Interview: Actor Yani Gillman on returning to the horror genre in Departing Seniors

2023 Chicago International Film Festival Opening Night Block Party
2023 Chicago International Film Festival Opening Night Block Party / Barry Brecheisen/GettyImages

Yani Gellman isn't exactly a stranger to the horror genre. He appeared in such films as Jason X and 47 Meters Down, but it's been a minute since he's acted in a genre film. In the teen slasher, Departing Seniors, he plays high school English teacher Mr. Arda, a mentor to the protagonist Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), who's frequently bullied by his peers because of his sexuality.

We spoke with Gellman about returning to the horror genre, working with a young cast, and some of his favorite scenes. This interview was edited slightly for clarity.

1428 Elm: You've been in horror movies before, going all the way back to Jason X. What was it like to return to the genre?

Yani Gellman: I did a couple of horror films when my career first started, but then I didn't really do many for a very long time. When I got this script, it seemed like something fresh and new, the kind of thing I hadn't had the chance to do. It really resonated with me, and it was fun to get back into that genre.

1428 Elm: You mentioned how you were drawn to the script. What about the script specifically interested you in Departing Seniors? The script does rewrite a lot of the teen slasher horror tropes.

Yani Gellman: I think one reason I haven't done a lot of horror films is because I don't really love the genre, at least if it's a straight up horror film. For me, going to a movie theater on a Friday night to get scared is not fun. There are enough things in life to get scared about. For me, I read this script as much a drama, comedy, and coming of age story that had more to do with just the high school experience. I felt the whole thing was a metaphor for bullying and how cruel school can be for certain people. It had those different layers, which is what made it really appealing to me. It's not just a straight up horror film. It has different genres baked in.

1428 Elm: Because you played a teacher in this film, Mr. Arda, were there any teachers you turned to in film or in your personal life as inspiration for the character?

Yani Gellman: That's such a great question. I have been really fortunate and lucky to have some really great teachers in my life. When I think about that now, I think about how fortunate I am to have connected with them because I had some tough times growing up. Sometimes, when home life is difficult, you do turn towards school life or your teachers. Definitely in theater, I had a lot of great teachers. I went to an art school in Toronto. When I moved to LA, I had some great acting teachers, including one by the name of Stan Kirsch, who's unfortunately no longer with us. He was the ultimate teacher and coach in just believing in yourself. He'd give you the tools to act. When you walked into his class, he made you feel loved and good about who you are, and then he sent you back out into the world to tackle whatever problems you're going through in a much better way. I also studied Brazilian jiu jitsu, and some of the teachers and professionals I studied with in that area have made a big difference in my life.

1428 Elm: Your character gives a powerful monologue late in the film. This follows a number of student deaths, and it's shortly before the students graduate. Can you talk about filming that emotional scene?

Yani Gellman: We're there to do a job. First and foremost, you're there to play the drama and story, but because of the actual words being spoken, the content and subject matter, at least for me personally, it brought up a lot of stuff. It also brought up stuff for other people in the room. You have to handle it with decency and care without turning it into a therapy session for yourself. Yeah, it was a solemn moment. Maybe we weren't just talking about a movie here. Everyone has had their own personal connection with mental health issues and suicide. I know I certainly have. It was in the room without us talking about it too much. I just wanted to pay that scene the respect it deserves.

Departing Seniors 5
Departing Seniors - Courtesy Brigade Marketing /

1428 Elm: What was your reaction when you first read the script's ending and reveal? We won't spoil anything.

Yani Gellman: I was reading the script for the first time, not knowing where it was going. For me, the ending was quite surprising. That's one thing that really drew me to the script, that a-ha moment. I'm not going to give it away. I'm not going to say which character or characters were involved in this high school drama and tragedy, horror comedy, but it really grabbed me. While reading the script, I couldn't figure out what was going on until the end. I thought there'd be a chance audiences could have that similar reaction.

1428 Elm: What was it like to work with the younger cast?

Yani Gillman: I would say this on any movie. I would always say it's great to work with the cast and they're awesome. That's just what you want to say, but I do want to emphasize how great it was to work with this cast. No bs. This is a very special group of young actors that somehow was all cast together. It worked so well. They're so talented and interesting on screen. Off-screen, they were so much fun to hang out with and get to know. I'm older than the cast, but it felt like we were a group. I just love them to bits. I know they're going to go on to have successful careers in this industry, if that's what they want. I just really hope I have the chance to work with them again or keep up with what they do. They're all so great and so talented. I love them all to bits.

Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Ireon Roach, Yani Gellman
2023 Chicago International Film Festival Opening Night Block Party / Barry Brecheisen/GettyImages

1428 Elm: What was your favorite scene to shoot?

Yani Gellman: There are some sequences in a theater I really enjoyed shooting. There are some scenes with Ignacio where we really get to connect and relate to each other. I would say those scenes. Not to go long on this, but I got COVID right when I got to Chicago. I had to go into 10-day quarantine before I could even get to set. The first day back to set, I filmed a scene in a classroom with Ignacio. I was just so happy to be through COVID, on set, and working with this group. For those reasons, that scene was a huge highlight for me. I felt free, and it was a lot of fun.

1428 Elm: Anything else that you'd like to add that we didn't cover yet?

Yani Gellman: I just want to give a shoutout to Clare, the director. It's interesting, on films like this, that are kind of low budget, you don't have much time. Everyone involved has to do so much more work and wear so many hats. I got the chance to meet her, get to know her, and watch her put on so many hats and work so hard. It was so inspiring to us all. She kept a positive energy the whole time. Jose [Nateras) the writer as well. It's rare to have a writer on set helping with wardrobe and running lines and fixing problems. It really renewed my love for making films in a collaborative way. We were all together as a crew helping each other, and I think that spirit shines through in the film.

1428: Yani, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us!

Departing Seniors is currently playing in limited theaters and available on VOD.

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