Hollywood's Disability Problem Goes Way Beyond Bryan Cranston

The actor has come under fire for his role as a disabled man in "The Upside," co-starring Kevin Hart.
Actor Bryan Cranston recently defended himself for playing the role of Phillip Lacasse, a quadriplegic billionaire, in the new film "The Upside."
Actor Bryan Cranston recently defended himself for playing the role of Phillip Lacasse, a quadriplegic billionaire, in the new film "The Upside."
Bruce Glikas via Getty Images

I haven’t seen “The Upside,” and I’m pretty sure I never will. The movie, which comes out Jan. 11, stars “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston as a quadriplegic billionaire named Phillip Lacasse who hires a former felon to be his caretaker.

So far, the movie has received mediocre ratings — but that’s not why I refuse to see it. As a disabled woman, what I’m not OK with is that Cranston is an able-bodied man playing a disabled character.

I’m far from alone in my critique. Cranston and the film in general have garnered major criticism from the disability community on Twitter. Still, Cranston defended playing the role of Lacasse, a wheelchair user.

“As actors, we’re asked to be other people, to play other people,” he told the British Press Association. In an ideal world, according to Cranston, different characters should be played by actors across all backgrounds.

But this is about much more than just playing pretend. Disability is an identity just like race, gender and sexuality. Just as whitewashing is wrong, erasing disabled people from stories about their own communities is equally unacceptable.

“It’s still rare to find a movie or television show featuring well-developed characters played by actors who just so happen to have a disability.”

Of course, I’m happy more movies are being centered around disability narratives. When I first learned that the film “Breathe” (2017) was going to be about Robin Cavendish, a British disability advocate with polio who helped to develop the exact same respirator that I use today, I was ecstatic. I felt seen.

But then I learned that Andrew Garfield — yet another non-disabled actor — would be playing Robin, and my heart sank.

I felt similarly when the movie “Wonder” (2017), which relied on prosthetics and makeup to make its main actor resemble a 10-year-old boy with a genetic craniofacial condition, was nominated last year for the Academy Award for best makeup and hairstyling. And before that, there was “The Theory of Everything” (2014), for which actor Eddie Redmayne won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

And before that … you get the idea.

In his interview with the British Press Association, Cranston acknowledged that there is “a dearth of opportunity for actors with a disability,” but he argues this is because there aren’t many disabled actors with the kind of “star status” necessary to be hired.

But how do actors achieve “star status” in the first place? The underlying problem here isn’t that there’s a lack of disabled actors in the industry. It’s that Hollywood still doesn’t recognize actors with disabilities as a tappable market, with the talent and expertise to play roles about their own lived experiences.

Actors of color and LGBTQ actors have gradually become more visible in Hollywood, but it’s still rare to find a movie or television show featuring well-developed characters played by actors who just so happen to have a disability. In fact, while people with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, a whopping 95 percent of disabled TV characters are played by non-disabled actors.

Cranston is arguably best known for his role as Walter White in the hit series “Breaking Bad,” which, interestingly, is one of my favorite TV shows — and one of the few TV shows that features a disabled character played by a disabled actor. In the crime drama, which concluded in 2013 after five successful seasons, Cranston played a high school chemistry teacher turned drug dealer and a father to a teenage boy with cerebral palsy (although the son’s disability is only a minor point in the storyline). Actor RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, made a name for himself by playing Cranston’s son. He was “discovered” when his little sister’s acting manager encouraged Mitte to give acting a try.

There are countless actors like Mitte waiting to be hired for Hollywood roles. Last year, nearly 900 disabled actors auditioned for the Casting Society of America’s inaugural “Open Casting Call on Disability” in a single day. I want to see more actors with disabilities across all roles — leads, supporting characters and background extras. I want to see disabled actors in action thrillers, children’s animated films, and Hallmark movies during the holidays. And if more industry professionals encouraged people with disabilities to pursue acting, imagine how many more disabled actors we might see on our screens.

People with disabilities are tired of constantly fighting for opportunities, space and a platform. Until disabled talent starts being recognized in Hollywood, actors like Cranston should step offstage and pass the mic to the people in the communities they are so eager to portray.

Wendy Lu is a copy editor/producer at HuffPost and a writer based in New York City. She frequently writes and speaks about disability, politics, gender, and culture. She received her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Bustle, and others.

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