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Some of Hollywood’s leading entertainment executives gathered at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles on Thursday morning to speak out on the mental health issues that have in turn fueled some of their most successful projects in film and television. Producer Brian Grazer, Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, director David O. Russell and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos spoke on a panel moderated by Director for the Annenberg School of Journalism Willow Bay and presented by Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz as a part of the 4th annual campaign for the Child Mind Institute.
Although characters played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind or Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook have stood out in film, the panelists said their main goal is to erase the stigma and the hesitation that may come with accepting those with mental health issues in our society.
Grazer, who has dyslexia, said that 30 years ago, these “real moments” would not have been seen as often onscreen. Grazer can remember witnessing bullying at his high school, which he turned into scenes for his Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind.
“I saw actually in our high school a very popular kid had a seizure and he was completely stigmatized and then became kind of a pariah,” Grazer told reporters. “I remember him falling on the cafeteria floor and I remember it so vividly. In A Beautiful Mind, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe was walking and a kid mocks him and it was all generated from that moment that I saw Nicky on the ground.”
The panel was sprinkled with comedic relief from Russell who explained why he wanted to “de-hangoverize” Cooper and root for the underdog in Playbook, which is inspired by his bipolar son.
“These two losers come to the house of these winners, but I love the losers,” said Russell of Jennifer Lawrence and Cooper’s characters in the film. “The losers are the ones you don’t expect. It’s an exciting story. I always say it’s a gift from my son to me.”
Russell who says he often has discussions with Grazer about their kid’s mental health issues turned to Grazer and expressed that he wouldn’t have been ready to direct A Beautiful Mind at the time Grazer worked on it. Although Russell said he would be interested in making another film on such health issues, he says what young people like his son need right now are more resources.
“I see these people as exaggerated versions of ourselves,” said Russell. “I feel that what they live by we all must live by, they just need much more and my son has taught me that.”
The panelists shared that they are still taken aback when they hear stories from families who praise how much their projects have helped them to deal with their own kid’s mental health issues or simply relate to people they know who have them. They were all in agreement that they believe their films and TV shows have had improved the awareness of these health issues.
“I think there is more of an awareness of it, “ said Katims. “To me it’s a good barometer for me and for my wife as a family of the people that you want to be around. The people that are not tolerant or don’t get it, those are good people to let go of.”
Sarandos added that Ricky Gervais’ character’s mental illness in Netflix’s Derek is rarely mentioned to show that these characters represent people just like anybody else. With Sarandos leading a top entertainment subscription service, he believes that he has a responsibility to portray these issues on television.
“We never saw them, they had a different lunch hour so there was no opportunity to get to know them and their stories and their lives and what role they were going to play in our adult lives as we get older so I get we get to use that platform to get to try something new, said Sarandos. “It’s our responsibility to do it in a way that people can learn from it without being preached to.”
Katims hopes that his characters on Parenthood will continue to be positively accepted by the show’s audience, whether they can spell Asperger’s correctly or not.
“On the night Parenthood aired, the word Asperger’s was most Googled or various misspellings of the word. The best was ‘ass-burgers.’”