Representation in Hollywood has been something of a trending topic for a while now. Whether it's semi-recent, like cis actress Scarlet Johansson vying to star as a trans figure, or even more recent, like able-bodied Bryan Cranston being cast in the role of a paraplegic, there's a chance you've at least come across the notion that Hollywood should be striving to be more inclusive with their casting.
The news of his new movie, The Upside, has been making waves for its blatant casting oversight, with advocates stating the role would have been an incredible breakout for an actor with a disability who might not have a chance of succeeding otherwise in Hollywood. Meanwhile, several other actors have been vocal about Bryan's role and are working hard to change the way disabilities are portrayed in the film industry.
RJ Mitte, the actor who played Bryan's character's son in the unforgettable Breaking Bad spoke up about the controversy. "Disability stories need to be told and films like this wouldn't be made without a star like @BryanCranston," RJ wrote on Twitter. "We need to reach as many people as we can to change mindsets and remove the stigmas around disabilities. As a disabled actor, I am proud of his performance. #TheUpside"
The AMC series that brought RJ into the spotlight broke many boundaries by portraying Walt Jr., who like RJ, happens to have cerebral palsy, as a multi-dimensional friend, son, nephew and teenager who isn't defined or limited by his neurological disorder. Today, RJ strives to change the mindsets of the masses and remove the preconceived notions we hold about disabilities.
In a recent interview with Mashable, the young actor opened up about the hardships he's faced since Breaking Bad ended — most notably, the fact that he's had trouble securing roles. "Every good role and paying role that I was going to get, I was drooling in a wheelchair," he explains. "That was it."
He couldn't even rely on the success of the hit series in which he starred because "even then, as much as my character was normal, as much as my character was any person in the world, people still saw the crutches." Today, he and other young actors with disabilities are pushing to change the norm and make the roles of characters with disabilities less black and white, less hero and villain — because let's face it, our favorite characters are never ones we love or hate all the time.
Angel Giuffria is another actress who spoke to the media outlet about the importance of disability representation in the film industry. The self-described "bionic actress" and congenital amputee has recently made a name for herself with roles in blockbuster films like Green Lantern, The Accountant and The Hunger Games. But those are just the movies you've heard of.
She's has far more credits where she plays no-name roles like "hospital patient, bionic this, or amputee something," she shared with Mashable. And although Angel highlights the importance of getting "someone with a limb difference" to play these roles, she says the opportunities for actors with disabilities in Hollywood are often limited to parts that focus solely on their physical differences.
"That's not all the character is," she asserts. "That's not all I am. I'm a sister and I'm a daughter and I'm a girlfriend. And I would like to go out for more of those roles."
In fact, as much as there's been a recent push for inclusion in Hollywood, this has meant portraying different races, genders and sexualities — but they seem to be forgetting the largest minority of them all: disability, which affects 1 in 5 Americans today.
When the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative studied nearly 50,000 characters in 1,100 top films from the past ten years, the lack of disability representation was baffling. Of the top 100 films from 2017, only 2.5 percent of the characters had disabilities. (Let's not even get into how many of them were portrayed by actors who actually had disabilities.) When you compare this number with the roughly 20 percent of Americans who live with disabilities, the exclusion is jarring.
It also has the very direct effect of making disabled people's experiences seem rare or uncommon, when that's really far from the real-world truth. "We believe disability is a weakness," RJ says in the video. "We believe that it's an illness. That it's something we have to fix."
If we really want to change the landscape in Hollywood to feature more than the same white actors in all of the major roles, we can stand to learn a thing or two from RJ. "I view that disability is an asset," he says. "Disability is knowledge, it's power." "Pretty soon, 'Amputee Number 1' will have a name," he continues. "It will be different, and it won't even reference amputee, it'll just be a common thing. It won't be something abnormal."
As he views it, Hollywood's most important role is to "remove the stigmas around disabilities." The more recognition a star has to bring "as many people as we can to change mindsets," the more advancement the community will make. For these actors with disabilities, it's more important to see characters with disabilities as full, rounded individuals, rather than simple heroes or villains who are meant to elicit pity from their condition.
Our role as an audience is to consciously change the way we perpetuate stereotypes in people with disabilities and to refuse to adhere to the homogenous white utopia Hollywood is often tempted to paint, which is so far removed from the reality in which we live.