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Opinion: Should disabled characters be played by disabled actors?

‘I’m really not a fan of hiring someone because they have or have not got a disability and I, for one, would not like to be hired for a job on that basis,’ writes filmmaker Paddy Slattery.

Paddy Slattery

I’m a filmmaker who also happens to have a disability. I have quadriplegia and I’m a writer, director and a producer of films. So it’s no surprise that the question of whether disabled roles should be played by disabled actors crops up in conversation regularly.

This is a very contentious subject but the fact that this topic is being discussed is a promising indication of progress in our industry.

What was once an exclusive club for people without disabilities and many others besides, is fast becoming a more diverse and inclusive community for anyone with a creative or artistic disposition.

So, casting actors without disabilities to portray characters with disabilities – yay or nay?

Well, the answer is not as straight-forward as we’d like to imagine and a couple of reasons for this spring to mind.

The Bottom Line

If a producer is making a big budget movie which can be anywhere from €15 million to €200 million, their first priority is not always artistic integrity or authenticity, regardless if the central character has a disability. It’s all about the ‘bottom line’.

Can this film turn a profit, or at least make back the money it got from its investors?

Films would not be made without financial investors, nor would we have an industry to work in. So how do producers secure that funding? They have to convince the potential investors that this film is highly likely to succeed.

And how do they convince them of that? By hiring a crew and cast with a proven track record. That is how the business model works and in that sense, it really is nothing personal.

If a producer has to hire an actor to portray a character with an intellectual disability and they are presented with a choice, to hire a completely unknown yet competent actor with an intellectual disability or to hire someone like, let’s say Sean Penn, and get him to impersonate a character with an intellectual disability?

They will hire Sean Penn every time. Because for one thing Sean Penn is a great actor but more importantly Sean Penn can sell a movie.

The exception to that rule is if the budget is small enough that the financial risk is minimal. Or if the director is adamant about putting authenticity before profitability.

That said let’s say that competent actor with the intellectual disability also happens to have a huge fanbase. Well then that actor is not such a financial liability anymore and their hire-ability has increased substantially.

It really is nothing personal. This is show business, not show kindness.

Complexities

But the complexities of this question don’t stop there.

Who are we to say that Sean Penn has no right to portray someone with a disability? That’s his job – to portray people who he is not -and he’s pretty good at it too. 

Furthermore, if we say that only disabled actors can play disabled roles – then where do we draw the line? Should we only ever cast bald actors to portray characters affected by baldness?

Another way to look at this issue is to put yourself in the shoes of the filmmaker for a moment. Picture this hypothetical scenario and decide for yourself what you would do in this situation.

Let’s say you have been offered €100,000 to produce an advert for running shoes.

In the ad, we see a secretary sitting behind their desk, speaking on the phone to their friend. We don’t ever see the secretary’s legs, just hear them discussing a marathon and saying that they need to buy new running shoes.

So, as the producer of the ad, you must cast an actor to play the role of the secretary. 

Ten actors turn up to the auditions, nine of them are able-bodied actors with less than average acting skills but one paraplegic actor has brilliant acting skills. The paraplegic actor is more than capable of portraying the secretary, as they will not be required to walk in the advert.

Who do you cast? One of the nine bad actors and you risk losing your job for producing a substandard product? Or the one great actor, who you know will do a brilliant job?

Would it be unethical to cast the paraplegic actor to portray an able-bodied character – or is this a case where common sense and practicality must prevail?

I’m really not a fan of hiring someone because they have or have not got a disability in the name of political correctness and I, for one, would not like to be hired for a job on that basis.

If I felt I was best suited to the job then hell yeah, draw up a contract. Otherwise, I believe the acting job should go to the best actor, every time. 

Equal Representation

What I would like to see is a fair opportunity afforded to people with disabilities when auditioning for a role in the first place.

This is a game of numbers and unfortunately, right now, actors with disabilities are underrepresented in this industry and there are a couple of reasons for that.

Firstly, people with disabilities are grossly misrepresented in films as stereotypical objects of sympathy or inspiration, just like women of a particular age and body shape are stereotypically portrayed as objects of desire or Muslims are stereotypically portrayed as terrorists. 

These inherent prejudices are reflected in and propagated throughout our media, particularly the motion picture industry. 

Secondly, and sadly as a consequence of the aforementioned; acting is not commonly considered a career choice for people with disabilities so the number of actors in the industry is relatively low.

Thankfully, the times they are a changing and an increase in the numbers of disabled actors will soon reflect that.

Hopefully, this will, in turn, have an impact on the prejudices that permeate our industry and society as a whole – not to mention the cultural benefits from the new diversified stories that we tell and the art that we create.

I believe the real cause for concern is not how we cast our characters but how disability itself is portrayed in stories and this is something for our writers and directors to consider.
We’re tired of always seeing ourselves portrayed as being a burden on someone else’s life.

Having a disability should be as incidental to the script as your protagonist’s propensity for getting up in the morning or going to bed at night. End of story.

Paddy Slattery is an award-winning writer, director and producer of films and was nominated for an IFTA in 2015.

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