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How Actors With Disabilities Are Changing Hollywood – Mashable Originals


I have people come up to me all the time, and are like, “I’m so sorry, but I just wanted to tell you: I think your arm is really cool.” And I’m like, “Why are you sorry?” Of course it’s cool, like I have a look like this and it has lights in it. Like, I know it’s cool. This is Angel Giuffria. She’s an actress. Or as she describes herself – a bionic actress. Angel is a congenital amputee and she wears a high-tech prosthetic arm that she likes to tinker with and customize. Angel has been in some pretty big movies over the years, like ‘Green Lantern’, and ‘The Accountant’, and ‘The Hunger Games’. I met Angel while she was in London to talk about disability representation and the dual struggle of getting characters with disabilities to be present in the script, but also not entirely defined by their disability. – How long have you been an actress? Let’s start that way. It’s gotten faster and faster. Obviously, it was like that first year I got one role and this past year, in 2018, I booked four roles, so. – What kind of roles are they like? – You’d be a wonderful showcase for the technology. That… That’s, that’s nothing. Say, if you check my credits, a lot of the time it will end up being like ‘Hospital Patient’ or ‘Bionic this’ or ‘Amputee’ something. Which, you know, those roles should have someone with a limb difference, but at the same time, that’s not all the character is. That’s not all I am. I am a sister and I’m a daughter and I’m a girlfriend and I, I would like to go for more of those roles. So this past year I had my first film that came out that had a role like that. I was… – Congratulations. Thank you! Yeah, I was ‘Flower Clerk’ and it was funny because I remember my mom going, “You don’t even have a name in it.” And I was like, I don’t care, I’m not ‘Bionic Flower Clerk’. So, you know, it wasn’t the fact that the whole point was about my arm, I was just a person who happened to have either a limb difference or a really cool bionic arm. And that’s what I am every day. TV shows and movies that feature multifaceted characters who just happen to be different from the norm are still pretty rare. – How’s it coming in there? ‘Breaking Bad’ is a show that really challenged the norm. – Fine. Walter Jr. is a major character. – Nah, he looks like a businessman. He’s a teenager, a son, a friend, who also has cerebral palsy. But the character’s growth isn’t limited by that detail, it only spurs it on. And that’s what made him so real and relatable. – I thought we were going to Cold Stone Creamery. So I tracked down RJ Mitte, the actor who plays Walter Jr., and it was pretty early in the morning I might add. My name is RJ Mitte… Oh, shit! My wake-up alarm. To talk about the watershed moment in disability representation that his character represents. For a long time, during ‘Breaking Bad’ and a little bit after ‘Breaking Bad’, I had to have kind of a career switch. Because every role, and every good role, and paying role that I got or was going to get I was drooling in a wheelchair. That was it. Those were the only roles. So it was either work as an actor or find a new way. Which – I had a career as an actor, so I had to, for the most part, relinquish that. I had a very successful show. I was on something that is irreversible, that will always echo through history. I could not rely on that. I could not utilize that, because, even then, as much as my character was normal, as much as my character was any other person in the world, people still saw the crutches. According to a study about Hollywood inclusion by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which examined nearly 50,000 characters in 1,100 top films from 2007 to 2017, inclusiveness remains an outlier. In the 100 top movies of 2017, 2.5% percent were characters with disabilities. But in real life, people with disabilities make up a significant portion of the world. In the U.S., 1 in 5 Americans falls into the category. So the exclusion of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry makes those people’s experience seem far less common than they actually are. A lot of times we have this way of making “disability characters,” right? The hero or the villain. There’s usually not that inbetween and with good characters – you don’t hate them, but you don’t love them all the time. Obviously, they had ‘Skyscraper’ come out recently with The Rock, which is great that they had a male lead that was an amputee – it was really exciting, but at the same time, the actor wasn’t. We’ve had such a diversity push to talk about different minorities, yet disability is the biggest minority and within that, you have other minorities as well, so it’s kind of frustrating that we get left out of the conversation a lot of times. But there are some notable exceptions. In fact, one of those exceptions is what got Angel the courage to pursue an acting career in the first place. I worked on a film called Green Lantern and I was doing extra work. It was back in the day, and I remember being on set, and they had to choose someone for a featured role. The director came into the room and just picked me and walked away. And I was so excited and then realized, had this dread of, “He didn’t notice my arm.” And he looks down and he goes “OK….” “Have you ever been late for class before?” And it was as simple as that. It was literally like, “Well, yeah.” And he was like, “Well, I don’t see why you can’t be represented.” Enter the wonderful world of Pixar. Or more specifically – ‘Finding Nemo’. ‘Finding Nemo’ came out in 2003 and its sequel, ‘Finding Dory’, in 2016. In both cases, characters with disabilities are not highlighted as different or abnormal. Instead, we get an inside glimpse of the types of challenges we all face as individuals. It’s given kids the ability to talk about, say, a limb difference specifically in a way that other kids will understand. When I meet kids now – it’s great. When I was younger, I had no way of explaining it because I’d say, “Oh, I’m missing my arm.” And they’d go, “Why?” Now I say, “Have you ever seen ‘Finding Nemo’?” They go, “Yeah.” “So you know how he has a lucky fin?” “Yeah.” That’s it. That’s all they need. They just needed to know there was something that existed that was normal, right? Nemo was normal to them. So things seem to be changing, and with productions like ‘Breaking Bad’, the new normal is adapting. And, like, it’s really not acceptable. People know it’s not acceptable. That’s why they’re changing the norm. And that’s why, pretty soon, ‘Amputee Number 1’ will have a name. And it will be different. And it won’t even reference “amputee.” It will just be a common thing, it won’t be something abnormal. With people like Angel and RJ at the forefront, the portrayal of disability is changing perceptions. But we all have a role to play in refusing to perpetuate stereotypes about individuals and refusing to believe that an imagined community where everyone is comfortably similar actually exists. And it takes time to change your mindset, it takes time to change a belief. Because these are beliefs. We believe a disability is a weakness. We believe that it’s an illness, it’s something that we have to cure. And we have to eradicate this. It’s something that we have to, like, fix. I view the opposite. I view that disability is an asset. Disability is knowledge. It’s power. It’s a personal challenge to who you are as an individual to grow past what you were yesterday.

17 Comments

  1. Valdici Author

    I would find this video to be an encouragement for people with disabilities & could pressure them to go out of their comfort zone, RJ Mitte explained it well.

    Reply
  2. Kobs B Author

    Some of the smartest people in history were thought to have high functioning autism. They define our world and are a part of our lives today. Pretty cool if you ask me

    Reply
  3. Ed Krassenstein Author

    It's almost like having characters with disabilities are rare, because encountering a physically disabled person is rare. Maybe Hollywood isnt against you, but you are actually only like <1% of the population.

    She a hottie tho

    Reply
  4. Matt White Wolf Author

    As an actor and independent filmmaker with disabilities (speech impediment, no facial expression, hard of hearing), this hits the nail on the head. We talk about diversity all the time and how important it is, but many times these talks leave out people who have disabilities. In order to truly be diverse, we need to start giving actors with disabilities the opportunities they need..

    Reply
  5. LuvableCharlin Author

    This is why I like the English word, disability. Just means there's something you're disabled to, something you can't do or which might "just" be harder than normal.
    In Danish we have the words handicap or suffering – both two very descriptive words, making you seem like a huge victim with no way of getting better and who's just stuck ish. 🙄

    As an autistic, I've noticed how autism is coming more in movies and TV shows, but we still need to have the female autism displayed though and a few less stereotypes.. I really loved Parenthood, which is just made perfect about it. 😊
    It's not just physical disabilities who's underrepresented.

    Reply
  6. SweetPete SweetPete Author

    I just asked on her official YouTube channel if she's coming to SD Comic Con as Alita but she hasn't uploaded there in 3yrs 😕

    Reply
  7. Lee Anne Author

    Thanks for this video I was hoping to see more actors but it's still good to see. I hope that we see more and more actors with disabilities.

    Reply

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