Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
In the newly released movie “The Upside,” Bryan Cranston plays a quadriplegic billionaire who befriends an ex-con-turned-caretaker. Cranston, an able-bodied actor, has been sharply criticized for accepting the role of a disabled character. However, Cranston has defended himself – calling it a “business decision.”
“As actors, we’re asked to be other people, to play other people,” he said during an interview with the Press Association. “If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can’t play a homosexual?”
I was a huge fan of Cranston during his “Breaking Bad” days. But now I’m truly disappointed in him. Why? Because he completely misses the point of the criticism. This is not a business decision. It’s an ableist decision, one that overlooks a key point: We’re in an age where so many actors with disabilities are willing and able to play these roles, only to be overlooked in favor of able-bodied actors.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first missed opportunity. Hollywood has a troubling history of casting able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities, including Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Sam Claflin in “Me Before You.” Redmayne even won an Oscar for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking.
In fact, recent statistics about diversity in Hollywood (or lack thereof) paint an equally somber picture. Over the last decade, there have been virtually no significant improvements made toward inclusion, especially when it comes to disability. According to a study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which examined the top 100 movies from 2007 to 2017, there’s been so little change, it suggests there is no “concerted effort to be inclusive.” And, as the Ruderman Foundation found in a separate study, 95% of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.
But for me, this is also deeply personal. As a disabled woman, I never saw people like me on TV or the movie screen. I didn’t see them in my favorite romantic comedies. I didn’t see them in my favorite sitcoms. I didn’t see them anywhere – not even in commercials. Instead, I saw able-bodied actors playing disabled characters.
There is an important distinction here. It’s easy to pretend to have a disability for a few months, knowing that you can get out of the wheelchair and walk away from it once filming is over. You will eventually leave it behind and go on to the next project.
But people with disabilities can’t do that. Part of acting is being able to identify with the character you’re playing, and being disabled is an identity, so no matter how brilliant the actor is, unless that actor is also disabled, the authenticity just won’t be there and the character won’t be entirely believable.
This is, in part, why I won’t be seeing Cranston in this film. It’s my small protest, a way to say I will not support taking potential roles from talented disabled actors. And I definitely will not support filmmakers who fail to see how their casting choices hurt the disabled community.
Hollywood would be wise to take its cue from those who are fighting for more inclusion. The Media Access Awards, for example, celebrates accurate depictions of disability in film, television and new media, while the Disability Film Challenge is an annual event that allows disabled filmmakers to tell their own stories in their own voices.
But we also need to see more actors make public promises like Darren Criss did recently. The straight actor, known for playing various gay characters over the years, won’t play gay characters anymore in order to make room for LGBTQ actors. And actress Jameela Jamil recently turned down the role of a deaf woman, saying “it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take that role and they should find a brilliant deaf woman to play that role.”
Cranston himself recognizes this need for change. In an interview with Newsweek, he said: “Why don’t disabled actors have more opportunities to be able to be play characters who happen to be disabled? It’s good to have that conversation.”
Cranston seemingly answered his own question: Because the roles are going to able-bodied actors like him.
It’s 2019, and yet when it comes to inclusion and diversity, it feels like we’re still living in the Stone Age. Representation matters – on the big and small screen. Hollywood can talk a good game, throwing around buzzwords like representation and inclusion, but that’s all it is. Talk. I’ve seen enough talk. What we need now is more real, concrete action.