Talent agent Andrew Roach explores what good representation of disabled actors on screen looks like and why there’s still a long way to go
Last year, The Peanut Butter Falcon starring Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen, became the highest grossing independent film in the US and earned €22m at the domestic box office. Gottsagen also became the first person with Down’s syndrome to present an Academy Award earlier this year so there is a real hope that the film industry is finally recognising the importance of on-screen disability representation.
This is not to suggest that significant improvement isn’t much needed. A recent report examining last year’s 100 top-grossing films revealed that only 1.6% of all speaking characters had a disability. In fact, in the 92 year history of the Academy Awards, 61 actors have been nominated for playing disabled roles and 28 have gone on to win an Oscar yet only 2 disabled actors have actually won – Harold Russell in 1946 and Marlee Matlin in 1987. In comparison, since the acting award categories started at the BAFTAs in 1952, no disabled actor has won a BAFTA acting award, meanwhile 22 non-disabled actors have been nominated for playing disabled roles and, of those, 13 have won.
The Peanut Butter Falcon proved that a film with a disabled actor in a lead role could not only be a critical success but deliver commercially too. Adam Pearson, who appeared in the BAFTA-nominated film Under The Skin directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson, became the first actor with a facial disfigurement to play a lead role in the independent film, Chained For Life, which was helmed by disabled director, Aaron Schimberg. The likes of Variety and The New York Times gave the film positive reviews and it was released theatrically in the US and UK.
Broadcasters and streaming services such as Netflix have also started to recognise that not only do stories about disabled people deserve to be told but disabled actors should be employed to tell them. For example, Special, which is based on the memoir of Ryan O’Connell who also stars in, wrote and exec produced the series, premiered on Netflix in 2019 and has since been re-commissioned for a second series. Liz Carr played the lead role of Doctor Clarissa Mullery in the BBC’s long-running series, Silent Witness, for 7 years. Earlier this year it was announced that she will appear in the thriller, Infinite, alongside Mark Wahlberg. Mat Fraser and Ruth Madeley have recently played roles in BBC and C4 drama series. James Moore and Cherylee Houston are regular characters in continuing drama series on ITV – Moore won Best Newcomer at the National Television Awards in 2019. And James Martin was named as Best Actor at the New York City TV Festival and Hollywood International Diversity Film Festival for his portrayal of Conal in the short film, Ups And Downs, which was written and directed by Eoin Cleland and broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland.
The reality is that disabled actors are talented, ready, willing and able to work. The National Theatre and Spotlight’s video database, ProFile, of D/deaf and disabled actors proves this, with a significant number listed with professional training and credits. Therefore, what is required is equality of opportunity so that disabled actors are considered fairly by casting directors and producers for roles, and not just for roles which require the character to have a disability. Disabled actors can play fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, lovers, villains and so many other roles. In the UK alone, 1 in 5 (or 13 million) people identify as having a disability and deserve to be represented on screen.
Andrew Roach runs a London-based talent agency, Andrew Roach Talent Ltd who represent clients in the broadcast and entertainment industries. His clients include actors, comedians, presenters and writers who work across all genres. Andrew is passionate about representing diverse talent and promoting equal opportunities for all. You can find out more about Andrew Roach Talent here.
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