Disabilities and Diversity: A Casting Crisis

Lack of representation is finally coming to the forefront of the entertainment industry’s collective consciousness...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Both industry insiders and the public have continued to force the issue of representation over the last two years: Samuel L. Jackson criticised Black British actors’ portrayal of Black American characters, particularly in Selma and Get Out. Sections of the film-going public were also outraged over Scarlet Johannsson’s ‘white-washed’ casting in the Ghost In The Shell remake, and then she scored strike two with the LGBT backlash to her casting as trans crime boss Dante Gill in the (now on-hold) Rub And Tug drama.

Most recently though, it’s the case of Stranger Things’ star Charlie Heaton being cast as The Elephant Man for the BBC’s new television adaptation, due in 2019, which has caused a kerfuffle. The reasoning? Heaton himself is able-bodied and does not suffer from neurofibromatosis as his muse Joseph Merrick once did. Thankfully.

With the lack of diversity being just one of the ways in which the entertainment industry is currently being taken to task, it didn’t take disability charity Scope long to weigh-in on Heaton’s casting. Speaking to the Guardian, Scope’s head of communications, Phil Talbot, said; “It’s disappointing that a disabled actor has not been cast in the remake of The Elephant Man, as it’s one of the most recognisable films to portray a disabled character.”

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At this point we’re contractually obligated to mention Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn as cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot and Eddie Redmayne’s Dr Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything.

Talbot then went on to highlight the difficulty that disabled actors have in accessing auditions, both in terms of being considered by casting agents and being physically able to access the building in question. As in, they literally can’t get through the door. It (hopefully) goes without saying that casting calls need to be far more inclusive to enable those with disabilities to also be considered for available roles.

This lack of accessibility throws up something of a vicious circle around the whole casting situation. If those with disabilities are unable to see disabled role models on screen, then it no doubt seems unattainable that they themselves could one day end up onscreen. If unable to access the casting, how can actors with a disability hope to rise to leading actor status, with which to challenge the able-bodied for disabled roles?

In reality, who plays who shouldn’t matter. An actor is a person who portrays another character in a performance. With that in mind, this writer has no issue with an able-bodied actor taking on the role of a disabled character. By the same token, a disabled actor should also be able to play what would ordinarily be considered an able-bodied role if it doesn’t excessively impact upon the intended narrative.

The thought process behind controversial castings are usually attributed as being concerned with the production needing a named-actor to insure audience interest. And that seems to be the most crucial aspect that goes undiscussed. The most striking area of this argument is that the calls for representation in film – whether it’s disability, race, gender or identity – seem to only be all about the headliner, the leading actor, the star.

This is no doubt due to high-profile instances of insensitive or inappropriate castings getting all the coverage. Whereas it would seem natural and fitting for an actor with neurofibromatosis to portray Joseph Merrick instead of Charlie Heaton, surely the more pressing issue is to have realistic representation throughout the entirety of the casting process. That is, from the extras all the way up to the star.

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Whatever you’re watching, almost every onscreen street scene is blocked out with able-bodied actors milling about the place without a disabled character in sight. Presumably, including actors with visible disabilities would be too distracting to the poor old viewer. Bless ‘em!

Why aren’t actors with disabilities playing roles which don’t play on their disability. In fact, whilst we’re at it, why aren’t trans actors? What about those who are openly gay? What about those with foreign accents?

Fittingly, Stranger Things itself does an admirable job of this, with the character of Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) openly suffering from cleidocranial dysplasia (a genetic disorder which inhibits the growth of teeth and gums). Does his condition really play into the narrative though? He gets bullied because of his appearance early on but other than that…the gang have got bigger fish to fry.

Ironically, if Matarazzo had instead been cast as The Elephant Man instead, it would have been a solid statement which cemented him as a bona-fide star and provided a role model for aspiring disabled actors everywhere.

Taking that lead then, surely audiences could be credited with enough intelligence to realise that sometimes a person in a wheelchair… is just a person in a wheelchair. No more, no less. A person’s individual circumstances doesn’t always have to be a character point to be played out:

“Oh, right! The female friend in the wheelchair? Maybe she’s the villain!” No, you’re thinking of Baron Greenback in Danger Mouse – she was just chillin’ in Costa.“OMG – I bet he’s missing an arm because he was the killer’s first victim.” Nope, that’s Steve from HR. He’s just photocopying.

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This kind of inclusion is what we should be campaigning for. What could be more of an inspiring message for the disabled viewer or actor than showing the audience that being ‘different’ doesn’t need to make a person the centre of attention or the focal point. They’re just another person in the crowd; as special or as unimportant as everyone else. They’re the bloke in front of you at the bank. They’re the woman out walking her dog.

In the case of the BBC’s The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick’s story of ostracisism and exploitation was turned into a marquee event: a circus sideshow which allowed the public to marvel at someone who was different from themselves. Today, those with disabilities seldom seem to either stand on the stage or sit in the audience, and instead are swept aside. The viewer experiences them through the filter of the leading actor or not at all.

True representation in the entertainment industry will only be achieved when disabled people’s stories are normalised instead of sensationalised, when the idea of what is ‘ordinary’ is replaced with a more realistic rendering and when a disability becomes a detail, rather than a plot point.