MICAH FOWLER AS JJ DIMEO
LEADING BY REFLECTING REALITY
SHOWRUNNERS PROVE THAT INCLUDING CHARACTERS WITH DISABILITIES ADDS DEPTH TO DRAMA AND LURES NEW VIEWERS
By Stephanie Prange
Everything begins with the script. Everything, including inclusion.
If people with disabilities are to get more opportunities on camera, that has to start with writing — and the writers.
“TV used to be very, very white, and it’s less so. TV used to be very straight, and it’s less so, and I think we can open the door wider to folks with disabilities on TV as well,” says writer-producer Scott Silveri.
“People like to see themselves reflected on TV and in movies, and there’s something very unkind about closing that door.”
Inclusion isn’t just than an altruistic act. Easterseals Southern California president and CEO Mark Whitley states, “Diversity, including disability, is good for the entertainment business.
“We’re seeing how diverse films are dominating the box office every week,” he says. “And how [inclusive] shows on the small screen are winning hearts and getting good numbers.”
While there’s growing evidence bolstering the business case for inclusion, “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan summarizes the creative case: “It’s important to see the world, as it exists, in Hollywood movies and TV shows. The world includes people with disabilities, and when they’re not seen in TV shows and movies, it’s presenting a world unlike that which exists.”
Gilligan was inspired by a college friend to include a character with a disability on “Breaking Bad.” Walt Jr. was played by RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy (CP) in real life.
Silveri, creator and executive producer of the ABC comedy “Speechless,” had an older brother with CP; the series is based on his family’s experiences. Silveri has a full-time writer and consultants with disabilities that provide “a wealth of raw material,” he says, but he wanted a PWD to play JJ DiMeo, the young man in the story with a disability.
“You don’t want to be coaching somebody to play disabled,” Silveri says. “You don’t want to have anybody faking it. I was striving for authenticity.” After a wide search, Silveri and his casting director found Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
“It’s a tricky show to pull off at times, and we really do it on Micah’s back,” he says. “He really delivers week in and week out, always with a smile on his face. He’s just been a gift.”
Some had concerns about the difficulties of having a performer in a wheelchair on set or on location, Silveri says, but no such problems materialized.
“I understand why people think it would make things just a little more difficult, but it’s just not been the case. We’re three years in, and I can give you a long list of actors who add time to [the shoot]. Micah’s on the top of the other list.”
Another writer-producer drawing from her background to explore stories of people with disabilities is Margaret Nagle, an Emmy winner for writing the 2005 HBO TV movie “Warm Springs.”
She identified with its subject, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who became disabled after contracting polio, because her own brother is disabled from a car accident.
She later adapted a Spanish series into “Red Band Society,” about young people with disabilities in a hospital ward. Nagle always likes to write about people navigating life’s challenges; “that’s where drama comes from,” she says. But, she adds, she especially likes to include characters with disabilities.
“To see deafness, to see blindness, to see the struggles, to see people dealing with imperfection in terms of this image that Hollywood projects about bodies, which is so ridiculous,” says Nagle.
“It’s better for everybody,” she adds, “[when we] show the world as it is onscreen.”
SEAL OF APPROVAL: PETER FARRELLY
A FRIENDLY CHALLENGE LED THE ‘GREEN BOOK’ HELMER TO INCLUDE PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES IN HIS FILMS
After the premiere of “Dumb and Dumber,” the Farrelly brothers’ first big movie, their childhood friend Danny Murphy pulled them aside to point out a mistake.
“C’mon, man, you got no disabled people in there,” he told them. Murphy used a wheelchair after breaking his neck in a diving accident in his teens. Beyond that, the Farrelly boys grew up with friends who always brought their brothers with intellectual disabilities along to play outside.
“It just happened that way, it was our world,” Peter Farrelly explains. So Murphy’s words left him mortified. “I was like, ‘Jesus, I forgot!’” he says. “In our movies, we try to capture the real world, so if you want to have a better movie, of course you should have someone with a disability in it. That’s reality.”
They cast Murphy as a bad guy in their next movie, “Kingpin,” and he appeared in their next three films. They have gone out of their way to hire actors with disabilities ever since.
There are some myths about actors with disabilities, mainly that they add shooting time or expense. Farrelly says the rumors are bunk.
“We’ve never been delayed by a person with a disability. Everybody’s doing hair, putting on makeup. It’s all hurry-up-and-wait, you know, we’re not bricklaying. We’re actors. They do a scene for three minutes, then sit down for an hour.
“And I’ll tell you this: They’re goddamned prepared, because they don’t get their break a lot, and when they get into a movie they come with the goods.”
Farrelly bemoans the lack of opportunities for PWD actors — “Why can’t the girlfriend be blind? Why can’t the lead guy use a wheelchair? Does it matter?” — but the upside of that is that they’re new to the audience. “I’m getting a face that nobody’s seen before, and that’s the advantage for me.”
— Beth Finke
FALL TV HARVESTS FRESH CHANCES
2018 SEASON BRINGS NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES, ON AND OFF CAMERA
If the new TV season is any indication, Hollywood may finally be expanding its inclusion of people with disabilities.
David Radcliff, who has cerebral palsy (CP), is in his first year as a staff writer, working on ABC’s freshman cop drama “The Rookie.”
He says showrunner Alexi Hawley “made a conscious effort to build a room that celebrates the impact diversity has on storytelling.”
Actors with disabilities are better represented in this year’s series: Micah Fowler, who also has CP, is a regular on ABC’s returning “Speechless.”
Millicent Simmonds will be recurring on Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” and on Sundance Now’s “This Close,” created, written by and starring Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. Stern, Feldman and Simmonds are deaf.
Gaten Matarazzo, who has cleidocranial dysplasia, returns in season three of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
Kurt Yaeger, an amputee, stars in CBS All Access’ “Tell Me a Story.”
Evan George Vourazeris, who has Down syndrome, has a recurring role on Netflix’s “Ozark.”
Radcliff notes that people with disabilities are accustomed to problem-solving.
“I know if I do great work and solve a lot of challenges on the fly, I’m proving not only that this work can be done by people with disabilities, but that we bring a lot of added value and fresh perspectives,” he says.