Hollywood’s diversity push snubs actors with disabilities
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Eileen Grubba was working alongside other actors on a TV commercial when she realized the director’s eye was caught by her uneven gait. He started positioning her out of shots — and then it got worse.
Shooting a scene on a bus, the director ordered Grubba to get up and move from her seat in the middle to one in the rear that was fully out of the frame.
“‘So now we’re going to make the disabled people sit at the back of the bus? That’s awesome,’” Grubba, who uses a leg brace because of childhood spinal cord damage, recalled thinking some six years ago.
The disheartening experience reflects the broader picture for many actors with disabilities, whose progress in Hollywood has lagged behind that of other minority performers demanding to be seen and hired. The reasons are complex, insiders and observers say, including unfounded concerns about added production costs, disability stereotypes and an industry clinging to entrenched habits.
“The fact is this is the largest minority group in the United States that routinely is discriminated against in the (entertainment) industry, and we’re trying to move the needle,” said Jay Ruderman, head of a non-partisan foundation that advocates for inclusion for people with disabilities.
There are some high-profile successes on TV, among them wheelchair-using actor Daryl Mitchell on CBS’ “NCIS: New Orleans,” Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy and stars on ABC’s “Speechless,” and little person Peter Dinklage, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning star of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” He’s also earned theatrical film roles (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).
But studies show them to be outliers, even as a diversity groundswell has benefited actors of color and African-Americans in particular — including Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) on the big screen, Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) on the small one and Oscar- and Emmy-winner Viola Davis on both. LGBTQ performers, among them Laverne Cox, are making gains in visibility and work as well.
BY THE NUMBERS
More than 56 million people — nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population — have a disability, according to a 2012 Census Bureau report. But in 900 films released in theaters between 2007-2016, a total of 2.7 percent of the characters with speaking parts had a disability, according to researchers at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Of the 20 characters with disabilities tallied on the 10 top-rated broadcast and cable TV shows airing in 2016, one actor (Mitchell of “NCIS”) has the disability portrayed on screen, a Ruderman Family Foundation study found. In 21 prominent series on streaming platforms, two actors out of the 17 playing characters with disabilities had a real-life disability.
Hollywood isn’t alone in its employment practices. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was more than double that of the non-disabled (10.5 percent vs. 4.6 percent).
When disabled people are portrayed in films and on television, roles lean heavily toward conditions that aren’t physically visible. A role involving an apparent disability may go to an actor with the condition — little person Mark Povinelli played a character with dwarfism on Amazon’s “Mad Dogs” — or not. In “Strong,” the film about a Boston Marathon bombing survivor left a double amputee, a computer-altered Jake Gyllenhaal played the part.
That leaves performers with disabilities largely out in the cold.
“Disabled people (audition) for roles and characters that are disabled, but they don’t read for able-bodied characters,” even if their disability wouldn’t affect the portrayal or story, said actor Kurt Yaeger (Greg the Peg on “Sons of Anarchy”). Yaeger, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, said his agility with a prosthetic allows him to “hide” it for non-disabled parts and increases his job options.
Scott Silveri, creator and executive producer of ABC’s “Speechless,” joins in brushing away the tired notion that a story’s dramatic flow or audience would be thrown off by seeing a physically challenged person.
“When you go into a bank and a teller has a limp, do you get confused, walk out into the parking lot and walk around?” he said. “What’s the big deal? Go outside — there are crutches and canes and wheelchairs, and people using them.”
The onus, impossibly, is on the so-called “disabled community,” which consists of people with many different conditions and groups with varying goals and needs.
Screenwriter Janis Hirsch, who uses crutches because of childhood polio, recalls “losing it” when a “Glee” character in a wheelchair was played by an actor who wasn’t. Hirsch complained to a casting director who worked on the show, she said, and got this reply: “You people didn’t submit anyone.”
Actresses face their own obstacles. The demands for physical perfection, so key a part of the dream factory, fall more heavily on them, according to Grubba: “I’ve literally had people say to me, ‘If you were a man, (your limp) wouldn’t matter.’”
AGENTS OF CHANGE
Silveri is among those trying to make a difference. After working on fluffy hit sitcoms including “Friends,” the writer-producer decided to peer into his own life and create a series about a youngster with cerebral palsy and his family. (Silveri’s brother, who had the condition, died recently at age 47.)
“I’m proud of our show and proud we shine a light,” he said, crediting a receptive ABC for snapping “Speechless” up. As for casting an actor with a disability in the role, he never considered otherwise.
“I want to put out the best show possible, and it just wouldn’t pass the smell test to cast somebody who didn’t have this disability. But the other half is, it’s the right thing to do whenever possible,” he said, adding, “and I’d have to hear the argument why not.”
Budget fears are a poor excuse, according to actor Danny Woodburn (Mickey on “Seinfeld”), who has dwarfism and co-wrote the 2016 Ruderman Foundation report. Hiring an actor with a disability rarely costs an employer more, he said, but when an accommodation such as a ramp is needed the expense is typically less than $500.
Industry heavyweights are joining the effort.
Russell Boast, president of the Casting Society of America, has made it a cause for casting directors. In January, the group’s members held open calls for performers with disabilities in 50 places nationwide that drew almost 1,000 people. The society also works with the actors’ guild, SAG-AFTRA, on events.
If the industry’s excuse for not using these actors is because they don’t exist, “I’m going to prove that’s a myth and I’m going to show you these actors do exist, they’re hungry to work and there are some amazingly talented performers that just haven’t had a chance,” Boast said.
Producers prefer to bank on proven actors, but “stars aren’t born stars. They have to be made,” said Tery Lopez, director of inclusion and equity for the Writers Guild of America, West, which held its annual workshop in which actors with disabilities are showcased in works written for them.
Networks and studios were challenged by the Ruderman Foundation and disability advocate Tari Hartman Squire to step up their efforts. Last season, CBS and Fox Studios led in hiring actors with disabilities for series and pilots, the foundation said.
PROGRESS, IN INCHES
The movement has gotten pushback. Some in the industry say insisting on disability-specific casting is an infringement on their freedom to cast the actor they want for artistic or financial reasons, while others label it political correctness run amok.
Director Michael Mailer, son of the late novelist Norman Mailer, defended his casting of Alec Baldwin as a nearly sightless man in “Blind,” a 2017 indie film.
“In order to greenlight an independent film, one must attract a ‘name’ actor for a fraction of a studio paycheck if there is to be any chance at getting the film financed,” Mailer wrote in a piece last year for Deadline. “And while I’m sure there are many talented, vision-impaired actors out there, I do not currently know of any who have the marquee appeal needed to get even a modestly budgeted film made.”
Ruderman, who had criticized the casting, remains unconvinced by such arguments.
“We’re really trying to make a case this is about employment and equality and authenticity, but that’s not how people look at it,” he said.
Before Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman landed their series “This Close” on Sundance Now, the writer-actors got a confused reception to their pitch about two friends who, like them, are deaf.
“The first question we always got from everybody was, ‘Why is this character deaf? I don’t get it,’” Feldman said. “But in real life, why is anybody deaf or why is anybody anything? ... So the deaf experience will come into the story, but it doesn’t need to be the central piece of the story.”
Some get it, said Grubba, a longtime member of the prestigious Actors Studio. She said Brad Falchuk, who partners with Ryan Murphy to produce hit shows including “Feud” (and “Glee”), took her aside during a “Nip-Tuck” scene to ask if she felt comfortable allowing herself to limp. He assured her it only added to the scene, not detracted, she said.
Woodburn, whose credits include the upcoming film “Anthem,” is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“I think the tables are turning as we talk more and more about inclusion,” he said. The ideal outcome includes shedding the “old ideologies” about casting those with disabilities and providing physical access for all, he said — which can mean not holding auditions in buildings without elevators, as still happens.
While it’s been nearly 30 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, Hollywood is still trying to absorb the concept and all else that fairness demands.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be in a year, five years, 10 years or maybe not in our lifetime,” Jay Ruderman said, “but eventually we’re going to look at actors playing a disability the same way you would look at an actor putting on blackface.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber .