Roy Abramsohn, star of the upcoming film Escape from Tomorrow, has a lot to say about his experiences since leaving Oberlin. After spending two years in the Conservatory, Abramsohn decided to abandon his classical piano studies to pursue a career in acting. Since then, he has appeared in high-profile series and films such as Glee, Desperate Housewives, Monk and Oren Peli’s (of Paranormal Activity fame) newest film, Area 51, which opens in theaters in Brazil this November. Escape from Tomorrow is Abramsohn’s first lead role in a feature-length film.
Directed by Randy Moore, the film follows the main character, Jim — played by Abrahmsohn — on an ill-fated family vacation to Disney World. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has generated major controversy for shooting on location without permission from Disney, and for its dark take on what is often thought of as “the happiest place on earth.” Eerily shot in black-and-white film, Escape from Tomorrow has already been chosen for Ebertfest — Roger Ebert’s underdog film festival — and will have a limited release in theaters nationwide on Oct. 11.
Between tidying around the house and running off to a press event, Abramsohn took some time to speak with the Review about his mid-college crisis and his controversial film debut.
I understand that your first passion was music. As a former Conservatory student, could you tell me a bit about how you first got involved with acting?
I was planning my winter term [as a sophomore], and I had a friend over at Johns Hopkins University. They had a famous playwright in residency during that period named Edward Albee. He wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Zoo Story; he’s one of the greatest American playwrights of this whole century, I think. So I kind of snuck my way into Johns Hopkins. I wasn’t really supposed to partake in the program. But I went to Baltimore anyway, and got to meet Edward Albee and do some scenes. Really, just being in the same room with this playwright as he taught, that changed things for me. When they found out I wasn’t a student a Johns Hopkins, they got a little mad, but eh.
So where did you go from there?
I went to New York for a few years. I left Oberlin because I realized I wanted to be an actor. I knew that was my destiny. But acting is a very scary thing. [At Oberlin] I was just this little classical pianist, and I really wasn’t on the same track as my peers. I just didn’t have that spirit in me. Let’s just say that when it came to college, I was a little confused.
When I came back, I did this children’s play that actually toured the Oberlin-area schools. I played a beggar who turned into a king, which was really a metaphor for what was happening to me then. I was this scared, young guy, but in the space of that class I had this moment that just felt real. And that’s what you’re constantly searching for the rest of your career: that one moment back in acting class at Oberlin when you have things spelled out. It was almost an out of body thing, and I just knew.
Let’s talk a little bit about the film, Escape from Tomorrow. How did you first get involved with it?
I was taking [acting] classes at this place called Groundlings — a pretty famous comedy place in L.A. where people like Will Ferrell and Lisa Kudrow and a lot of people from Saturday Night Live went. There was a guy from my class who I’d kept in touch with for a few years after. He’d auditioned for the role and said he thought I’d be right for the lead. So I went in for it [and got it]. At first I was kind of confused. Initially, I didn’t really understand what happened at the end, but that didn’t matter to me because the role just affected me in a way that made me think I could really do well with it.
How did you manage to film at the Disney parks without official permission? Any close calls with security?
We just walked in. We bought everyone yearlong passes, including the kids and their mothers. We had wired mics under our clothes that we’d put on in our hotel rooms in the morning. The cameramen checked in their bags, and since everyone had cameras [at the theme park] no one knew that we were also going to be filming for the movie.
There was one time we almost got caught by security. We walked in and the security guy asked why we’d entered the park twice in seven minutes. We’d just done a shot where we walked into the park and then left again, and it looked pretty suspicious to them. So I said, “Oh, I left the sunscreen outside and I need it for the kids.” He asked me why there were paparazzi following me around and asked if I was a celebrity. For a second my selfish actor brain thought, “Hey, maybe he saw me as the reporter on CSI.” That was pretty funny then.
The security guy made us all wait there, and I realized I had my sound recording stuff on. So I asked to take one of the kids to the bathroom, and who’s going to say no to that? We went in to the bathroom and I took the equipment off and I was about to throw it in the garbage when I realized that doing so could ruin the movie — we probably had weeks of sounds recorded on there. So I put it in my sock — I had these big dad tube socks on — thinking that would maybe be the last place he looked. And then we left the bathroom. [The security guard’s] back was turned and a parade was coming by as one of our [production assistants] walked by, sort of like a spy, and just said, “Get out of the park, go, get in the van.” Then we just ran into the car and got away. You can’t do everything legally in life. Sometimes you have to break a few rules, you what I mean? And I think the Disney Corporation will be just fine.
Now that filming is behind you, how would you describe the movie in your own words?
I would say it’s an art film, with elements of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. I think one review described it as David Lynch if he’d made National Lampoon’s Vacation. It’s dark and it’s about loss, especially loss of youth, I think. It’s about losing your imagination, and a guy who’s having a very bad last day. So he starts doing what most men do: he fantasizes to try to feel better. It’s really not about punking Disney. It’s more about this guy’s mental breakdown, what he’s going through as a character in this Twilight Zone sort of way. [Disney’s] more just the backdrop of the film.
Any advice for Obies hoping to pursue a career in acting?
[Laughs.] I’ll give them the advice that someone gave me: Only become an actor if you want it as badly as you’d want to get out of a burning house. And if you don’t want it that much, then don’t do it.