Disability in Film:
Are these the right actors for the job?


By Amber Brooks

A few years ago, I read a book called ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio. It was about a boy living with a genetic condition called Treacher Collins syndrome; a disfigurement of the ears, eyes, cheekbones and chin. As a thirteen-year-old with an interest in books, I thought the novel was amazing. Not only did it spread light about this syndrome, it taught the valuable lesson that people should be treated equally, even if they look or perceive the world differently to others. Therefore, I was excited to hear that last year the book was going to be adapted into a film.

There has been controversy within the media recently, as the actor that plays the protagonist, Auggie, does not have this condition. Eleven-year-old Jacob Tremblay needed to have various prosthetic makeups applied to resemble a boy with Treacher Collins. It was done so well that it was nominated for an Oscar for best Makeup and Hairstyling. As a healthy ‘normal’ boy, is it right for him to play someone with this condition? Additionally, does this promote inequality within the film industry, as the casting director could have cast someone with the condition? Would Tremblay be able to carry off a performance like that of someone who has Treacher Collins?

And this isn’t the only case of someone ‘able bodied’ playing an actor with a disability. A nomination for best actress went out to Sally Hawkins for playing a mute character, within Del Toro’s ‘Shape of Water’. As 62% of the biggest grossing films in 2015 portrayed people with a disability, then why aren’t there that many disabled actors playing these roles. (Statistica)

There are some health factors being considered when choosing the right actor to play the role. If the movie harms the actor whether physically or mentally, I believe that it is not right for a disabled actor to play that role. However, the choice to not take the role should surely be down to the actor, as it their body. Additionally, to cover the costs of someone with the disability, would the film companies be able to cater for it? For a financially driven industry, using a disabled actor would be a disadvantage when considering which actor to use, especially when it comes down to insurance. Whether for specialised equipment or if there is an accident on set, the sad truth is that they might not go through those extra hoops to cast the actor they need.

Even when it comes to opening night, there is sometimes little consideration, as in David Proud’s article, sometimes even the red carpets are not wheelchair friendly. This is a disgrace. As controversial as this topic may seem, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact point where the line is crossed. Surely, it’s just a case of the right actor for the right job. Yes, this may be a side effect of californiacation, getting the hot young upcoming star to play the role of that dude in the wheelchair. Speaking to others about this, one thing remains constant; if they are mocking the disability in question, it’s not right. There is a reoccurring stereotype associated with not only glamourizing disability but also that the mental effects such as depression run alongside with it. Using an ‘able
bodied’ actor reassures the audience that this is just another acting job and that at the end of the day, it’s just a role, and not reality. From the films that I’ve seen, and others may disagree with this, I find it wrong to portray these complex characters in this light. The difference between ‘the fundamentals of caring’ and ‘me before you’ are that in fundamentals it is taken in a positive and frankly genius light, and therefore that is the film I would rather want to watch.

Additionally, I believe that disabled actors and actresses already cast in film and television have my admiration. They are doing something great, and usually become the stars of the series (Tyrion Lannister is my favourite character in game of thrones) They are presented as these badass characters, that demonstrate that physical capability is not a setback, but something unique and a celebration of the diversity within the film industry. One of the less known Academy winners this year was the award for best live action short for a film called ‘The Silent Child’. As you probably can guess the film features a deaf girl, who’s world is changed when a social worker teaches the gift of communication. The main protagonist, played by Maisie Sly was born deaf and has deaf parents. This is an example of a film that should have got more recognition within the industry, as it not only
enlightens the viewer about the life of a deaf person but is also engaging and heart-warming at the same time.

On the topic of disability awareness, the able-bodied actors do try to experience the lives of people with the condition in question. Back to ‘Wonder’ star Jacob Tremblay, while researching the role of Auggie, he and his family reached out to a Sickkids hospital in Toronto to share their experiences of living with health conditions. He also organised a special screening of the film for the children there. For those children not able to attend in the theatre, this would be a awesome alternative whilst watching in their hospital rooms. Whilst getting into the character of Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’ Eddie Redmayne, he spent hours studying videos of Hawking, and met people who had ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease). In this case however, an able-bodied actor should be used as the deterioration of Hawking was fundamental to the plot of
the film. Using someone with Motor Neurone Disease would be impossible to recreate Hawking before his diagnosis. The many hours and days taken to recreate Hawking’s state conveys how committed Redmayne is and a fitting tribute nonetheless.

Overall, I believe that there should be a more diverse spread of people within the film industry. Either as an actor or behind the camera, there should be more of a tolerance. The sad truth is that it’s not just the disabled community underrepresented, but also women, LGBTQ+ and the ethnic minorities. Although there’s been more representation in the past few years, it is still not enough. Something needs to be done, even if it’s as small as supporting films with disabled actors. Using disabled actors should be more encouraged, as this may give a better performance. At the end of the day, it is totally dependent on the situation. Getting the right actor for the job should be the top priority, rather than the financial or social issues that coincide with it. As I have said before, this is an industry that tends to care more about profit then content. Representation of the disabled community, if it is done well, and not disrespectful, then it should be okay.

Hopefully in the future, there will be some change.