At the age of 42, having spent the better part of a decade high and spaced out, Gabriel Cordell decided to do something extraordinary.
That something turned out to be a 99-day wheelchair trek across the United States, unwittingly inspiring people along the way. His journey is the subject of the documentary Roll With Me, which will be previewed in Ventura on Thursday, Feb. 16, as part of “Celebrating Jewish Disability & Inclusion Month.”
VCReporter: What was your life like prior to the accident?
Gabriel Cordell: I always marched to the beat of my own drum, I never really was focused on anything else except what I wanted to do, and by the time I was 17 years old I knew I wanted to become an actor. I was finally ready to audition and on Oct. 17, 1992, I decided to drive into Manhattan, something I’d never done before. A mile or two in my route I crossed an intersection I had crossed a million times before when some lady ran a red light, T-boned me, my jeep flipped, I hit a telephone poll with my back and my life changed forever.
Was this accident what lead to your eventual drug addiction and substance abuse?
I was a very sexual human being. I don’t know how much you know about paralysis but you’re cut off from the rest of your body. Believe me when I tell you that walking is the least of your obstacles and frustration. I did not know how to deal with the sexual frustration. In the beginning, I didn’t go to drugs; I just engrossed myself into my career. After a while, I got really tired of just the grind of every day and so I made a conscious choice to kind of check out of reality. The last straw was when I went and picked up cocaine before I went to my job. I had a recurring role on a very popular TV show and I got high before I went on set and I got fired. The drugs, the sex and gambling became my life.
How did you pull yourself out of that?
I was getting high and I had a barbecue that day — this was around Valentine’s Day 2012. I decided that I was going to be the grill master because that meant I didn’t have to talk with anyone. I’m cooking the chicken and realized that my leg was stuck to the bottom of a 600-degree barbecue. My leg was literally stuck on the barbecue, and all my skin was like strings of skin. They thought I had to amputate my leg because I burned it all the way down to the bone. I was in the hospital for a week. Now not only am I in a wheelchair, but I have this sling on my leg with a third-degree burn. It took me 20 minutes to get into my car with this sling on my leg and I drove to my drug dealer and I picked up more crystal meth. And I’m rolling around the malls with a pillow underneath my leg in a sling, high, trying to get that sexual release. This is what I was doing. I realized that if I don’t stop today I’m going to die.
Why did you choose to take the journey across America?
I’d just literally picked up from my dealer, I did my line in the Starbucks bathroom, I went to the video store and got my porn videos, I went to Ralphs and got my cigarettes, I’m ready to go home and do my lines and watch my porn, and this guy comes up to me in the parking lot, introducing himself, and says, “My name is Scott and I’m building a new wheelchair and I want to pick your brain.” I thought, ‘Gee you’re really killing my buzz.’ I went home and started thinking, and all of a sudden it just came to me, what if I roll his wheelchair — I think I first said across California — that would be an incredible campaign for his wheel chair. That’s how any kind of rolling started. I planted the seed; the more and more this took on its own life, the more I realized that this is the extraordinary achievement I’ve been talking about since I was 18 years old. I put it out there and then nine months later, I left. [Note: Scott did not assist in the preparation or journey in the end.]
Did it cross your mind to do this for a particular purpose, or to raise awareness?
Remember, I’m a full-time drug addict — I just stopped cold turkey. Honestly, I had no time to roll for a cause, I was rolling for survival. I was doing this to survive.
As the days went by it started becoming very clear that, hey, this is not about me, it’s not Gabriel anymore. Even though I was the vehicle, this was about what I was doing to complete strangers watching a man in a wheelchair struggle to roll across America. Every day at least once a day there’d be a tear-fest on the side of the road because people were just blown away. I set out to do it in 60 days. I averaged 31 miles a day, which is a marathon and six additional miles on top of that.
Was there a sense of “we did it” when you completed the journey?
I couldn’t believe we had made history [Gabriel was accompanied by a crew of six filmmakers and assistants]. I can’t believe we just rolled 3,100 miles across the U.S. from ocean to ocean. There was a lot of pride.
Cordell will be at Congregation Am HaYam, 4839 Market St., Unit C, in Ventura on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. to premiere a 25-minute segment of the documentary detailing his journey, Roll With Me, followed by a Q&A and discussion. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit www.amhayam.com.