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'Roll with Me' chronicles LIer's wheelchair journey across America

Five years ago, Gabriel Cordell became the first person to travel coast-to-coast in a standard wheelchair.

Gabriel Cordell rolls himself via an unmodified wheelchair

Gabriel Cordell rolls himself via an unmodified wheelchair through New Mexico en route to New York in the documentary "Roll with Me." Photo Credit: Array Releasing

In 2013, Gabriel Cordell launched an unusual project: A documentary about rolling his wheelchair across America, from Santa Monica, California, to his hometown of West Hempstead. Over 100 days, Cordell rolled 3,100 miles though 13 states. Followed by a camera crew, he endured 100-degree days, 30-degree nights, severe shoulder pains and several spills to the asphalt.

All of which may have been the easy part.

“Roll With Me,” directed by Lisa France, is the end result of Cordell's grueling effort, a shoestring-budget documentary shot by a nonprofessional crew working out of a one-bedroom RV. Premiering Saturday, Dec. 1 on Netflix, “Roll With Me” isn't only a testament to one man's endurance. For France, it's a labor of love that required hard work and personal sacrifice even after filming was completed. As for Cordell, he's still amazed the movie got finished at all, given the many difficult personalities involved — his own included.

“One of my proudest achievements,” he says, “is that not one punch was thrown in three-and-a-half months of being on the road.” He adds: “That was a minor miracle.”

Cordell, 48, was born in Libya but came to Long Island as a child with his family. He developed an interest in acting and, at the age of 22, landed his first professional audition, for a Vidal Sassoon commercial. He never made it. En route, Cordell says, a collision with another car ejected him from his vehicle and threw him against a telephone pole, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Still, he says, “my dreams were not lost.” Cordell moved to Los Angeles and began acting, landing roles on “Dexter,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “CSI.” (That show's star, Jorja Fox, would become an executive producer on “Roll With Me.”) Still, when his late 30s arrived and stardom had not, Cordell turned to drugs. After roughly four years spent in a haze of cocaine and crystal meth, Cordell cleaned himself up and began considering what to do next.

“When I was 18 years old, I made a promise that by the time I turned 45 I would accomplish something extraordinary,” Cordell says. “Now, I didn't know what that was. And being in a wheelchair was definitely not part of the equation. But I knew I wanted to do something.”

Cordell had heard of people in wheelchairs rolling across America. They used modified wheelchairs, though, with handlebars and large tires that allowed riders to reach speeds of more than 40 miles per hour. According to Cordell's research, nobody had ever rolled across the country in a standard wheelchair. He determined to be the first. And he needed someone to document his feat.

France was a struggling filmmaker in L.A. who had decided to give up and apply to nursing school when she heard about Cordell. Intrigued, she filmed a promotional video for a Kickstarter campaign. The two raised enough money for transportation, food and gas. They assembled a ragtag camera crew, some of whom struggle with their own issues on-screen. Christopher Kawas, for instance, had recently begun recovering from drug addiction (Kawas is Cordell's nephew); other crew members seem to be dealing with anger problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They became my big brothers — with lots of varying mental challenges,” says France. “And every single one of those guys has the biggest heart.”

Once Cordell's journey got underway, he and the crew became minor celebrities in many of the towns they rolled through, drawing interest from local media and speaking with just about anyone who stopped to talk. Those were the moments that most impressed Sharon Swart, a former journalist in Los Angeles, who came on board as a producer.

“It was a great glimpse into small towns and forgotten cities all across America,” Swart says. “I think the film is timely given where we're at in this country. And I think it's unifying in a really great, unique way.”

To finish the film, France raised enough money to pay an editor, Jeff Buccellato (who also became a producer), and spent months waiting tables and crashing on a friend's couch while editing progressed. This past October, Array, a company founded by director Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), picked up “Roll With Me” with an eye to releasing it on Netflix.

“There's no way we should have been able to get this done,” France says. “And we did. And I think that's an important message.”

Cordell, now based in Castaic, California, rolls for various causes and works as a motivational speaker. This past September, he undertook another personal challenge and reached the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

“Just so people know,” Cordell says, “I'm still rolling.”

Astoria's Museum of the Moving Image will present a free preview screening of "Roll with Me" Wednesday at 7 p.m. Director Lisa France will be at the screening.

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