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At the Toronto Film Fest, “Paranoid Park” star Gabe Nevins stands with his hands in his pockets facing away from a one-sheet emblazoned with a giant photo of his face. “It’s weird,” says Nevins, not sure what to make of the poster. “I can’t look at it.”

The 16-year-old Portland native is director Gus Van Sant’s latest discovery, playing a numb-to-the-world young skater with ties to an unsolved murder. “When I first started out, I had to use non-actors,” says the helmer. “In ‘Mala Noche,’ one guy was 16 from a suburb, and the other guy was a boxer — he was 21. They had natural abilities, but they weren’t experienced.”

As he grew into studio pictures, Van Sant started working with trained screen actors, casting professional teens in such youth-centric stories as “To Die For” and “Finding Forrester.”

Then came “Elephant,” Van Sant’s reaction to the Columbine shootings, which called for a more neorealist approach. “The local high school Portlanders were all really intense characters,” Van Sant recalls. “The trick was to find the ones that remain themselves in front of the camera.”

“Elephant” helped launch the careers of Alex Frost (“Drillbit Taylor”) and John Robinson (“Lords of Dogtown”), who still keep in touch with the director. Nevins isn’t so sure about wanting to become a professional actor. He auditioned for “Paranoid Park” after hearing the production was looking for extra skateboarders, never dreaming he might be considered for the lead.

Both Van Sant and his amateur star took some convincing.

“I was nervous. Even though I’d done ‘Elephant,’ this was different. This was the lead character,” Van Sant says. “A young actor, if he’s good, can take what’s on the page and mold it into something more, and a non-actor will basically give you their reading of it. That’s the choice.”

Recent breakthrough: Cast a complete unknown in the lead of his latest, “Paranoid Park.”

Role model: “Zac Efron. I really liked ‘Hairspray’ because it just looks like people can’t stop dancing. It’s not a Bob Fosse style, it’s an ants-in-your-pants style. It seems like people cannot hold it in.”

What’s next: Hoping to direct the long-gestating Harvey Milk biopic.