Depictions of disabilities onscreen shift away from ‘people who are to be pitied’

Andy Serkis’ movie Breathe avoids treating disabled people onscreen as victims, and did extensive research to be true to the story.

The film, directed by actor Andy Serkis, stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. (Elevation Pictures/TIFF)

Before directing the new film Breathe, about a paralyzed polio survivor who chooses to live outside of the hospital system in the 1950s, Andy Serkis was familiar with the lives of those with disabilities.

His sister has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, and his mother taught disabled children, so Serkis grew up seeing many patients with polio, spina bifida and other conditions.

Serkis also co-founded the Imaginarium Studios with Jonathan Cavendish, whose father was the very polio sufferer portrayed by Andrew Garfield in Breathe, now in theatres.

“So there were many reasons for wanting to make this film,” said Serkis, who’s known for his performance-capture roles including Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot series.

“This film was about looking at the difference in attitude toward being disabled in 2017 and in the 1950s, when they were considered ‘other,’ basically. They were considered to be kept out of sight and out of mind and kept comfortable but with no possibility of becoming a normal part of the human race, no sense of equality.”

Breathe is one of several new or upcoming films featuring characters with disabilities. Other examples include Stronger, Downsizing, Wonderstruck, Never Steady, Never Still and Don’t Talk to Irene.

Andrew Garfield, seen here with Claire Foy in Breathe, plays Robin Cavendish, a man who becomes paralyzed due to polio.
Andrew Garfield, seen here with Claire Foy in Breathe, plays Robin Cavendish, a man who becomes paralyzed due to polio.  (BLEEKER STREET / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)  

“I think there is more interest in stories about and by people with disabilities,” said Liviya Mendelsohn, artistic director of the ReelAbilities Toronto Film Festival, which features projects by and about those who are deaf and disabled.

“But I also think historically, nondisabled actors who take on roles of characters with disabilities often get a lot of recognition, and you can just look back from Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot onwards.

“That’s where it gets complicated, because these are important stories to tell. In the case of Breathe, it’s a story of a disability rights activist that his son (co-produced), but the actors playing the roles don’t have disabilities and that’s been a little bit contentious.”

Serkis said he feels filmmakers should always consider using disabled actors for such roles if possible. But with Breathe, they needed an actor who could also portray the character before he became paralyzed from the neck down.

Those involved in the production did extensive research in order to be as truthful to the story as possible, said Serkis, noting they worked closely with the Cavendish family and he consulted with his sister.

“Having talked to many people who are disabled, they are sick and tired of seeing disabled people treated onscreen as victims, as people who are to be pitied in any way,” said Serkis.

“Our film goes in the opposite direction.”

Downsizing director/co-writer Alexander Payne took the same approach with Hong Chau’s character, who is missing part of a leg.

Payne said his mother had a laryngectomy as a result of throat cancer in 1981 and now breathes through a stoma and uses a voice prosthesis.

“People have said to her over the years, ‘Oh, you’re so strong, you’re so brave,’ and she goes, ‘No, I’m not. I just don’t think about it. I’m busy doing other stuff,’” said Payne.

In the recently released Stronger, Jake Gyllenhaal also had to portray a character before and after he became disabled. He stars as the real-life Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs below the knee in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“Jake did a fantastic job,” said Bauman. “Looking at him gave me chills, (seeing) how I move and how I operate.”

In Wonderstruck, which premiered in theatres last month, the actor portraying a deaf child who reunites with her matinee-idol mother (played by Julianne Moore) is actually hearing impaired herself.

Millicent Simmonds, who has a cochlear implant, is one of seven deaf actors in the film. She had never acted before but is now shooting a leading role in a feature film directed by John Krasinski and co-starring Emily Blunt.

“It was absolutely and totally a concerted decision on our part to try to find a deaf kid for the role,” said Wonderstruck director Todd Haynes.

“It’s not as if deaf kids appear among the professional hearing world of kid actors when you’re casting in the normal way on a movie, and it took a tremendous amount of learning on the part of our casting team about where deaf communities reside in the United States and the best ways to solicit them.”

Haynes said Wonderstruck co-producer Christine Vachon is now working on a comic series with an all-deaf cast.

As Mendelsohn puts it, “there’s a tremendous pool of talent out there,” but “there isn’t enough of a platform, there aren’t enough roles, there isn’t enough work behind the screen and all of that.

“If you give people a chance, there’s as much talent in disability and deaf communities as there is in our general society,” said Mendelsohn, whose festival recently partnered with the CBC Breaking Barriers Film Fund to sponsor a $10,000 award for Canadian screenplay writers who identify as part of a disability community.

“There’s going to be amazing actors in every group, so it’s about finding those people and creating the infrastructure for them to succeed.”

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