Casting the correct actor for a function typically means discovering somebody who matches the character description in a script, however Josh Sundquist didn’t know if that was doable for his collection “Best Foot Forward.”
“It sounds silly in retrospect, but this was four years ago,” Sundquist recalled lately. “At the time, it simply didn’t occur to me it would even be possible to hire an amputee actor.”
Sundquist was serving to to solid a fictionalized model of his youthful self, the lead function in “Best Foot Forward,” which debuts Friday on Apple TV+. Loosely based mostly on Sundquist’s memoir, “Just Don’t Fall,” the collection facilities on a 12-year-old boy who’s the one baby at his college with a limb distinction. Sundquist, who’s an govt producer on the collection, misplaced his left leg to bone most cancers when he was 10.
The character’s incapacity is on the core of “Best Foot Forward,” however Sundquist’s expectations had been measured. “I just thought like, ‘Oh, of course we’re going to have to cast an able-bodied kid and have a body double,’” he stated. “Because that was all I’d ever seen my whole life.”
To Sundquist’s delight, the manufacturing firm behind the present, Muse Entertainment, was intent on discovering an actor who shared the character’s incapacity. After casting the newcomer Logan Marmino because the fictional Josh, Sundquist’s perspective on what was doable advanced dramatically.
“By the time we got to where we were greenlit and we were starting to look for crew, I was fully converted to the importance of authentic representation both in front of and behind the camera,” he stated.
What occurs in entrance of the digicam typically dominates the discourse round illustration in leisure. While the information media has in recent times paid some consideration to the shortage of alternative for actors with disabilities, there’s nonetheless loads of room for progress.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26 p.c of American adults have a incapacity, however in keeping with a GLAAD report launched earlier this yr, characters with disabilities, together with kids, constituted solely 2.8 p.c of collection regulars throughout all scripted broadcast TV exhibits within the 2021-22 TV season. (The report didn’t take a complete have a look at incapacity illustration on cable and streaming companies.) Earlier GLAAD research, from 2021, discovered that almost all of TV characters with disabilities are performed by non-disabled actors.
Even when disabled actors are solid, it typically addresses solely half of the issue, Sundquist famous. In many situations, for those who had been to show the digicam round, he stated, “you would see that disability was only represented in one direction.”
In making “Best Foot Forward,” Sundquist was decided to rent disabled folks throughout the manufacturing, however discovering crew members with disabilities was tougher than he anticipated. When it involves actors, “agents know that sometimes you want people with disabilities and they have those people already on file,” he stated. But when the producers contacted unions and guilds that characterize crew positions, he stated, they discovered that almost all of them didn’t observe which of their members have disabilities.
So Sundquist resorted to placing call-outs on social media and connecting with incapacity advocacy teams like RespectAbility. “We’re not a staffing agency,” stated Lauren Appelbaum, who runs RespectAbility’s Entertainment Lab, a workshop for professionals with disabilities working in TV and movie. “We just found ourselves in this position where studios and individual productions are reaching out to us saying ‘We want help with this.’” Seven individuals who labored on “Best Foot Forward” had been Lab alumni, she added.
“Best Foot Forward” isn’t the primary present to have embrace folks with disabilities on each side of the digicam. Several exhibits over the previous few years, together with Sundance Now’s “This Close,” about two finest pals who’re deaf, and Netflix’s “Special,” a comedy about a homosexual man with cerebral palsy, had been created by and starred folks with disabilities. Appelbaum stated “Best Foot Forward” builds on the groundwork laid by these exhibits.
“What makes ‘Best Foot Forward’ really unique is the intentionality behind bringing in disabled crew,” she defined. “Crew across all levels, from production assistants to directors.”
One of the present’s writers, Zach Anner, wrote beforehand for “Speechless,” an ABC collection that ran from 2016-19 and was lauded for its practical depiction of a teen who, like Anner, has cerebral palsy. Anner stated there have been solely a few writers with a incapacity for “Speechless,” “and that was very novel at the time.” On “Best Foot Forward,” he stated, “it was half the writers’ room.”
“No one person felt responsible for representing an entire community,” Anner added. “It also freed us up to just be funny.”
Unlike on many productions, the writers and crew with disabilities on “Best Foot Forward” weren’t tasked with additionally educating non-disabled collaborators and advocating accessibility. That was somebody’s precise job. Kiah Amara served because the manufacturing accessibility coordinator, a comparatively new function in Hollywood that’s usually stuffed by disabled professionals who seek the advice of on onscreen authenticity and how one can accommodate crew members with disabilities.
The first step on set, Amara stated, is to survey the crew and gauge how one can make the manufacturing as accessible as doable. “I’ll list things out like: ‘Check the box: Would you like access to a sensory-friendly room?’” Amara stated. “‘Do you need your scripts or documents in dark mode? Do you need a dyslexia-accessible font?’” Then comes crew coaching that covers disability-related language and how one can create an inclusive house.
“It’s not the disabled folks who need to learn anything,” Amara stated. “It’s all the non-disabled folks who need to continue to be in this space of, like, ‘Here’s how to not be frightened of thinking that you’re going to mess up.’”
Amara discovered, when consulting on previous productions, that the reluctance to rent disabled crew typically stems from an assumption that doing so will price extreme time and cash. This pervasive perception can lead some crew members to cover their disabilities. “They may choose not to disclose it to anybody — it’s still very unsafe in the industry to be disabled,” Amara stated.
That was one thing Sundquist was acutely aware of when making an attempt to recruit crew members with disabilities. “We were able to call and be like: ‘Hey, I heard you had some bad experiences on set. Sorry about that. We’re going to try to do better on our set. Can we persuade you to come on board?’”
In doing so, the manufacturing ceaselessly attracted “people whose résumés did not yet reflect their level of talent,” Sundquist stated, who had been then capable of deliver these issues extra in line by advantage of their credit score on “Best Foot Forward.” He talked about for example Ashley Eakin, a limb-different director whose earlier work had been restricted principally to brief movies. Eakin directed two episodes of “Best Foot Forward.”
“By her coming into the show, then she gets into the Directors Guild, which makes it so much easier to find future directorial work,” Sundquist stated.
The manufacturing crew additionally included proof of the untapped abilities that may lie inside those who others may overlook. One instance was Marissa Erickson, a manufacturing assistant who was tasked with corralling and transporting the kid actors from college to set. “In my hometown, Alameda, I usually work in a kindergarten as a teacher’s aide,” stated Erickson, who added that she was excited to mix her earlier manufacturing expertise and her expertise working with kids.
Erickson, who has Down syndrome, was one of many crew members beneficial by Appelbaum at RespectAbility, having participated within the group’s 2019 Entertainment Lab. Appelbaum recalled a workshop wherein Erickson participated alongside executives from a main studio: “Marissa stood up and started talking about some of the work that she has done, and I saw an exec, like, their mouth just drop.” Appelbaum stated Erickson’s work ethic and expertise upended the chief’s expectations of somebody with Down syndrome.
“I think, in their mind, they were thinking, ‘Yeah of course we could hire someone who uses a wheelchair,’ but they weren’t thinking that they could hire someone with an intellectual or developmental disability,” Appelbaum stated. “Marissa clearly proves that wrong.” Recently, Erickson was provided three manufacturing assistant jobs concurrently. (She accepted a place on a Disney+ brief movie anthology collection referred to as “Launchpad.”)
Appelbaum and others stated that to be able to improve incapacity illustration on movie and tv units, it was essential for guilds and unions to survey their members for disabilities in addition to for demographic data like race and gender. The Writers Guild of America does, and the Director’s Guild of America started soliciting details about incapacity standing in member surveys in 2021. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.), the union that represents crew members like grips, cinematographers, costumers and make-up artists, voted last year to start holding an annual census in an effort to spice up variety inside its membership. But it’s unclear whether or not it’ll embrace details about disabilities. (The I.A.T.S.E. didn’t reply to a request for remark.)
“Without the data, it’s hard to get things to change,” Appelbaum stated. “When you have the hard numbers, people are much more likely to want to change something.”
Until then, Anner, the author, is hopeful that “Best Foot Forward” may function an essential step ahead for hiring practices in Hollywood.
“For me, it sort of put an end to that argument that you hear sometimes of people saying, ‘Oh, we looked for someone with a disability, we looked for a person of color, and we couldn’t find anyone,’” he stated. “We can point to this and say, ‘No, there are plenty.’”