Disability Influencer Lauren "Lolo" Spencer on 'Give Me Liberty' and Authentic Representation

GIVE ME LIBERTY Still 1 -Directors’ Fortnight selection- Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

"Her story was not surrounded by how she overcame her disability to become this person at the end of the story," Spencer said of her character, Tracy, a social worker with ALS.

When disability lifestyle influencer Lauren "Lolo" Spencer was first approached about taking on a role in the film Give Me Liberty, there were plenty of unique qualities about the story to consider before saying yes. 

Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen's script about a medical transport driver named Vic who speeds through the streets of Milwaukee amidst riots, trying to pick up and drop off scheduled clients while also transporting his Russian grandfather and émigré friends to a funeral, is chaotic in every sense of the word.

Yet it wasn't the dark comedy or the spiral of storylines that first attracted Spencer, who is 31 and has lived with ALS for 17 years. It was the writers' initiative to make Spencer's character, a black female social worker with ALS named Tracy, have a story centered on the woman and not her disability. 

Ahead of accepting the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship during Thursday's Media Access Awards, Spencer spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her appreciation to this approach and the general open-door attitude that was provided on-set between actors and filmmakers in regards to accurate representation of disability and race. 

Can you share your casting experience for Give Me Liberty and why this project appealed to you?

Our producer Alice Austen was adamant about making sure they cast the role of Tracy authentically. Casting the role of Tracy was challenging for them because not only were they specifically looking for a young black woman in a wheelchair, they wanted her to be able to also play the role. So, they weren't going to settle on an able-bodied actress to play her role. My agent contacted me and said, "Hey, this indie film is looking to cast specifically a young black woman in a wheelchair. Would you be willing to read for the part?" And I was like, ah, yeah. I was totally down to read for it. Between Alice and our director Kirill, they really liked my audition. So the more we talked about the role of Tracy and we had more conversations about the role, I really was able to get the vibe and the energy from them how serious and passionate they were about making her character a story about who she is and not her disability. It's more Tracy is the social worker; she's sassy; she's not afraid; she takes care of her family — all these different things, and just so happens to use a wheelchair. That was the selling point for me that made me want to get involved and really risk kind of messing up the whole film because I never acted before. I was like, I'm taking a big gamble doing this as well. For me, it was worth it and I knew I was going to do my best. 

When first reading the script, what was your reaction to your character Tracy and the portrayal of her disability as well as the story overall?

When I was reading the script, the thing that jumped out about Tracy was that she was very unapologetic about how she is treated. She wanted to be sure that her and her fellow people with disabilities were treated equally, were treated fairly. If she had any inkling that something was about to go left, she was going to say what was on her mind and the way she wanted to say it, to make sure that she was heard. That's what I really appreciated about the character and how she was written. Her story was not surrounded by how she overcame her disability to become this person at the end of the story. It's like, no, this is who she is the moment she pops up on-screen. By the end of the film, you almost forget that she's a wheelchair user and you have kind of just already accepted who she was as a person. The wheelchair doesn't even matter anymore and that's what I was really drawn to. 

Then, the whole story in general about all of these extremely different worlds having common things about each other that ends up bringing them all together. That was what I thought was really dope. There was no one character who was written any more heroic or angelic or flawless than anybody else that was on paper. Everyone was on an equal playing field and so much that it was a very realistic chemistry that everyone ended up having, even on set. 

Are there disability stereotypes within film and television that frustrate you the most? 

Do we have the time? (Laughs.) The thing that really irks my nerves is what the disability community calls the inspiration porn perspective, which is telling stories about disability through the lens of… essentially saying, "Oh, my gosh, seeing them makes me feel better about my life because it's clearly not as bad as what they might be going through and how courageous and brave of them to simply exist." That's really annoying because it's so far removed from reality that I can't even… like it's just really annoying.

First of all, disability is the only minority group, and I heard this on a panel somewhere and it really struck me, that every single person in their lifetime will experience at some point within their lifetime. You could break a leg and become disabled. You can suffer from mental health all of a sudden. Anyone could get in a bad accident and now you have an SCI (spinal cord injury). On the flip side is also the perspective of we're trying so hard to not be inspiration porn, that we're over-exaggerating the way these characters speak and act and do things. For example, a party scene where the character with the disability is the one that's super drunk and having the greatest time at the party. The flip side that is happening is we're trying so hard not to be inspiration porn that they're not even writing characters that are realistic. The third one is that a story is still surrounded around the disability, how they overcome it, what they did to overcome it, why they're so great because they overcame it. The hardships that they went through to overcome it. You just hear the violins and the choir playing already.

With the backdrop of Give Me Liberty being Milwaukee, America's most segregated city, how do you feel the film handles race?

That's the thing that I think that the filmmakers did really well. That was the beautiful part about working with Kirill and Alice, is that they were so open to feedback, to what everyone wanted to be sure was represented authentically. When it came to race, there were some times where I had to be like, that's not going to come out looking right. 

There's a scene in which Vic, you and all of his Russian neighbors are in the van and he hits a black man's car and things escalate — the man demands cash immediately for the damage, Vic wants to drive off so he can deliver everyone to their destinations and you come into the conversation to, what it feels like, mediate.

That was actually one of the scenes where we spoke about Tracy's intention for butting into the conversation because she definitely butts into the conversation, but more so from the perspective of "shoo fly, don't bother us, get out of here." For me, I thought about, okay, we're in Milwaukee. It is to this day the most segregated city in America. I'm a black woman. He just hit a black man's car in essentially a black neighborhood. I still have to get to work. The riots are happening because of a result of police brutality. The last thing I want to see as a black person is see the police show up and another black man is killed in front of me, which is what I just witnessed on the news and what I witness all the time by looking on social media. That was something we talked about that Tracy's intention is more so to say, "Hey, relax, bro — get out of here before this does turn left, before someone does call the cops." Because I'm on a van full of Russian folks that don't know the language. All they feel is the energy. If anybody did get scared enough in this van, it can turn really, really bad. That was the conversation — when Tracy was telling the driver, "Yo, it's going to be all right, just go, trust me, listen to me — go, go, please." It was from that intention and perspective. That was definitely one of the scenes we've talked about that involved the reality of being black and in this country even still to this day. 

That scene could have gone in so many directions. How did you navigate that with the filmmakers?

That was one of the things that I was just thinking of from the actor's perspective — especially with having such a great duo like Kirill and Alice who are open to the authenticity of the characters — was being mindful of how is this going to read to black people when they watch it. Are they going to understand it? How are people with disabilities going to watch this? Are they going to understand it? Making sure that we don't lose the story that we're trying to tell because we want to make sure of X, Y, and Z. But to also take the actual time to make sure we get it right as much as we possibly could. So we definitely had those conversations. 

Code-switching is a real thing. There's a reason why the driver was the only person I called "bro" the whole time in the film because that's how we talk to each other. When I see a black guy, he's "bro," "homie," that's just the way we talk. Even when Tracy and Dima and everybody started becoming cool as like real friends, Tracy never addresses them like that because she just wouldn't. It's those little things that I'm hoping came across to people and some people picked it up. I know legendary actor Obba Babatundé, he screened our film and he gave me props on that scene. He was like, "I know exactly what you did there." He was like, "I can feel that you are more concerned about the driver than you were anybody else on the van."

What can audiences take from Give Me Liberty?

I think a good message that this film could leave people with is recognizing first that everyone is a human and person, before they are any other thing that, as a society, we put on each other. Then [also] just the message of being able to show disability and humanity. You can make stories about characters who have disabilities, cast them authentically, they do well in the role, and the story does not have to be about the fact they have a disability. It could be an element, but it's not who they are in the story. The thing that I really loved about the film is that the majority of the film happens in the van. In that van, optic-wise, everyone is on the same playing field, making everybody equal. That will also help other filmmakers they, too, can cast characters even characters that may not be written with a disability still cast talent with disabilities to play those roles. There's a way to show and develop characters that are humans and they just so happen to have a disability. It's like everyone on this van is trying to get to where they have to go and we just so happen to be having this insane crazy day, and we, at a certain point, have no other choice but to bond together to get to whatever our destinations are. That's what we're hoping the audiences take away from it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.