Larry Sapp is a producer, director and writer and one of the founders of Abilities United Productions, “an independent motion picture and television production company created specifically for providing an authentic voice, vision, and representation of those with a disAbility.” The Screen Actors Guild noted in an October 2009 report that people with disabilities remain “virtually invisible” in casting–even though 20% of Americans have a disability.
Racebending.com was able to interview Larry via email about his work with Abilities United, his thoughts on discrimination against actors with disabilities, depictions of characters with disabilities, and his thoughts on the casting of “that other Avatar movie” by James Cameron.
NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com
RACEBENDING.COM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
SAPP: I have always been a movie lover, but despite this, I never thought about being a movie maker until I began writing and directing music videos that began as school assignments at The Art Institute of Dallas. I actually enrolled to become a music producer but fell in love with storytelling.
After school, I freelanced as a video camera operator, production assistant, writer, director, until the work became too thin to support myself and I was forced to get a full time job.
The corporate world did pay for a nice condo and vehicle but something was missing. I was reminded of this when I went to see a new movie by an upcoming filmmaker in 1994 – “Pulp Fiction” and the storyteller on film in me came screaming out! I quit my management 14 hour a day job and took a simpler 8 hours a day timecard so I had the time and energy to work on a short film I wrote.
Three months later a terrible fall down a staircase broke three vertebraes (T-7, 8, and 9) in the middle of my back and severed my spinal cord completely in half. But like previous challenges in my life, I made the best of it and in fact dedicated my second chance at life to what makes me most happy – filmmaking.
RACEBENDING.COM: How did Abilities United Productions come about?
SAPP: When I searched for movies that represented this new life as a paraplegic, I found nothing but stereotypes for those that featured a person with a disAbility. And if that wasn’t bad enough I also found that nearly every one of those movies were written, directed, and acted by people who have no idea what it is like to live as a paraplegic.
When I searched for movies that represented this new life as a paraplegic, I found nothing but stereotypes for those that featured a person with a disAbility. And if that wasn’t bad enough I also found that nearly every one of those movies were written, directed, and acted by people who have no idea what it is like to live as a paraplegic.
I foolishly thought all I had to do was write a screenplay without stereotypes in character or plot and the entertainment world would finally be righted! But as I shopped that first screenplay around, producers who were initially interested by my pitch, demanded changes that would add the stereotypical elements back into it before they would buy it.
I refused to make those changes and determined that I had to take it to the next level by creating my own motion picture production company, Abilities United Productions, to not only keep my dream of being a filmmaker alive, but also to keep the vision of changing the portrayals of those with a disAbility honest, real, genuine, and authentic.
RACEBENDING.COM: You are currently working on a film, London Time, where the main character will be a person with a disability.
SAPP: London Time is about a modern-day, 21st century Ironside meets Lethal Weapon character, Detective London.
Today I am in contact with film production professionals to attach key personnel that includes Hollywood star talent to star next to an actor with the same or similar disAbility as the paraplegic character of Detective London, raise the production funding, and secure distribution contracts that will give “London Time” the best potential for success.
It is essential that I make sure the quality standards are such that “London Time” will have the impact on audiences that in the end it will change the way Hollywood portrays and represents paraplegics and others with a disAbility that can represent themselves, and therefore be recognized as a significant “turning point” in American cinema.
RACEBENDING.COM: On your website, the word disability is written with the letter ‘A’ in ability capitalized…
SAPP: Generally speaking, it is to emphasize the ability of those living with a disability.
Nearly every one of the 56+ million Americans with a disAbility have some abilities, which is often how they define themselves even though our culture believes–thanks in large part to the images and stereotypes and barriers that include attitudes of Hollywood–that the disAbled community is defined by their disability, lumped all together as unable.
Of course not all persons with a disAbility are able to represent themselves in movies and television, I do focus on those that can, and respect all disAbilities by recognizing the Ability within the disAbility.
RACEBENDING.COM: On your blog, you wrote that you were concerned with the casting of the other Avatar film, James Cameron’s Avatar where an able-bodied actor was cast to play a character with a disability.
SAPP: In the only industry study on those with a disAbility, “The Employment of Performers with a Disability in the Entertainment Industry” published in 2005 by the Screen Actors Guild, shows that most in Hollywood believe that those with a disAbility can only be hired for roles specifically written with a disAbility–which is discriminating by itself. But then, studios nearly always cast able bodied actors in those roles specifically written as having a disAbility, making it double discrimination.
Most in Hollywood believe that those with a disAbility can only be hired for roles specifically written with a disAbility–which is discriminating by itself. But then, studios nearly always cast able bodied actors in those roles specifically written as having a disAbility, making it double discrimination.
An often used excuse to cast able bodied actors in the roles of a character with a disAbility is that a name recognized actor will attract audiences. But James Cameron hired a relatively unknown actor from Australia, Sam Worthington.
Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar
RACEBENDING.COM: When you learned about the casting, what did you do? What steps did you take to protest the casting of the Cameron Avatar film?
SAPP: I attempted several times over a two and a half year period,to contact Mr. Cameron to simply ask about his casting process and decision, but was repeatedly ignored.
On one occasion I did get someone from his production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, to speak on the phone but only generally and all he would say was that the character was only disabled for a short time, at the beginning of the film and that this having a disAbility is not an issue since it was decided a long time ago that able bodied actors can represent those with a disAbility and therefore I was making a big deal out of nothing.
When I asked one final question, if he or any able bodied person could understand what it was like to wake up every morning with an empty wheelchair staring at him next to his bed and then live every moment of their lives with the physical, financial, social, emotional challenges that they cannot hide from, he said no.
And when I followed up with asking “Why is it right for an able bodied actor to represent me or other paraplegics who live this way?” he was silent and ended the conversation.
There is no evidence or even indication that James Cameron considered, let alone auditioned an actor with the same or similar disAbility as his featured paraplegic character, Jake Scully in Avatar. In all of the interviews I have seen that James Cameron did for the promotion of the release of Avatar I never saw or hear or read anyone asking him about this issue or his casting of Sam Worthington.
Shows how expansive the “non-issue” of portraying and representing those with a disAbility is within the industry and those reporting on it.
RACEBENDING.COM: What are your thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar’s portrayal of a character with a disability?
SAPP: Stereotypes of paraplegics and others with a disAbility in movies fall into three categories; they are all about the disAbility, surrounded by a political agenda, and/or predictably inspirational.
Tom Cruise in Born on the 4th of July
SAPP: I saw that in all the promotional material that Cameron purposely framed the wheelchair used by the character out of the frame as much as possible. It is also interesting to note that after the conversation I had with an employee of Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, the wording on the “leaked” description of the movie went from “a paraplegic ex-Marine” to a “wounded war veteran” to try and move all focus away from this character being a person with a disAbility.
Now with that said, the positive I can take is that this character is the hero of the story and in an action film does slightly break the stereotype that a paraplegic cannot do much more than protest his lot in life.
But another common stereotype that able bodied writers use is making the disAbility disappear at the end of the story, as a paraplegic is somehow magically healed and walks off into the sunset. James Cameron does the same thing by having the paraplegic character’s superior promise that if he succeeds in his mission he will get his “real legs back”, and although that doesn’t happen, Cameron does make the fantasy of walking happen when the featured paraplegic character is permanently transformed into the alien being that he operated as an avatar. The blue alien is able bodied and walks off into the sunset!
Although it does a lot more toward perpetuating the stereotypes, there is some small progress as it also warms audiences to a character that is a paraplegic in a leading role of a movie that has broke all domestic and foreign box office records. Now audiences should be more than ready for a real hero character who is authentically portrayed and represented in voice, vision and performance!
RACEBENDING.COM: On your website site you highlight a few core concepts, including authenticity and the difference between portrayal and representation. How do these concepts tie into casting actors with disabilities and the depiction of characters with disabilities?
SAPP: Anyone can portray anyone in the movies, but there are a few lines that you do not cross over when it comes to very specific factors in a person’s identity, such as gender, race, or age.
Except for comedic effect where the audience is made aware of it right away, a man does not portray a woman, or a white person portray a black character, or visa versa. Nor would you hire a 30, 35, or 40 year old actor to portray a teenager in a coming of age movie.
What most in Hollywood and our culture, thanks to Hollywood, either dismisses, ignores, or are ignorant to is the fact that whether a person’s disAbility affects them negatively or positively, it is a main factor in our identity and sometimes even more so than our gender, race or age because it affects every aspect of our lives.
Interesting that the Equal Opportunity Employment Act provides the same significance on gender, race, age, and disAbility, but Hollywood doesn’t care enough to give the same respect to those with a disAbility.
RACEBENDING.COM:Is there any crossover with these concepts and gender or race representation?
SAPP: A quick look back to when entertainment discriminated against gender and race–When women were banned from portraying and representing themselves, and men played women characters on the stage, or as it was through the first part of the 20th century where blacks were banned from the stage and entertainers had to wear make-up to be black faced. This kind of portrayal and representation is outrageous in today’s culture and society except as mentioned above for comedic effect like in, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Tropic Thunder.
But since a disAbility, according to able bodied Hollywood, is obviously not considered as significant to a persons’ identity as is their gender or race, it is not given the same respect when it comes to portrayals and representation.
But just like for women, and black or African-American portrayals it begins with first allowing them on the stage (or in front of the film and television camera) and then stereotypes can be addressed and the authentic voices and visions can take place.
Until Hollywood recognizes and accepts the identity factor of a disAbility on those with a disAbility, this evolutionary road–for the voices, visions, and performances of those creative forces with a disAbility–will not be seen with authentic representation in movies and television.
RACEBENDING.COM: A common excuse for defending the casting of an actor without a disability to play a character with a disability is that there are no actors with disabilities with experience or talent. What are your thoughts on this argument? Is the talent out there?
SAPP:Yes, this is a very common excuse–I mean reason–used by producers!
In fact two very recent examples are on Broadway in the casting for the lead role in the Helen Keller Story, and the television program, Glee. Both producers said that there were no actors with a disAbility that had the talent or experience they needed to cast in those roles.
Kevin McHale as Artie on Glee.
The Broadway producer explained that he required a name recognized talent for the production budget he had to get audiences to come. And the problem is that if they continue to use these excuses and common practices of hiring, there will never be a name recognized talent with a disAbility. And the perpetual cycle of dismissing the authenticity of these characters will continue as they have for decades.
I saw in the one and only episode of the television series, “Glee” the wheelchair using character–portrayed by an able bodied actor– has a crush on one of his high school classmates who has a stutter. When she reveals to him that she has been faking her disability he got so mad that he told her that he cannot fake being in a wheelchair and thought they had something in common but that he no longer desired her and rolled away.
How incredible is this? So the writers, director, and producers of this show felt it was important to show how significant it is to the identity of those who have a disAbility and how low it is to pretend that you have one, while doing just that with an actor pretending to be paralyzed. So much for the adage of life imitating art or art imitating life!
Admittedly the talent pool for performers with a disAbility is not large but it is because of these repressing attitudes that many who do dare dream of becoming an actor, or writer, or director in the entertainment industry cannot find work and have to give up on those dreams. It is why the available talent pool of those with a disAbility doesn’t grow to reflect the actual American scene.
1 in 5 Americans have a disAbility, but do 20% of the characters in movies and television have a disAbility? The reality is that not even 1% of the characters in movies and television have a disAbility.
With this kind of representation, or rather lack of representation, a kid, a teenager, a college student, or even an adult with a disAbility have no reason to dream of being an actor, let alone to become a star in Hollywood. These producers and entertainment makers are the very reason they do not have more options–by never giving those with a disAbility a chance, an opportunity to express their talent, expand and grow their skills as actors.
So with this attitude and environment in Hollywood, will the talent pool ever grow and provide them with more options or just continue to repress those with a disAbility and perpetuate their excuses of using able bodied actors, writers, and directors?
RACEBENDING.COM: Another common justification for defending the casting of an actor without a disability to play a character with a disability is that it places an unfair burden on the studio to accommodate that actor’s disability. What do you think about this?
SAPP: Hollywood has somehow gotten a pass from adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ever since its signing into law in 1990. Where every other industry and all public businesses and buildings have become accessible to those with a disAbility, the motion picture and television industry does not make the slightest concession.
This leads to the “Parking Lot Syndrome” where if an audition is being held that is not accessible to persons with a disAbility, they will out of the goodness of their hearts and to comply with the ADA law, will hold a separate audition for those persons out in the parking lot, outside the private area where everyone else auditioned. Fair and equal opportunity? No, but it complies with the law and therefore they cannot be accused of discriminating.
The fact is that in most cases little accommodation is needed to make a film production accessible to an actor or director to perform their talent and craft. But they would not know this because they never hire someone with a disAbility.
They instead invoke this as an excuse even though it is based on out dated beliefs or experiences. In today’s world were there are tons of easy fixes to make studios, sets, and locations accessible for those with a disAbility, and one of the wealthiest industries in the world, this is a very weak excuse, but they continue to get away with it.
This is another myth I will disprove with the production of “London Time” and will make sure there are plenty of video and still photos taken during our production this summer to provide irrefutable evidence to this another misconception in the motion picture and television industry.
RACEBENDING.COM: What are your thoughts on children’s media depicting characters with disabilities, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender (Toph, Teo) and Finding Nemo (Nemo)?
SAPP: In this day and age of political correctness and teaching kids that everyone is or should be equally treated I think it is essential to include those with a disAbility in these lessons. And not just as a token character, but those that have just as much importance as other characters in the stories. And just like in all other media formats and genres they should also not constantly be stereotypical in nature.
Kids who watch Pixar’s Finding Nemo meet Nemo, a clownfish with a ‘special’ fin.
Movies and television have a tremendous impact on the shaping of our culture and in turn on society’s opinions and interactions with others. If Hollywood does not make an effort in bringing non-stereotypical characters with a disAbility to the entertainment geared to children then the next generation will be as dismissive as the current and past generations as to the Abilities of those with physical and/or mental challenges.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Teo has a hang-glider attached to his wheelchair and is an expert pilot, with flying skills rivaling Aang’s
RACEBENDING.COM: If The Last Airbender movie does get a sequel, the production will cast a young girl to play the role of Toph. People with visual impairments study martial arts. Can and should the production cast an Asian American young actress with a visual impairment and martial arts skills for the role?
SAPP: Absolutely! It brings a lot of depth to a character, and meaning to story when characters in both animated and live action films are portrayed authentically. There is nothing to lose by including the significance of a person’s disAbility by hiring actors who share the same identity factors as the characters they are portraying.
Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Toph is “the greatest Earthbender in the world.”
RACEBENDING.COM: Researcher Lynne Roper studied a stereotype in film she calls “Supercrip,” an ‘inspiring’ archetypal character with a disability who gains a superhuman power to ‘overcome’ their disability. For example, Daredevil is blind but has heightened abilities. And in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the character of Toph is blind, but can still ‘see’ with her earth-manipulating powers. Any insights on this depiction of people with disabilities in film?
SAPP: There are two sides to every coin and on one side is that this portrayal seems to relate that if you have a disAbility you also have to have some super human ways to overcome the disAbility to be the leading character, the hero of the story, or of any worth to society.
On the other side of the coin, it depends on the context of the story. If all the main characters have some super human power they use to further the storyline then it is inclusive to portray a character with a disAbility and their powers to enhance their limitation.
Toph’s innovative form of Earthbending–which she later teaches Aang–involves using the vibrations in the ground to detect one’s opponent.
Many believe that a person who has lost one sense, through a disAbility, will have another sense is enhanced. This may be true for some, and portrayals of characters like the ones described can be interpreted in the tradition of Hollywood’s exaggerated best.
Still without many available portrayals, and in the context of comic books, Matt Murdoch, the Daredevil, is a super hero with a disAbility, a one of a kind representation that says those with a disAbility can be included in the world of fantasy and have heroes that just like able bodied with their comic book heroes of Spiderman, Batman, etc.
In 2003′s Daredevil, Ben Affleck plays Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who fights for justice as the superhero Daredevil.
Of course the movie portrayal would have more character depth, and be more empowering if it was cast using an actor with the same or similar disAbility, providing the authentic representation, but that is obviously not the Hollywood practice – hopefully that will change and I will continue to do all I can to facilitate that change!
RACEBENDING.COMWhat is your ideal vision for the future of performers and other artistic talent with disabilities in Hollywood?
SAPP: I hope, dream, and work for a future in the motion picture and television industry that permanently changes the portrayals of those with a disAbility, giving those who can authentically represent themselves the same opportunities and respect given to able bodied as well as other minorities in movies and television–with recognition that a disAbility is as significant factor in the identity of those living with a disAbility as gender, race, and age.
The future of American popular culture will have actors, directors, writers, and producers with a disAbility known as household named celebrities, just as their able bodied counterparts are today. Movie audiences with or without a disAbility will recognize and appreciate the difference of authentic represented entertainment versus the well-intentioned products produced and acted by those who have never had to live with a disAbility.
The discrimination and perception by the industry that performers with a disAbility can only be hired for roles specifically written as characters with a disAbility along with all other barriers whether they are physical, emotional, or psychological will be a memory in the past.
American cinema will expand to include the content-specific, authentic and universally appealing movies pioneered by the works and business model of Abilities United Productions and adopted from a variety of production companies and studios to a brighter future when movie consumers will no longer label the actors or the characters as disAbled, and future generations will be able to dream and realistically achieve a career in the motion picture and television industry regardless of the entertainment industry’s history, and based on their individual talent, skills, passions, and abilities regardless of disAbility.
Racebending.com would like to thank Mr. Larry Sapp for this interview.