MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON
UNITING TO SUPPORT INCLUSION
CASTING DIRECTORS, AGENCIES, EXECUTIVES AND THESPS EXPAND OPPORTUNITIES FOR ACTORS WITH DISABILITIES
By Stephanie Prange
Representation of people with disabilities onscreen doesn’t reflect their representation in real life, say industry advocates for the disability community. But actors, agents and casting directors are pushing for change.
“Disabled folks are the largest minority in the U.S., yet we still remain the caboose on the conversational train of diversity and inclusion,” says actor Michael Patrick Thornton (“Private Practice,” “The Red Line”), who uses a wheelchair.
Among those attacking the problem is Casting Society of America president Russell Boast. He spearheads the CSA’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee, which on Jan. 7 organized the Open Casting Call on Disability.
The nationwide event got more than 50 casting directors to open their doors over the course of a day to actors with disabilities.
“I wanted to get as many casting directors in front of as many performers with disabilities as I possibly could,” Boast says. The goal was to dispel misconceptions and create buzz. More than 900 people auditioned. For Los Angeles, committee member Monika Mikkelsen, Paramount’s VP of casting, helped arrange for an open call on the Paramount lot and for volunteers to assist the auditioners.
One of the impediments to casting performers with disabilities, Boast says, is “the fear of the unknown,” including the “perception that it’s incredibly hard to cast someone with a disability.” There are also the fears about causing offense, and about how to approach the actors, he says.
“We want Hollywood to be comfortable about having characters with disabilities in their stories, whether it’s a central or minor character,” adds Mark Whitley, president and CEO of Easterseals Southern California. “That’s the way we’ll ultimately change the way the world defines and views disability.”
Agent Gail Williamson, who heads up the diversity department at KMR Talent, says that her clients like to be considered when there’s a disability story.
Williamson has personal experience with how such roles can inspire, having a son with Down syndrome who identified with the character of Corky in “Life Goes On” growing up. The character was played by Chris Burke, who also has Down syndrome.
But her clients want to be considered for a wider range of roles. “Our goal, and these actors’ goal, would be to be playing roles that don’t revolve around their disability or where their disability doesn’t move the story forward, but where they’re just included,” Williamson says. That encompasses small roles, she says, in which “they are the ones that say, ‘They went that way,’ or ‘Do you want fries with that?’”
Boast concurs: “No one thinks to put them in a supporting role because it’s not a story point,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a story point. Just show what the world looks like.”
Thornton notes that his character on “Private Practice” was “an intelligent, funny, sexual character who also happened to use a wheelchair.
“In our culture, the arts are a great verifier,” he adds. “When we see ourselves in paintings or sculpture or onstage or onscreen, we feel seen and accepted and folded into the diverse tapestry of America.”