LOS ANGELES — John Robinson certainly wasn’t expecting much when he showed up last year at an open casting for Gus Van Sant’s latest film, “Elephant.” After all, the 17-year-old Portland, Ore., native was hardly an actor. He’s a prep school type, into lacrosse, soccer and hockey, not to mention snowboarding and wakeboarding.
“I’d taken drama classes since I was little, but I never thought I’d be in a movie. My brother was an extra once and I thought it would be fun,” the high school junior says, calling after soccer practice.
Robinson wasn’t surprised when the audition turned out to be a typical cattle call. “We ended up standing in line for four hours,” he recalls. And when he didn’t hear anything for two months, he figured he was out. “Then Gus called me up and said he wanted to meet me. I was, like, completely ecstatic.” It turned out the city’s own celebrity director lived a couple of blocks away, and after selecting 11 other local teenagers in the cast, Van Sant began to write a script about how high school students’ lives intertwine on a day that ultimately ends in Columbine-like violence. The film, which premieres in Portland on Oct. 4, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the Palme D’Or.
In Cannes, Robinson could be found in a daze of disbelief. “I had no idea what to expect,” he says. But his fresh-scrubbed looks and funky style caught the attention of scouts from L’Uomo Vogue, who recruited him for the July cover, shot by Stephen Klein. Then Robinson and his mother were whisked to Milan to sit in the front row at the Gianfranco Ferré show. “It was completely weird. The fashion world is so different and scary,” he marvels.
Though the offers for ad campaigns keep coming, “It’s not something I want to do,” Robinson says firmly. “I’m not in it for the money and fame.” Another Klein shoot for Italian Vogue had Robinson re-creating iconic scenes from Swedish films with Daryl Hannah. “They tried to make it as racy as possible and it was driving me crazy. I was laying in her lap wearing a Speedo, thinking, ‘This is so weird.’”
Robinson’s own style is a mixture of vintage and Diesel. “My mom considers it her job to collect vintage clothes, so my whole life we’ve found wacky things,” he says. “I love really big-collared ‘70s shirts and funky clothes when I have to dress up. Otherwise, I’m a jeans and T-shirt boy.”
After Cannes, Robinson made a trip to L.A. — and realized Tinseltown wasn’t for him. “Living in L.A. is the last thing I want to do,” he says. “You cancel out all your life experiences living in a fake world.” He plans to stay put in Portland — at least for the next two weeks. Then he’s off to North Carolina to begin shooting an adaptation of J.T. LeRoy’s “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” directed and co-starring Asia Argento, with Winona Ryder and Peter Fonda.
But Robinson insists his newfound fame hasn’t affected him much. “My friends tease me, that’s about the extent of it,” he says. “And my girlfriend thinks it’s cool.”