Big Smiles, Cute Tears: The Able-Bodied Actor’s Guide To Playing A Character With A Disability

In case you’ve been too busy talking about Nightcrawler or “working to provide for your family” this week, The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic, has been released in select markets, and opens nationwide on Friday. And while I have no plans to see it, for reasons related to ‘biopic’ and ‘biopic,’  it’s still a story worth discussing. Like The Sessions, Ray, and The History of Everything, The Theory of Everything features an able-bodied actor (Eddie Redmayne) playing a character with severe disabilities (Hawking). Before you start frothing at your keyboards, commenters, read the sentence, maybe the paragraph: I do believe that able-bodied actors can successfully play characters with disabilities. But when this disparity starts to look like a pattern, a pattern that is systemic and prejudicial and cruel, then let’s muster all of our strength, gather up all our courage, and complain about it.

Able-bodied actors who play people with disabilities are popular for one reason: they elicit our sympathy without provoking our fear. We feel for Audrey Hepburn wandering around blind because she is a kind, hot victim of circumstance. We cry for Daniel Day-Lewis rolling around in a wheelchair because he is a kind, sort-of-hot victim of circumstance. It’s an emotional rush, and an intense one. But the anxiety we feel from identification is relieved when the story ends and the characters become actors again. They’re not really blind, or deaf, or handicapped! Neither are we! Everything’s cool now! Paralyzed schmaralyzed! Let’s boogie.

To be fair, the issue isn’t a new one. There’s a well-documented history of able-bodied actors in cinema who play characters with disabilities. And they join an even longer history of straight actors who play queer characters (Jared Leto) or white actors who play black characters (Laurence Olivier) and ten thousand lady Peter Pans. It’s not that straight people can’t play queer people or men can’t play women (but white people probably shouldn’t play black people. It’s mostly . . . bad). The pattern is the problem. Americans love to watch high-powered humans play disempowered people. Distance creates safety. You can’t be threatened by a wheelchair when you’re standing ten feet above it.

Still, it’s hard to blame multimillionaire directors for wanting to make more multimillions on the backs of people with disabilities. There are only 2,200 registered actors with disabilities, so they’re clearly hard to find. For an able-bodied actor, the chance to play Stephen Hawking or Christy Brown is the opportunity of a lifetime. Disability comes in many forms: mental, physical, social, intellectual, sensory. The language is confusing. But the press: priceless. Here’s my ten-step guide for the amateur Sean Penns of the world looking to become the next I am Sams.


  1. Be really, really nice. Watching someone struggle with a disability can be really hard for your standard viewer. Make it a little bit easier for us all by showing that “just because you’re disabled” doesn’t mean you can’t be “kind and boring” like everyone else. Bullied? Harassed? You’re ok! Life might pummel you in the face with knives, but you’ll still keep that smile!

See: Forrest Gump from Forrest Gump, Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and technically, Sloth. From Goonies.

  1. Be brilliant at everything else. Having a disability might feel embarrassing at times. But there’s absolutely nothing to feel ashamed about as long as you’re otherworldly exceptional at five other things. Look at Gus, from The Fault in Our Stars. Sure, he might have been missing some legs, but at least he was: handsome, mature, and perfect in every other way. Forrest Gump might not have been literate but he sure could play ping-pong/rescue black people. Then there was Daniel Day-Lewis from My Left Foot! Sonora Carver from Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken! Rain Man from Rain Man! And . . . so many other people, please don’t keep me going, I am sad now.
  2. Die. It can be really hard to spend your life with a disability no one understands. But whether your like it or not, your life – and subsequent death – makes for great entertainment. Remember the kid with Down Syndrome* in Any Day Now? Sure, he suffered from tremendous abuse and neglect. But thanks to his death, he rescued a failing script from abject critical failure. It’s a beautiful formula. The more traumatic a story is (12 Years a Slave), the deeper we (always) (incorrectly) believe it be.

*I realize that the actor here does have a disability, but I get one cheat!

  1. Be unintentionally adorable. For many viewers, it can be painful to watch someone struggle with mental retardation on screen. But a great way to minimize the audience’s discomfort is to render the main character so wondrously childlike we totally forget they’re human! Sure, Arnie  from Gilbert Grape might never find true love or sustainable employment. But remember how he prematurely ate that birthday cake?!?! Awww, Arnie! Life with mental retardation is a non-stop adorkable mishap.
  2. Be unintentionally hilarious! You know what makes life funny? Clever writing? Great storytelling? No. Watching people with mental disabilities fall apart on screen is what I call humor. From the moment they’re born, to the moment they die, Americans never tire of the ‘retard joke.’ Remember Warren from There’s Something About Mary? Silly Warren thinks it’s okay to scream about masturbation in public. How stupid is he?! We all must be so much smarter than him. It’s a compare and contrast thing.
  3. Rescue the Rescuer. Sometimes, people think that people with disabilities have nothing to contribute to society. But that’s not true! According to Forrest and Lenny and Sam, people with disabilities make excellent doormats. Are you an emotional vacuum in need of a clueless puppy dog? Here’s an endless supply!
  4. Be crazy attractive. Remember that part of The Fault in Our Stars where Gus reveals that because of his leg amputation, he’s been left a virgin? Listen, pretty much everyone I know wants to bone Ansel Elgort – and pretty much everyone I know is a lesbian. So, no. Other examples: Adrian Brody in The Village, Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, James McAvoy in Not Really My Taste.
  5. Fall apart on screen. Nothing makes better drama than watching someone blessed with everything crumble into nothing. Remember how Tom Cruise used to play baseball in Born on the Fourth of July? Then he went to Vietnam and his knee popped out and he got an Oscar nom? How courageous of Tom to pretend to be paralyzed for two whole hours! Memorizing lines? Then saying things? What bravery!
  6. Connect to horses. Humans can be cruel and unforgiving. But horses – they’re just saints in disguise. For some reason people seem to think horses have higher powers, even though all they do is crap everywhere and make people paralyzed. Whatever. For further reference, see Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, The Horse Whisperer, ten thousand PBS specials.
  7. Whatever you do, don’t acquire a disability. If you’re an able-bodied actor looking to score an Oscar nom, please don’t catch a real-life disability. It’s too much for us to handle, and too little for us to fantasize about. Let’s continue to dream of a world where braces won’t hold us back, where all we have to do is keep faith, and keep running.