On 13th January Newsnight featured a segment on disabilities in acting and film making. The debate focused on criticism of the recent Stephen Hawking film, ‘The Theory of Everything’ where the lead part of Stephen is played by Eddie Redmayne. The complaints were about disabilities – how could Eddie, an able bodied healthy actor who does not have ALS possibly know how someone with ALS would feel? How can you act a part if you don’t have the disability or condition yourself?
The argument stemmed from an article by Frances Ryan in the Guardian “We wouldn’t accept actors blacking up so why applaud cripping up?”
Cripping up? The phrase leaves me feeling uncomfortable before I have even read the article and is a strange choice of word to use in the headline of a piece discussing the negativity in how we see disability. It’s a horrible word. Cripple. But for many, disabilities make us feel bad, we don’t feel comfortable with it, it’s not something we want to see.
Frances was arguing that disabled actors should play the parts of disabled people in films, plays etc.
It struck me as a particularly ineffective argument as that is exactly what actors do. They act a part how they think the person would behave, feel, react. The really good actors do their research and have great empathy skills. That’s what they’re good at. They don’t need to actually have murdered someone to play a murderer. They don’t need to have been married to play someone who is married. They don’t need to have ALS to play someone with ALS.
I do get the point that disabled actors are hardly ever represented in films and television. We all know someone who is disabled but you very rarely see parts for disabled actors in plays and soaps. Why is that? Are they auditioning for parts but not getting cast? It’s a very complex subject as films are all about money and the lead actor is often what brings in the punters.
To see the life of Stephen Hawking celebrated in this film strikes me as a huge win for disabilities. He is an incredible man who has defied all the the doctors predictions about life expectancy and quality of life. Motor Neurone disease or ALS has to rank up there with the worst conditions you could be diagnosed with.
Newsnight also welcomed actor RJ Mitty from Breaking Bad to the show; he not only has mild cerebral palsy himself, he also plays a character in the series who also has cerebral palsy. Brilliant casting! A very handsome young man too which must have helped him get the part – He was so calm and confident for one so young he put across very valid points about his views on the subject. He doesn’t think an actor necessarily needs to have a disability, just a skill for acting and empathy for what that disability might be like.
Evan Davies suggested it was perhaps more to do with RJ’s good looks and acting that he got the part. What about people not blessed without a movie star image? The film industry is all about attractive people. A sad but true fact.
One of the things RJ said that really stuck in my mind was that as a nation we need to realise that disabilities are normal. For those of us living with a disease whether that is being blind, having diabetes, allergies or epilepsy, the condition is just normal life. It might be frustrating to live with and we might feel angry with life at times but everyone has stuff they aren’t happy about. It’s just life.
So true. My allergies may be serious, they may be life threatening, but living with that knowledge and taking measures to stay safe on a daily basis is my ‘normal’.
He also said disability affects every race and nationality, not just white people or black people. This comment came after a discussion about black parts, namely Othello, being played by a white actor. This rarely happens now like it used to. The example of the film Gandhi was highlighted where the part was played by a white actor, Ben Kinsley when Ghandi was in fact not a white man, he was an Indian. Well after some research by my Mother it appears Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji and was half Indian so Evan – Newsnight – you need to do your research!
RJ finished by saying, “As long as the actor is able to give an accurate and honest portrayal of what that disability means to those who live with it, that’s OK.”
He felt that the reason people with a disability aren’t often seen in acting parts is because they don’t have a lot of confidence. Not because they don’t want to act, can’t act or are not good enough. RJ was unknown when he got the part in Breaking Bad so he is hopefully a good omen for the future – maybe we will see more disabled actors playing the parts of disabled people in future.
I think disabilities are seen as a bit of a weakness, especially allergies. I would often rather not tell people about mine unless I really have to because I’m always a little embarrassed they will think I’m going to a freaky, fussy, nutcase.
What we need is disabilities and differences to be seen as normal
Anyway, the point I wanted to make was about allergies portrayed in the media or the lack thereof. Despite the fact that over 2% of the adult population has a real allergy and 30-40% of children, this is not portrayed on TV, radio or media. There is hardly ever a character with an allergy that is just part of the show, just normal life. This is part of the reason people don’t know about allergies.
The same goes for disabilities and any facial or body differences. Despite the fact that there are many many people living with these challenges, they are rarely seen as ‘normal’ in films and on TV. Just in normal parts and happen to need a wheelchair, or have visible eczema, or asthma or allergies. We need more of this representation of all of us, not just beautiful perfect actors and actresses.
If we can see ourselves portrayed like this it will be so much easier for us to be visible, vulnerable and honest in public with our friends and family, and in turn, easier for them to empathise and understand our conditions. When we are hidden from public view and we then in turn hide our problems because no one wants to see them or hear about then, the problems just perpetuates.
It was great to see Last Tango in Halifax with an actress with a peanut allergy. On the whole the way this was portrayed was spot on. Not a huge thing but something she needed to mention when someone else offered to prepare her some lunch. Sadly they’ve just killed her off (not due to the peanut allergy – she got run over) so she’s not in it anymore :o(
What are your views on this? Are disabilities something an actor needs in order to play a part? Should disabilities be shown more on our screens and radio? Why aren’t they? And what about allergies in media, television and films? Almost non existent. And are allergies a disability? I have written about this many times before and links to previous posts can be found below under ‘Related Posts’.
Is topical steroid withdrawal and chronic eczema a disability
Having been going through topical steroid withdrawal now for three years, it has effected every part of my life, yet isn’t recognised as a real condition in most parts of the medical profession and doesn’t qualify for disability allowance. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to keep working, from home and freelance, but it’s so hard. I spend so much of my day over heated, cooling down, itching, scratching, ice packing, deep breathing. The world better watch for what i can achieve when I’m running on full power!
Certainly living with life threatening allergies is frightening, expensive, affects everyone who lives with and knows you well. Having the fear of anaphylaxis is not something I would wish on anyone. Panic attacks have made this harder to cope with but I’m learning how to breathe through those.
Living with a visible skin condition like eczema too is hard, and rarely sees represented anywhere in media, on TV or in characters in films.