How Can The Entertainment Industry Fix Its Disability Representation Problem?

Debate about Bryan Cranston playing a disabled man in 'The Upside' feeds into a wider discussion.
Bryan Cranston in 'The Upside'
Bryan Cranston in 'The Upside'
Weinstein Co/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

In taking his role in ‘The Upside’, Bryan Cranston joined a not-so-secret (or exclusive) group of able-bodied A-listers who have portrayed a character with disabilities.

The film sees him play Phillip, a wheelchair-bound millionaire, and the debate surrounding it is not dissimilar to those which opened up when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson starred as character with a prosthetic leg, or when Sally Hawkins played a mute cleaner in the Oscar-winning ’Shape Of Water’.

With these instances occurring regularly, the discussions form a vital part of a wider debate on diversity and representation within film and television – and it’s a conversation actors with disabilities are taking the lead on.

When discussion about Cranston’s role started gaining pace, many onlookers turned to the actor who played his son in ‘Breaking Bad’, 26-year-old RJ Mitte.

Mitte, who like his ‘Breaking Bad’ character has cerebral palsy, is also an activist and patron for numerous charities, and somehow squeezes in presenting jobs too.

Perhaps aware of how people would value his input, Mitte tweeted a show of support for his former co-star, writing that “disability stories need to be told and films like this wouldn’t be made without a star like @bryancranston”.

But he was soon met with a backlash of his own. “I got a lot of stick for that from some groups in the community,” he told HuffPost UK. “[They were] saying that it’s not ok and that I wasn’t being supportive.”

Bryan is a huge actor who brings a lot of attention “in a great way”, Mitte argues, adding that he’s ”very passionate about the community, inclusion, social issues around the world and making an impact”.

“I find that what he does is very calculated, there’s always a reason behind it and it’s always a pleasure to see what he does,” he said.

The backlash was simple – many other performers within the disabled community completely disagree and one key point of contention is whether an able-bodied actor can ever begin to understand what it is like to have a disability.

RJ Mitte
RJ Mitte
Paul Archuleta via Getty Images

Byron Konizi is an actor who often plays characters with neurological conditions or learning disabilities. The 35-year-old is able to draw on his own knowledge, having suffered brain injuries of his own on three occasions, the first occurring when he was eight.

“How can you understand what it’s like to be in an electric wheelchair if you’ve never been in one?” he says. “A really good actor could probably get into it, but we’ve got enough disabled actors out there, we don’t need to do this. There’s plenty. There’s no excuse.”

‘Coronation Street’ actor Cherylee Houston – who has played Izzy Armstrong in the soap since 2011 – agrees, stating: “I’ve been a wheelchair user for over 20 years so I’m so over it that I’m not playing that, I’m playing the character.

“My historic knowledge of how to use a wheelchair and how people with disabilities are treated is 20 years solid.

“There are nuances that a non-disabled actor will never be able to put in or portray so what it’s perpetuating is society still getting this image of disability which isn’t based in disability.

“It’s based in a perception of what disability is, from a non-disabled point of view, which tends to be a negative or fearful one.”

Cherylee Houston
Cherylee Houston
Mike Marsland via Getty Images

Turning her attention to Cranston – and in turn, addressing Mitte’s claim that an A-lister actor getting this role is a good thing – she adds: “We have this thing in our community of ‘nothing about us without us’, so therefore, if you feel you can’t financially justify having us in the lead role then put us elsewhere.

“The problem is, he is coming from it as a non-disabled person, therefore his opinion of that disability is very new. That’s the point where society sees it as a negative [and] sees all the bad bits.

“As an actor, that will impact on your thought processes and your acting choices.”

To make matters worse, when non-disabled actors take on these roles, they’re often rewarded handsomely for them.

It’s been over 30 years since a disabled actor won an Oscar but 16% of acting Oscars have gone to non-disabled actors playing characters with disabilities.

The only way this will change is clear; more disabled actors need to be landing bigger roles.

To this end, Mitte says it’s “crucial” for budding stars to go for a wide range of parts, not just ones where the character has been written as having a disability.

“We all label ourselves in a way where we don’t realise it can damage us or it confines us to a box,” he says, stating it’s vital to challenge the producers and casting directors making big decisions in the entertainment industry.

“Those are the people that say the yay or nay on everything and it’s really so important to broaden their horizons and views on who you are,” Mitte continues.

“Having an open and broader view helps get these decision-makers out there, helps them grow and think, ‘You know what, I think that person is right for that role, I think that person can handle this’.”

RJ Mitte with Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in 'Breaking Bad'
RJ Mitte with Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in 'Breaking Bad'

But how does the industry ensure it changes? A sideways step into the world of TV brings us to ’The Assassination Of Gianni Versace’ star Darren Criss, who has vowed not to play any more LGBT+ characters in order to make way for actors from that community.

“I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role,” he said in December.

Similarly, Scarlett Johannson withdrew from playing a transgender character in another film, although she was initially defensive after being cast as a transgender man.

All of these changes came about as a result of conversations and while it’s perhaps not attracting attention in the way its creators intended, ‘The Upside’ has kickstarted a global discussion about representation.

“It’s is the number one movie in the country right now,” Mitte says, referencing recent US box office figures. “And it’s causing a conversation. You see the press and people thinking, ‘Well I’ve never thought of it that way’ or ‘I never had this view on that’.

“That’s the goal, that’s the point. It’s thought provoking.

“They [Filmmakers] can think, ‘Well people don’t like that’, and they can understand why. We need more things that bring that question up in a public and global way.”

One place these discussions are regularly taking place is Manchester, where Houston has spent the past 12 months organising regular meetings for the Disabled Artists Networking Community (DANC), which is part of the Triple-C collective.

“As an artist with a disability, you’re very isolated because you don’t tend to go down the usual training route and certain things aren’t accessible,” the ‘Corrie’ actor explains. “The whole industry is a catch 22 situation which is why we’re trying to address it as a whole. It’s writers, casting directors, agents, producers, every step of the way.

“DANC is basically about having a conversation between the artists with disabilities and the industry, to look at what the blocks are and talk about how we can make that change. We stay incredibly solutions focussed.

“What we’re trying to do is come together and share our knowledge back with the industry. I think the industry is really willing [to learn], they just don’t know how to.”

Industry attendees have so far included a casting director from the National Theatre, a producer from ‘Casualty’ and an Emmy award-winning ‘Black Mirror’ producer.

DANC’s successes are already starting to appear on screen as well, as two dramas airing this year will feature disabled actors, as a result of conversations that began at one of the group’s meetings.

In 2019, Houston hopes to build on DANC’s regional success by turning it into a nationwide network and is already in talks with the BFI about London events.

“Instead of banging your drum and both sides feeling attacked, it’s about all working together on this,” Houston says. “Because disability has been segregated from society for so long, people have got this fear of getting it wrong or saying the wrong thing. The drive is there to do it [improve] but the knowledge isn’t. We’re just taking that fear away by having conversations.”

See the latest updates from DANC, and find out how to get involved, here.


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