it.”It’s his easy, natural performance, as a quiet kid with a troubled homelife, that holds the story together?Robinson wanders through campuscourtyards and hallways while the mundane existences of football jocksand cliquish glamour girls play out around him. He’s in no hurry tofind a purpose in his offscreen life, either. “If I made one movie ayear,” he says, “that would help pay back my mom for all she spent onacting lessons. But right now, I’m more worried about getting throughmy junior year.”