Minnie Driver on Playing an Advocate for the Disabled and Why 'Speechless' Is a "Conversation-Changer"

Minnie Driver is no stranger to playing powerful, impassioned characters (see: About A Boy’s Fiona), but her latest role as Speechless matriarch Maya DiMeo — a married mother of three, including a son with cerebral palsy — is in a league of its own.
The series, which is written and executive produced by Scott Silveri (Friends), begins with Maya relocating her brood to Orange County because the school there is able to provide an aide for her nonverbal son JJ (Micah Fowler.) Thanks to the aide, JJ no longer needs to attend special education classes, but Maya’s fight to make the world more accessible for him is far from over.
In the pilot alone, Maya told off a group of boys mocking JJ, staunchly opposed the fact that the ramp her son uses to get into school is also used to transport garbage, and labeled the word “cripple” as “hate speech.” While Maya’s ferocity and devotion to her child might have intimidated some actresses, Driver delights in portraying a character who is brash, unapologetic, and unwavering in her dedication to her children. “There’s something great about wanting to address an imbalance. I’ve always felt that,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter.
On a larger scale, Driver says she’s “proud” to be part of ABC’s increasingly diverse programming slate — which also includes returning comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat — and applauds the network for its “fantastic” support. Driver also discusses how working with Fowler has changed her approach to acting, how Speechless distinguishes itself from other shows with disabled characters and more.
What about playing Maya DiMeo was so appealing to you?
I like the fact that she was presented to me as, ‘Nobody wants to do this because they’re all scared of how unlikable she is.’ There was a lot of difficulty around the idea of this character. I was also very interested in the challenges of the perception of somebody who has to fight very hard. Why is that unlikable? Why is her fighting so hard considered difficult? It’s been really interesting, I love her. She’s pretty unfiltered. She does say inappropriate things, but everybody says inappropriate things, and everybody ignores some of their children sometimes and treats the others better, and then the roles reverse. We’re not perfect, and imperfection is interesting as an actor.
Is there a sense of increased importance with this role because of the underrepresented subject matter?
I would love to say it’s only that, but that would sound a little self-righteous. (Laughs.) It’s an amazing role. I’m an actor and I saw it was very difficult, and I also did see the resistance other people were having to it. When I read it, I saw why it’s a challenge. The tone of the show is very difficult to capture.
Then you add in the social element where, in a way, we’re doing a show and Micah has cerebral palsy and is a special needs actor, but actually it’s promoting that as a normal idea. That’s what’s interesting. It’s a conversation-changer as well, where it isn’t this special case scenario, but rather just a scenario about a family and this family's particular challenge.
In what ways can you relate to Maya on a personal level?
I’d jump under of a bus for my kid, I’d do anything. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my son. I think if you feel that way about your children, you would advocate for them to the end of the world. If you added to that a child who is, perhaps, supremely excluded from most of the activities lots of other children experience, you’re probably going to fight twice as hard. It was not that difficult to identify with Maya. All you have to do is key into what it is to be a mother, how much you love your child and that there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them. If my child were challenged, I’d do anything to make sure that was mitigated as much as possible.
Was Maya’s extreme passion and relentless drive intimidating to you at all?
No. (Laughs.) What was intimidating to me was really, really keying into what it means to advocate for a child who has challenges typical children don’t, and what that looks like. The funniest thing was talking to all the caregivers in the families I spoke to. Whenever you think you’re doing too much and fighting too hard, in my head as an actor, you’re probably just at the tip of the iceberg of what you actually have to do. You can’t really go too far because these women go too far and beyond every single day of their lives in fighting for their kids to experience a level of ordinariness we take for granted with our typical children.
In many ways Maya is similar to your character Fiona from About a Boy because she was also fiercely protective of her child. How has that show and role influence you?
They’re both mothers who are absolutely nuts about their child, but Fiona was a giant hippie. She was straining goat cheese and playing the ukulele and, clearly had some money to be living in one of the beautiful Painted Lady houses in San Francisco. Maya DiMeo’s family has no money, their house is a shit hole and it’s never going to be nicer. They’re poor and they’re probably going to stay poor, and that’s the very least of their concerns. Their concern is about life and about navigating life in their own way. It was a much simpler time for Fiona, a much simpler representation, but she was no less of a devoted mother.
Do you feel like playing Fiona first paved the way for you to play Maya now?
I think being a mother paved the way for me to play both these women. I feel like every woman should do exactly what they choose, whether that’s to have children or not have children, but if you’re playing a mother, there is something about having a child that gives you a fierceness and intensity about your love for that child. It informs your work. Henry [Driver’s son] is really responsible for my ability to do both of those parts with as much love and passion as I did.
Maya is a force to be reckoned with and a tireless advocate for JJ. What inspires that ferocity?
Motherhood is the inspiration, but so is the level of injustice you feel when you start actually hearing the stories about people’s lives with children with special needs. All their parents want is for them to experience what we would consider normal. ‘Normal’ is a dirty word in the disabled community because what is normal? But what I mean by that is, to have access to all of the things all children have access to.
Shows like Breaking Bad and Glee have brought us special needs characters before, but what do you think sets Speechless apart?
The kid in Glee didn’t use a wheelchair in real life, which I think is lame. Micah Fowler is a wicked actor. He has cerebral palsy, he uses a wheelchair, and he speaks — he’s not nonverbal — which is a big difference between him and the character he plays. He’s a fantastic actor, and I’m really glad an actor with special needs is getting to play a starring role in a comedy and killing it every week. That’s cool. That cannot happen quickly enough and I feel like it should’ve happened before, but I’m really glad it’s happening now.
I’m so happy ABC is doing this. It’s fantastic that they support not just the empty hashtag of diversity, but actually what diversity looks like up and running on primetime television. That’s really exciting.
Speechless joins Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat as the latest ABC comedy to tackle some form of diversity. How does it feel to be part of a larger movement like that?
It feels really, really good. I think about networks and the power they have with the content they produce to beam directly into people’s kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms. The idea that ABC is creating programing that’s not forcing a social message down your throat but definitely thinking about it and asking you to think about it, it feels like there’s consciousness going into it. I’m very happy to be part of that. I feel proud to take my son to work and tell him about what I’m doing. I feel super proud of the other shows on the network, and how they’re supporting us is phenomenal. I’ve never felt so supported by a studio and a network. It’s fantastic.  
How does working with Micah inform your performance?
What’s interesting about Micah is the level of presence and observation he has from his vantage point. There’s also a level of patience in having a conversation with Micah because it takes him longer to speak than you or I. He doesn’t speak as loquaciously as we do, but it is so fantastic to just slow the hell down and have a conversation that proceeds at a different pace. It also made me think about how I work, and how much is about listening and observing before you start making big decisions about performance. He’s a really interesting actor, it’s definitely teaching me about acting. He’s such a charmer.
What do you hope viewers take away from the show?
I really hope, first and foremost, they laugh. It’s a comedy. It should make you laugh, it should make you feel, and hopefully it will make you think, but not too hard. We’re offering up entertainment and I don’t think the social message is going to be forced down people’s throats. I think this is a show for everybody. It’s about a middle class family who don’t have any money, who move to a nice neighborhood so their kids can qualify to go to the good public school. I think that’s the story of many families in America today. It’s pretty simple in it’s roots, it’s a family comedy. I hope it makes people feel like they recognize these characters and I hope they laugh.
Speechless airs Wednesday nights at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.