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Ash Atalla, an award-winning producer of series like The Office and The It Crowd, is calling out the industry’s hiring of non-disabled actors to play disabled characters.
Atalla, who spoke to the U.K.’s Sunday Times for a recent interview, says it still shocks him that — despite ongoing conversations and objections from the disability community — Hollywood continues to participate in “cripface,” or the act of casting non-disabled talent to portray people with disabilities in various TV and film projects.
“That should be rule one: don’t put walking people in a wheelchair for television. Ever,” he said. “It shocks me that Bryan Cranston played a quadriplegic in The Upside in 2017. Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking was just about forgivable as the film had Hawking pre-wheelchair, but it was still iffy.”
The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning producer says that despite recent gains by other marginalized groups in Hollywood, disabled characters continue to be defined by their disability while talent has struggled to break into the conversation, even after the reckoning Hollywood faced following George Floyd’s death and the social justice protests that spurred other actions in the industry.
“Blackface wasn’t OK nine years ago, but no one said anything,” he says. “The anger that George Floyd’s death inspired has been hard for the disability movement to galvanize.”
Atalla also reflected on his own treatment within the industry during the interview, specifically while working as a trainee BBC producer on the BBC Two’s The Office. He said that Ricky Gervais made him feel “a little bit uncomfortable” with the jokes The Office creator and star made about him, which included referring to Atalla as “my little wheelchair friend.”
“There was a period of late ’90s comedy with the likes of Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle where the game was — see what you could get away with and then reverse intellectualize it,” he said. “Those jokes didn’t bother me at the time, but they would if they happened now. I wouldn’t allow so many jokes to be made about my wheelchair, I wouldn’t want to be defined by that.”
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Ricky Gervais’ representatives for additional comment.
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