Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters? Many in the disability say 'no, never.' In Hollywood, actors and directors think otherwise.
©Elnur / Adobe Stock
Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters?
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?” He also admits that he believes his casting was a business decision, which the disability community on Twitter had a field day picking bones with.
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 abled actors playing disabled characters. Presently, however, there are lines actors can’t cross when choosing roles.
Authenticity and employment for 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.
“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.”
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 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.
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.
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. One example would be T.J. Thyne as Dr. Hodgins in Bones, when his character becomes paralyzed from the waist down late in the series. Another role, which generated more controversy, is Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the Steven Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. The film is about Hawking’s relationship with Jane as his ALS progresses, from diagnosis to being totally paralyzed.
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 and like 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.
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. If there’s a film about a character with a chronic fatigue syndrome, then this would be an incident where it would be better to hire someone who has a 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.
Should non-disabled actors play disabled characters is a never-ending debate
Hiring abled actors for disabled characters 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.
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