“Bull,” the new ratings smash on CBS, has hired an actual amputee to play a character missing a limb. I applaud this, to be sure. But why are we acting like it’s a daring move when it should be par for the course?
There are around 2 million Americans with lower limb amputations; we’re from all walks of life (terrible pun not intended and hopefully forgiven quickly). I feel strongly about representation requiring visibility, and, with all things being equivalent, casting amputee actors for amputee roles is a requirement, for simple reasons of authenticity and decency. One of my support groups, in a flagrant display of inappropriateness via attempted charity, was gifted tickets to Stronger, the Boston Marathon bombing movie that handles a double amputation via CGI. Everything about that situation smacks of emotional manipulation and inauthentic expression. That a bunch of folks in their first year of BKA status had tickets thrown their way just makes me even further predisposed towards film animosity. Anyway–didn’t Children of a Lesser God conclusively answer this not-quandary a generation ago? Conventionally abled actors don’t get brownie points for wearing a pair of green screen socks or dark shades and stepping into a world like ours. It doesn’t count. It’s blackface with wheels and shades and a cane. And it’s unacceptable.
And of course, my pal Alan just chimed in a moment of devil’s advocacy. Haven’t my WordPress adventures of the last month taught me that the devil has plenty of advocates?
We bounced from “Bull” to “The Good Doctor,” and from TCG’s piece last year on amputee stories in theater to the recent Broadway run of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime.” Alan’s son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in February, which Alan’s two younger brothers also have. We were talking ASD representation in comics last week, and settled on three X-Men who demonstrate an authentic portrayal…and that’s about it. Alan brought that back around to the current tv and theater portrayals of Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders; why aren’t there more actors and visible artists with these conditions in roles that demonstrate these conditions?
I had an answer for him, even as I wasn’t happy with it: the stage situation is one of consistency. Eight shows a week have to be delivered exactly the same, every time, to the tune of a hundred bucks a ticket. If an actor’s condition allows for him or her to do that, then yes, Asperger Syndrome doesn’t get in the way of casting the role. Otherwise, it becomes a difficult conversation in which a neurotypical actor assumes the part. I wish it were otherwise, but the regularity of playing the part for an audience takes precedence here.
What it comes down to: does a person’s disability or othered-ability enhance or detract from their ability to play a role and tell a story about their experiences from an authentic perspective? If it enhances that ability, tell the story. If it detracts from that ability, then it’s time for that uncomfortable conversation. Alexander Sharp and Marianne Elliott won performance and directing awards for “Curious Incident,” and a minor string of protests were set off when Tyler Lea was cast as Sharp’s replacement, the professional statement made by the casting agency making a version of my sentiments above; consistency and reliability at eight shows a week were the tenet that actors on the spectrum who auditioned weren’t able to guarantee. It unfortunately fell outside of reasonable accommodations. A recent production in Indiana cast an actor on the spectrum in the role, with significant accommodations made to bring this element into play. I wish I could honestly stand against the professional litany that claims this is different, but I can’t. Physical and cognitive differences have to be considered in separate continuums.
Alan also put forth people in entertainment who are often considered to be on the spectrum because of behaviors demonstrated, including Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin. And the slope gets even more slippery…I’ve worked with wonderful people who are incredibly successful in creative endeavors and employment despite and often because of being on the spectrum. It isn’t our place to put them there, though, or to assign them entry to a community they haven’t identified with or claimed. A diagnosis is required, as is ownership of that part of a person’s identity, as opposed to us watching tv and spotting links in behavior. The yet more slippery slope comes from self-diagnosis and ascribing community when medical professionals aren’t willing or able to do so. That’s a hair’s breadth from a similar experience to the ableist blackface I described above.
The bottom line of all of this: these roles are best cast by those who can authentically portray them, convincingly and professionally, and express the physicality of life experience. So hey, cast an amputee to play an amputee before Jake Gyllenhaal enters the room.