Should all the disabled roles go to disabled actors?

June 27, 2017

With only 4% of characters in Australian dramas having an impairment or experiencing disability, compared to 18% of the Australian population living with disability, there are clearly not many roles out there for any aspiring actor with disability. Adding to the mix is the big question of whether such roles should be played by people with disability or can non-disabled actors “use” their acting skills to the limit and play a person with disability?

Or as the late Stella Young more tellingly stated it: is it ok for actors to “Crip up”?

Disabled actors do get a go

There are a few notable disabled roles played by disabled actors. We have recently reported on American sitcom Speechless and UK soapie Hollyoaks, both of which feature lead characters, played by actors with disability.

Kate Hood was cast for a role as a person with disability in the internationally popular classic Australian soapie Neighbours. She agrees that such roles should be covered by actors with disability.

Arts Access Australia has a campaign to employ disabled actors Don’t Play Us, Pay Us arguing that roles calling for a person with disability should be played by disabled actors.

Sarah Houbolt, recently featured in her circus performer persona on SBS’s The Feed, says the Don’t Play Us, Pay Us campaign is “appropriate” because “there are enough artists and performers and jobbing actors with disability to play those roles. If you’re casting for a tall blond, you cast for a tall blond; if you cast for someone who uses a wheelchair, you look for a person in a wheelchair. It makes perfect sense. It’s part of the body”.

Scott Silveri, the creator of American situation comedy Speechless also agrees that the barriers to hiring actors with disabilities are false and that people with disabilities should play characters with disabilities.

The Hollywood experience is mixed

Marlee Matlin wowed us all, and picked up an Oscar, for her authentic Deaf performance in Children of a Lesser God. However, the 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory obviously had problems finding enough short-statured actors of enough skill to play all of the Oompa Loompas, or maybe it was just easier to film actor Deep Roy multiple times (20 individual parts for one of the sequences) and then digitally insert him into the scenes. For the record, the 1971 Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory managed to cast 4 or 5 different short-statured people in the Oompa Loompa roles (but the technology wasn’t as advanced then). We’re just happy that nobody thought to digitally shrink some average-sized actors.

Usually though, Hollywood and mainstream casting tends to take a different view. Their take is that anyone can get in a wheelchair, like Artie from Glee, but they claimed that they auditioned wheelchair using actors, none of whom had the on-screen charisma and singing talent required. Earlier (1989), Daniel Day-Lewis famously won an Oscar for his portrayal of disabled Christy Brown in My Left Foot, fuelling the argument that a top star draws box office attention to a film that may have never been made if the film was cast with a disabled actor.

A mammoth 2003 BBC research study looking at mainstream attitudes towards disability found that casting famous actors as disabled characters gave audiences reassurances that the program was “watchable”.

It depends on the impairment

Once we get into the realms of invisible impairments or conditions “open” casting is the norm. The most common invisible impairments are cognitive and many big name actors have played such roles: Dustin Hoffmann in Rain Man; Sean Penn in I am Sam (with video of trailer); and Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. Hoffman and Hanks won Best Actor Oscars for their performances, Penn had to settle for just a nomination.

So if you are an actor with an obvious, recognisable impairment, like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, facial difference, short-stature, prosthetic or limb difference, you are probably safely up for those kinds of roles, on the odd occasion when they do pop up. For deafness, blindness, cognitive impairments, or a wheelchair user, your roles, it seems are well up for grabs by any actors.

The holy grail of having a reverse role of an actor with disability just playing a non-disabled character is still very much a (screen) fantasy.

Alex Varley, CEO

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