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“When people see me, they say, ‘Man, you’re the only black actor on TV in a wheelchair. But I’m not proud of that. That’s unreal, to be the only,” NCIS: New Orleans star Daryl “Chill” Mitchell said Wednesday night on the Television Academy Foundation and Easterseals Southern California’s “Representing Disability in Storytelling” panel in North Hollywood.
Presented as part of the Foundation’s “Power of TV” series, the discussion also featuring RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad, Now Apocalypse), Shoshannah Stern (creator, writer and star of This Close), Krista Vernoff (Grey’s Anatomy showrunner), Jonathan Murray (Bunim/Murray Productions, Born This Way executive producer) and Katherine Perez (director of Loyola Law School’s Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy, and Innovation) posed the question of how to make Hollywood more inclusive for people of disabilities on and off camera when one in four people in America have a disability but are represented by less than three percent of characters onscreen.
Holly Robinson Peete moderated the panel and kicked off the evening sharing her own motivation for documenting her family’s life on Hallmark Channel’s Meet the Peetes: “I’m a mother of a child with autism. You might see people play autism, but you don’t often see people with autism just doing them.” Her son RJ, now 21, works as a clubhouse attendant for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“We were told he would never have a job, but this major league hiring my son changed his life. He went from growing up with no friends to having a whole dugout full of them,” she shared.
Mitchell could relate, as he is also the parent of a son with autism. Having turned his two-episode arc into a regular role as computer specialist Patton Plame on NCIS: New Orleans for the last six years, his son has worked as a PA on the crime serial for three: “They’re like, ‘This is my best PA on set. Put him on the job. That’s it.’ He’s so dedicated and they love him, sending a van every day to pick him up.”
Mitte recalled that when he started his career as an extra on shows like 7th Heaven and Hannah Montana, he wouldn’t even list his disability on his résumé. “Anyone I’d work with, they’d be like, ‘There’s something wrong with this dude.’ Then, they’d realize it’s just my personality,” he joked.
Mitte’s portrayal of Walter White’s son on AMC’s Breaking Bad was the actor’s first speaking part and was deliberately crafted as a character with cerebral palsy, based on creator Vince Gilligan’s friend in college. Having come full-circle, his role as a sculptor and love interest on Starz’s new series Now Apocalypse was written specifically with Mitte in mind. “I’m very lucky that both these characters have CP and that it’s just an aspect of who they are. It doesn’t define them,” he said.
Vernoff gave a shout-out to Grey’s Anatomy casting director Linda Lowy, who considers finding actors with disabilities a passion: “She tells me to write characters with disabilities, but that I have to give her an early heads up, the minute we talk about it in the writers room. I reject the notion you can’t have a great actor and an actor living with that disability. People just have to work harder to fix a broken system.”
To fill the role of a disabled veteran having a penis and scrotum transplant, Vernoff’s team found an actor who had lost a leg in recent years after learning most vets who need that surgery have lost one or both. “When he talked about what it was to go through this accident, the pain was palpable,” she said. “The truth of his story as he delivered it was really powerful.”
Stern, who along with Josh Feldman, her writing partner for This Close, are two of only three total deaf members in the WGA, stressed the importance of being the first and “chopping down the trees yourself to get the road cleared for those behind you.” Partnering with Easterseals, she and Feldman are launching a writing competition to help develop deaf and hard-of-hearing writers.
Hiring 17 people on set in front of and behind the camera for This Close, Stern urged that people in the deaf community just need a chance, as she and Feldman said, “Why not?,” to putting two deaf characters onscreen when two hearing characters are seen so often together. After screening at Sundance, Stern noted the importance of showing the portrayal rather than just explaining: “The whole key is to show it, not tell it. Only when they saw it portrayed did they get interested. Sundance Now went to buy another series, but passed on the first one after seeing ours.”
Murray echoed Stern’s notion that onscreen portrayals are essential to fostering understanding, as not only do “you feel good about what you’re doing” but can change how people see themselves: “Because of Born This Way, we’ve had people email us that they found out they were pregnant with a child that would have Down syndrome and the doctor painted a very dark picture. But they saw the show and realized it doesn’t have to be dark, that their child could contribute to a family, a community.”
Since disability and diversity have often been drafted as separate categories, Perez stressed the importance of intersectionality to creating authentic representations, as “disability on TV is not achieved when you have a whole bunch of white disabled characters.” Stern agreed that it’s the “same conversation,” with Mitte reminding the audience that “disability doesn’t discriminate. Anyone in the room could leave here and have a disability in 20 minutes. Everyone can be affected by it.”
Vernoff contended that she begs actors to submit for any random patient character, since nothing about a patient says he can’t be deaf or if he’s blind that he can’t have appendicitis.
Mitchell, who spent the first 15 years of his career as an able-bodied actor and the last 15 in a wheelchair after his motorcycle accident, praised shooting a recent episode of NCIS: New Orleans where every guest star and extra was disabled, teaming up to solve a crime. “We had disabled vets, amputees, paraplegic, quadriplegic actors inside of a rehab center. We played rugby and had the paraplegic team from the Paralympics,” he said. “I feel like I don’t need to do anything else after this. It really opened up the eyes of the crew.”
While he insists being disabled added “a whole other dimension to me as an actor,” Mitchell ponders that his situation is a “different animal” since he’d already “proven” himself as an actor first. Mitte encouraged that the industry has changed and there are more opportunities than ever to go on lacasting.com and “find a role that fits you,” while Murray suggested creating pipelines for disabled artists starting in schools. “We have to say to people with disabilities, ‘Think about being a television writer,'” he said.
As Perez commended the power of television to help move away from the pity model of the “bad and sad” disability narratives, Mitchell used the audience to cement just how much Hollywood seeps into the subconscious.
“Every time Shoshannah makes a point, everyone claps with their hands and makes noise instead of the sign for clapping. “Automatically,” he said. “It’s not being mean or hateful, but it’s a natural instinct. The same thing happens with Hollywood.”
The rest of the night, the audience ensured they used the ASL sign for clapping after the difference was pointed out to them. As Vernoff said, “The more of us that get brave enough to ask, ‘Can we change this?,’ the more change will happen.”
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