Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters?

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Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters? Graphic illustrated poster of a wheelchair using a film reel as the wheel of the wheelchair. The poster has the words

Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters?

On social media, many in the disability community demand disabled actors to play every disabled role, no if, ands, or buts.

In Hollywood, actors and directors defend their decisions. Why?

In late 2017, a film called The Upside was released in theaters, in which Bryan Cranston plays a wealthy quadriplegic man and Kevin Hart’s character is his hired carer. However, there’s one major problem with this movie: Bryan Cranston isn’t a disabled actor. This is nothing new in Hollywood. 

For the disabled community and, more specifically, disabled actors, hiring an abled actor to play a quadriplegic is just another blow. But I see why the casting choice was made. In the excited words of my mom, “It’s freaking Brian Cranston!.”

It was more logical, money-wise, to hire an actor with a name many people recognize rather than to hire a disabled actor that no one’s ever heard of.

As someone who’s been disabled my entire life, but also has a lot of knowledge of how film production works, I’m sympathetic to both parties. I’m also a Libra, the mediator of the zodiac, so I can blame my sign for not seeing everything black-and-white. 

On social media, many in the disability community demand disabled actors to play every disabled role, no if, ands, or buts. In Hollywood, actors and directors defend their decisions.

Regarding his role as a disabled man, in an article by Sky News, Cranston is quoted saying:

“As actors, we’re asked to be other people, to play other people. If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can’t play a homosexual?”

Cranston, instead of battling the criticisms or disregarding them outright, exhibits a genuinely open-minded and receptive approach, demonstrating a willingness to engage in discussions. Recognizing life as a platform subject to criticism, he embraces his role as a public figure leading the movie, even when dealing with delicate topics.

In his statements to Sky News, Bryan Cranston candidly acknowledges the pressing need for more opportunities for disabled actors in the entertainment industry. Despite this awareness, he also admits that his decision to take on the role in "The Upside" was driven by business considerations. As an actor, he embraced the opportunity to portray a character distinct from himself, even if that character happened to be quadriplegic.

Though I’m not saying he’s entirely correct, Cranston’s comment brings up a point about what the very essence of acting is: pretending to be someone you’re not.

Considering it was more acceptable for actors to play other genders, sexualities, and even other races, in the past, people didn’t really think twice when it came to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. Presently, however, there are lines actors can’t cross when choosing roles.

Why the push to hire disabled actors?

There are two reasons for the push to hire disabled actors: authenticity and employment. I’ll start off by discussing the first reason, so pull up your armchairs and get your overpriced Philosophy 101 textbook from college-ready, because this is going to get deep. (But not that kind of deep. Get your mind out of the gutter!).

Many people feel that if there’s a disabled character role available, only a disabled actor can portray it authentically. But what is authenticity? You can go down rabbit holes that are so deep you end up on the other side of the planet and still won’t find a definite conclusion sometimes

Authenticity and employment for disabled actors

'Maybe authenticity isn't the best word to describe what the disabled community wants when it comes to portraying characters with disabilities. Perhaps a better word is accuracy.'

August Pritchett

Okay, so I’m just going to be blunt and say what I think: there’s no such thing as authenticity in film, unless it’s a documentary.

Even then, it’s still organized so that filmmakers are telling one version of the story, making it appealing to audiences. It may not be truly authentic for Sally Hawkins, an abled actress, to play a mute woman in The Shape of Water, but RJ Mitte, who plays Cranston’s son with cerebral palsy in Breaking Bad and actually has the condition, has never been a meth dealer’s son. 

If you go with the argument that only actors who are like the characters can play them, then it can be argued that only a guy with cerebral palsy who has had a father who made and dealt crystal meth can play Walter White Jr.

Do you need to be a disabled actor to play an authentic disabled character?

Maybe authenticity isn’t the best word to describe what the disabled community wants when it comes to portraying characters with disabilities. Perhaps a better word is accuracy. 

Naturally, someone who has experienced the same things as their character are going to have the most accurate portrayal. At the same time though, an abled actor can do a lot of research into what living with the character’s particular disability is like and combine that information with the personality of the character in order to fulfill the role with as much accuracy as possible. 

Yet, there are the minor things that disabled people experience that can bring the role to its fullest potential.

A sighted actor doesn’t have the years of navigation by touch skills that blind people have. Sign language users are more fluent than those who learn it just for a role.

Paralyzed bodies move differently than non-paralyzed bodies. And so on and so forth. In addition, disabled actors will most likely have a deeper understanding of some of their character’s emotions if they’ve experienced the same troubles and victories in their own lives.

A close up of an Asian woman wearing an Equity Shirt.
Original Equity Shirt by URevolution

A lot of people complained that an actor with the disability should’ve been hired, but the only way that would work would’ve been to hire several actors at the various stages of progression, who all happen to look the same as a young Steven Hawking. 

Yeah, that’s a pretty tall order. There’s the magic of CGI, but that’s often very time consuming, difficult, and expensive to use for a character who’s going to be on-screen for the entire duration of a film. non-disabled actors playing disabled roles.

Another case I see for hiring an abled actor for a disabled character is when the disability, in particular, would be difficult to work with. Inaccessibility of sets aside, because that’s a whole spiel in itself, some disabilities go beyond physical limitations. 

Many people have conditions that give them chronic fatigue, aka “Spoonies”. Because of that, they might only be able to work on set for a couple hours before needing to rest. This might be okay for a more minor role, but main actors can spend ten hours or more working.

"Should movie characters in wheelchairs be played by disabled actors"

Is it okay for non-disabled actors to accept disabled roles

Like I said, abled actors can do research in order to give the most accurate performance possible of a disabled character. This would be fine (not good, just fine, like Ross when Rachel and Joey kissed in Friends), if there wasn’t an abundance of disabled actors not getting hired.

This parallels a broader issue of employment and disability. In the US, only around 36% of disabled people are employed. When there are a plethora of disabled actors out there, and directors choose abled people time and time again, it’s just not fair, especially when an actor is getting a lot of praise and money for playing a disabled character.

In June 2021, Jim Sheridan, the acclaimed director of the Academy Award-winning film "My Left Foot" (1990), candidly expressed his belief that recreating the film in today's context would require casting a disabled actor for the lead role. In an interview with Sky News, Sheridan emphasized the importance of finding a disabled actor to authentically portray the character, Christy Brown, whose life story inspired the film. He acknowledged the evolving perspectives in the industry on inclusion and felt a sense of duty towards representing disability with accuracy and respect. It is worth noting that Daniel Day-Lewis, who brilliantly portrayed Christy Brown, received the prestigious Oscar for Best Actor, solidifying the film's enduring impact and accolades.

Should only disabled actors play disabled characters?

Do I think that every single disabled role absolutely must go to an actor with a matching disability? Eh… Not exactly. Put your pitchforks down! Let me explain.

If a character in a film or television show isn’t initially disabled in the beginning, but is later on, then I think that’s acceptable in most cases.

Some films require the character to undergo a disability as an integral part of the storyline. To maintain continuity, the 'before' scenes, or instances where the impairment is 'cured,' necessitate a non-disabled actor. 

For instance, in "The Theory of Everything," Eddie Redmayne portrays Stephen Hawking before his Motor Neurone Disease diagnosis, while in "All I See is You" (2016), Blake Lively portrays Gina, who regains her sight after a surgical operation. This approach ensures seamless storytelling and enables the filming of scenes where the character is not disabled.

Another example would be if there’s a film about a character with chronic fatigue syndrome, then this would be an incident where it would be better to hire someone who has longer stamina. In addition, a film set might be sensory overload for some people who are on the autism spectrum. 

Rather than have a person be in an overwhelming situation just because they have the exact same form of neurodivergence, it would be better to have someone who’s better at coping or won’t get overwhelmed at all.

Judith Drake, an actor and director, proposes a counterargument to this, arguing that using CGI, prosthetics, filming techniques, and the actor's physicality to create the 'disabled' characterization. In this scenario, the same techniques could potentially be employed to portray the disabled actor without the impairment.

Another alternative would involve casting multiple actors for the same role, a practice commonly adopted in the industry to depict a character's aging, often from childhood. As an example, the award-winning Netflix drama "The Crown" implemented this approach in its 2020 series, where older actors were chosen to replace main roles, such as Olivia Colman taking over from Claire Foy in the leading role of Queen Elizabeth II.

Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters is a never-ending debate

Non-disabled actors playing disabled roles is an issue that the disability community has had enough of. It often feels like it’s us vs. Hollywood. However, instead of attacking filmmakers every time it happens, I think it’s important to evaluate the plausibility of hiring an actor with that exact condition. 

At the same time, disabled actors need to be hired more instead of choosing big names because they’re guaranteed money (psst, filmmakers! I bet you’d get a lot of publicity if you hired disabled actors in your movies.).

Rather than having a big divide between disabled people and filmmakers, there needs to be an open discussion, because I feel like there’d be a lot for all of us to learn if there was.

“Ideally, anybody should be able to play any body, but only when there is a truly level playing field of opportunity.”

Disabled actor-writer Mat Fraser

Article by
August Pritchett

August Pritchett, the author of "Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters?," is a disability advocate, a young adult historical fiction writer, obsessed with the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters? Many in the disability community say 'no, never.' In Hollywood, actors and directors think otherwise. | @Romy Block / Behance