Last year on this website I wrote an article listing what I thought were the best physically disabled characters in film. I wrote it right around the time the Paralympics were ending and I simply saw a trending topic and went with it.
Of course, I knew there was sensitivity to the subject matter, but I thought that at that time, more than ever before, there was a distinct lack of taboo around the subject. The article did generate some pretty lengthy comments after a few days and a point was raised that I had been completely oblivious to whilst writing; not one of my selection of great physically disabled movie characters had been played by a physically disabled actor.
As I’d compiled the list completely oblivious to this point I stand by that previous top ten. However this further highlights the question – why aren’t more great physically disabled characters played by physically disabled actors?
The previous list can be seen as an indicator of blatant inequality in the movie industry. If a character were African American then an actor of African decent would be hired and definitely not a Caucasian person ‘blacked-up’. There’d be an outrage.
However, for many of the characters on my previous list there are valid reasons for the absence of a disabled actor. The majority of characters had suffered a disability as part of the story and therefore there were many scenes in which the characters were not disabled, therefore making the part nigh-on impossible for a disabled actor to portray.
Yet, I did give the number one slot to Daniel Day Lewis for his portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot. DDL did the part justice of course, but when you think about it there is absolutely no reason an actor with cerebral palsy could not have played that part. He even stayed in character between takes.
Another more recent example is the character played by John Hawkes in The Sessions, in which from beginning to end the character is paralyzed. A third high profile example which has generated considerable controversy is the character of Artie Abrams (played by non-disabled actor Kevin McHale) in the TV series Glee.
Of course, there is extensive debate surrounding all of these roles, but the fact remains that the work went to non-disabled actors when there are talented disabled actors looking for roles out there. Food for thought.
I hope this list shows there has never been a lack talent within the ranks of physically disabled actors, and if the roles in this list had been given to any other actor, then viewers around the world would have been robbed of some really incredible performances.
Also I hope you all appreciate I now have Glee in my Internet search history…
5. RJ Mitte – Breaking Bad
The advantage of a long running series, like Breaking Bad, over a single feature length movie is time. A character can not only be given depth but can actually change and develop throughout. Breaking Bad stands as prime example of this, with Walter White’s transition being almost hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t watched the series in full.
RJ Mitte’s character, Walt White Jr, has been a key part of the series the entire way through, sometimes as necessary comic relief but often as a key grounding tool for the main character who has to remain a family man whilst also becoming a ruthless drug dealer. Walt Jr had to be something that it would be awful for the main character to lose or abandon and the audience have to relate to this for the main premise of the show to work.
The actor who plays Walt Jr, RJ Mitte, actually also has cerebral palsy, although it affects him to a lesser extent than Walt Jr. He was actually required to learn to use crutches and emphasise his condition for the character.
Throughout Breaking Bad little fuss is made about the character’s disability, with many of his starring moments revolving around him dealing with his father’s cancer or being a typical teenage boy by adopting crap nicknames, learning to drive and desiring ridiculously cool cars.
In truth, the character could have cerebral palsy or not; there’d really be very little difference to the story and likability of the character, yet RJ Mitte is irreplaceable in the role and plays the oblivious and amiable son to the lead character perfectly.
This article was first posted on March 11, 2013