TORONTO - Dylan Harman had been waiting a long time for a role like the one he snagged in The Rainbow Kid, a unique coming-of-age tale debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Like the fictional teen Eugene, Harman has Down syndrome and says he knows what it's like to be badly treated.
"I relate to Eugene because he kind of gets picked on," Harman said at a pre-TIFF press conference with his director, Kire Paputts.
"He gets used by people and as the story develops, he becomes a man."
The 25-year-old actor carries much of the low-budget film as it traces a difficult upbringing for the young Eugene. An ailing mother, a tenuous living arrangement and harassment at school lead him to take charge of his own life.
Inspired by his favourite children's book, Eugene sets off in search of the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
"I hope it entertains people at first but other than that I hope people can ... come away with a different idea about actors with special needs," says Paputts, who also wrote the script.
The Toronto filmmaker started working with Harman on the 2012 short film Rainbow Connection. From there, the groundwork was laid to push Harman even further for his first lead role in a feature.
Paputts says he made a point of treating Harman like any other actor.
"When you're working with someone with special needs, there is a tendency to handle them with kid gloves a bit. I wanted to get away from that," the 32-year-old says of his approach.
"This is a film about a guy who goes off looking for the end of the rainbow. It doesn't focus on his disability, it's not about a guy with a disability, he just happens to have a disability."
Harman says he hasn't let Down syndrome dissuade him from chasing his dreams, which include writing and directing films. He started acting in a theatre group at age five, and finds confidence in performing.
His credits include a Toronto production of the Judith Thompson play Rare, the TV movie The Memory Keeper's Daughter, and a guest spot on the defunct Global drama Remedy.
"I started performing in a theatre group ... and they are the reason why I started acting," Harman says.
"They inspired me, they gave me the confidence to be an actor."
Veteran performers Nicholas Campbell and Julian Richings round out the cast as two of the eccentrics Eugene meets on his journey. Another actress with Down syndrome, 26-year-old Krystal Hope Nausbaum, has a key role as a potential love interest.
Paputts says he used a lot of improv to get the performances he needed.
"That was fun to let Dylan and the other actors riff off one another. If things got off track a bit I could always rely on the other actors to bring it back," he says.
"I would push Dylan all the time, and we would fight every day on set. But we would always hug it out at the end of the day."
Harman says he'd like to keep acting and thanks Paputts for giving him the role.
"There are few films for people with special needs and I'm happy that I got to be a part of this film because it makes me feel that I finally got a chance to be a lead," says Harman.
"I feel really relieved that I got a chance."