American actor and activist Jamie Brewer arrived in Australia last week. She spent much of her time speaking about inclusiveness and diversity on screen, and collaborating with not-for-profit organisation Bus Stop Films to conduct workshops for actors who have disabilities.
Brewer is only 31, but has already earned the reputation of a trailblazer. Best-known for starring in the hit anthology TV series American Horror Story, she has leveraged her profile to rally for change.
Last year Brewer became the first model with Down Syndrome to walk the red carpet at the ritzy New York Fashion Week. In 2014, she successfully persuaded Texan senators to abolish the word “retarded” from state legislation.
During a year of heightened discussion around diversity on our screens, her visit can remind us that this conversation extends – or ought to extend – to more areas than race and gender. Correcting imbalances in these areas is of fundamental importance; correcting an ingrained prejudice against actors who have disabilities should not be excluded from our efforts.
RJ Mitte’s outstanding performance as Walter White Jr in Breaking Bad is a good example of authentic casting: his character is a teenager who just happens to have a disability. A similar observation could be made of Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones. The storylines that involve him do not revolve around his size.
In both instances, everybody wins. The show’s storylines are more engaging. The characters are more fully formed. The actors are terrific; it is ghastly to imagine non-disabled actors in their roles.
To say Australian screens have a long way to go in this field is to put it lightly. Performances from actors who have disabilities are few and far between. In the last decade, one of the best-known came from Danny Alsabbagh, an actor with Down Syndrome who played Toby in Summer Heights High.
In recent years, shows featuring non-disabled actors playing characters with disabilities include Packed to the Rafters (Kristian Schmid, pretending to have cerebral palsy) and films include The Black Balloon (Luke Ford, pretending to have autism) and The Dressmaker (Gyton Grantley, an unspecified intellectual disability).
Why weren’t actors who have disabilities cast in these roles? The argument (depressing as it may be) that these were business decisions doesn’t hold water, given none of these productions were marketed with these actors front-and-centre.
Anybody who has watched Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or films such as Annie’s Coming Out and Dance Me to My Song will understand that the producers missed out on a massive opportunity.
Nowadays, when we look back on a disgracefully racist performance like Mickey Rooney’s in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we ask ourselves: how the hell did that happen? In the not-too-distant future, will we look back on non-disabled actors playing characters with disabilities and ask the same question?
One of my favourite films from last year is Tangerine, a hyper-stylised comedy-drama exploring the lives of transgender sex workers in LA, famously shot using iPhones. When I spoke to the film’s director, Sean Baker, on the subject of diversity, this is what he said:
“As we know, trans people have a very hard time finding employment. On just that level alone, of being a decent human being, why aren’t they casting people who might not be able to get anything else? Secondly, in terms of where we are in history, isn’t it time representation and diversity in general is taken more seriously?”
The same logic can apply to other groups of people, including actors who have disabilities. I would add to what Baker said: not out of a sense charity but, as we have seen in the past, because they give superior results. Greater performances; more interesting characters. Australian producers can do better.