The inconvenient truth about The Upside is that its misguided casting is based in a biased business decision, not creative expression.
As in Me Before You, Breathe, and He Won’t Get Far on Foot, The Upside failed to cast a wheelchair-using actor and instead chose Bryan Cranston, who does not have a visible disability. Admittedly, I hadn’t expected Cranston to have actually been “the one who knocks” in his own life when he played the role of a drug dealer. But I am critical of him deciding to take the role of a recently disabled man — and, more importantly, I’m critical of how systems protected him from having to face serious competition from wheelchair-using actors.
Cranston recently defended his choice, saying it was a “business decision.” Disabled actors make business decisions, too. But their’s are too often, “I gotta eat and pay rent so I’ve decided to give up on the business that won’t audition, much less hire, me – not even to play a disabled character.”
Cranston, and many others, scoff at disabled people’s criticism, saying that movies are a commercial venture and that, moreover, disability is just another fictional experience to portray. Actors act, after all…unless the actor has a visible disability, in which case their talent could never sway an audience — or a producer.
Muddling these arguments together is a mistake. The first is about business practices and the second is about creative expression. For actors, creative expression requires industry access — and that’s why casting norms need to change before debates about representation and creative expression can be anything but theoretical.
If the industry is going to limit nearly all physically disabled actors to roles defined by physical disability, non disabled actors shouldn’t be surprised when there’s anger at seeing those roles lost to actors who are not physically disabled. If only 2% of roles are disabled characters, to begin with, and 95% are played by actors without disabilities, that’s a systemic employment barrier.
Creative expression has different bases. Some of us experience disability as an event that affects our lives and some experience it as a component of our identity. Many of us experience both. Continue reading