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Ryan Murphy Casts Julia Roberts to Play a Person with a Disability

C’mon Ryan Murphy! You know how it is for minorities in the film industry! It is harder to find jobs if you are a minority. My question for most filmmakers who cast a person with a disability is why find someone able-bodied to play the role? In this instance, it is Julia Roberts in The Normal Heart. I can see if the character becomes disabled throughout a movie, as it is impossible to have a paraplegic play someone who has to walk in the film without a headache full of special effects. This is not the case with the role Roberts will play. Brookner is in a chair and stays in it throughout the film (based on the award-winning play). It’s just an insult to have a role perfectly geared towards a person in a wheelchair and have someone able-bodied portray them, if only for their name.

The Normal Heart Logo

The Normal Heart holds a special place in my own heart. Back before I transitioned from female to male, I was an actor and I played the role Roberts holds. Dr. Emma Brookner is an amazing character. Her disability, as a paraplegic, is secondary to who she is. In fact, if I recall, it is not even a real issue. Dr. Brookner is a doctor who goes to the CDC begging them to classify HIV/AIDS as an epidemic. Brookner has thought-provoking heart-wrenching monologues, she delivers with a grace and intelligence. She is the type of person with a disability those of us in wheelchairs have been clamoring to see portrayed on television. The show is about HIV/AIDS and its spread throughout New York City and beyond during the 1980s. Dr. Brookner is the voice of reason.

So, why not cast a paraplegic actress in the role? I understand Roberts is the biggest name in the film, but people will also turn in for Mark Ruffalo, who plays the lead character, Ned Weeks. It is HBO. They will get an audience. Actors with disabilities are begging for roles. They are begging with the same conviction and desire as the character of Dr. Emma Brookner. They demand authenticity and acceptance in a Hollywood that is increasingly ableist. There are not very many roles out there that are made for people with disabilities and typically if they are there, a person without a disability gets the role over them. While I believe there are times where you must choose the right person for the job, the portrayals are usually so over the top and non-cohesive to what disability really is they impart the wrong message on how people with disabilities act, what they think and how we should treat them.

As the movie industry has progressed, they have come to allow minorities to portray themselves. No longer is it acceptable to portray African Americans by anyone other than African Americans. You seldom see anyone not deaf portraying someone deaf (especially thanks to the great performances of the talented Marlee Matlin). It would be unheard of to portray someone without Down Syndrome as having Down Syndrome (though we do see able-bodied actors with other forms of intellectual disabilities). Nobody understands disability or being in a wheelchair like a person who is in one. Even those who spend years with us do not get it or understand how we think or feel completely.

There is a lack of authenticity in the performances of the majority of people portrayed with a disability who do not have them. Often, people with disabilities are not even available as consultants or to help with the writing. It is disingenuous to have such portrayals and has led to many misconceptions and misrepresentations of people with disabilities in the media. Those who have little exposure to people with disabilities look to the media for how to treat, act, view and understand those who are different from them, so I believe, on some level, there is a responsibility to make these portrayals realistic.

The sad part of Julia Roberts playing Dr. Brookner is how easy it could be for someone in a wheelchair to play the role. The wheelchair is secondary for Brookner (they will probably get a cheap, hospital grade chair nobody in a wheelchair would ever actually use), but it is there. I feel the same way about James Cameron’s Avatar. The acting was horrible anyway, so why not give someone in a wheelchair the chance to do a better job? A person already in a wheelchair could have easily taken on the role, and the acting probably would have been significantly better!

I sat on a stage, over a decade ago, at Wright State University, in my wheelchair, delivering the monologues of Emma Brookner. I believed every word I said, as Brookner and I believe in the role. I only wish Ryan Murphy, who is usually much more sensitive to issues of diversity would have listened to what Brookner was saying and cast someone who better fit the role, in it. While I cannot completely be upset at Julia Roberts for taking the role (it’s a meaty role – a lot of actresses would want it), I wish she would at least be sympathetic that she took the role away from an equally as deserving actress in a wheelchair who has not had her chance to be discovered because Hollywood is too busy casting people who can walk to play characters in wheelchairs, instead.

[tags]Julia Roberts, movie, The Normal Heart, disability, able-bodied, Ryan Murphy, cast, Ryan Murphy, Larry Kramer[/tag]

About the author: Dominick

Dominick Evans is in his second year of the BFA Motion Pictures program at Wright State University. When not studying, making films, or writing papers, he is working to better his on campus community as the Director of Disability Affairs for WSU Student Government. Dominick spends any remaining time working as a writer/editor, playing video games, singing, as an activist in the disability and GLBT communities, and enjoying life with his family.

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