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Disabled Industry, Hairy Situation

Dear Tombudsman:

I am a disabled actor new to Los Angeles and eager to share a message with the entertainment industry and its audience. Although disabled actors may have limits, they are not limited in their ability to perform and entertain. Unfortunately, since my arrival, I have gotten stuck in the metaphor of Hollywood's "revolving door." It seems that almost every entrance to this business lets us in, only to accept an actor's headshot, time, or money, then deliver us back into the street. Having a disability already consumes my time and cash, but I'm committed to spending what I have left on the dream of entertaining others. Realistically, however, there's only so much one can do.

I've abandoned the idea of relying on agencies that promise their support, and I don't know how to find and trust the "right" representation. The Internet has become my most inexpensive tool, but casting people rarely respond to e-mail. Furthermore I feel that there is the assumption that my disability may keep me from getting the job done. I'm in a wheelchair and have a background in improvisation and standup (sit-down) comedy, and I write and direct my own material.

If given the chance, I know that I would be an asset to any project that is willing to cast me, regardless of whether the role requires a disability. How can I best avoid the revolving door of mass mailing and false promises made by agencies that can't provide? More important, how can I show casting directors that I can act as something other than "disabled"? Throw my butt on a park bench and they would never even know, I promise. I challenge this industry to take a chance on trusting something other than the average.


Los Angeles, Calif.

via the Internet

Dear E.:

For a brief moment we're going to put aside your disability. If one reads your letter and takes out all mention of disability, you sound like an average member of the L.A. acting population: an individual struggling to find a way to get hired, land a quality agent, and move up the food chain. Hollywood is tough on actors, period, and no doubt it'll be tough on you, too—perhaps tougher. But those of any circumstance who absolutely refuse to accept doing anything else find a way to get and maintain a career in show business.

Of course you're right: There's only so much one actor can do, but you owe it to yourself not to make your job harder by having any hint of a defeatist attitude. You seem focused on the revolving door concept, as if it's designed to hold you up. You've got to change your focus. Maybe there is a kind of revolving door, but it's not directed at you; it's an industry-wide situation. I look at it like, hey, at least there's a door. You want to put yourself in the position of going through that door and ending up inside the workplace as often as possible, and you can, but there will always be times you don't work and are right back outside again.

Now let's look at what is happening to performers who have the challenge of a disability. In 2003 the letters PWD—Performer With Disability—are becoming more common on actors' resumés and also less of an issue with some hirers. It's because there are more performers with disabilities in show business than ever before and because more producers are open to hiring them. In many ways it's still an uphill battle, but the grade is indeed being worn down in increments.

This column last revisited this issue in 1997, and I was curious how much things have changed in the film and television industry. I called Gail Williamson at the Media Access Office in Los Angeles, the nonprofit organization—a project of the California Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities—devoted to this issue. Though not an agency, the office does help procure jobs for members by maintaining a large database for industry hirers while continuously advocating throughout the industry for increased hiring.

"People with disabilities are starting to realize acting could be a viable career for them," explained Williamson. "Since 1997 there have been a few PWD series regulars on television. Right now there is Robert David Hall on CSI who plays Dr. Robbins, and Daryl Mitchell is on Ed and plays Eli. More actors with disabilities are working now in all size roles, although this year was much slower with all of the reality TV. But in the last few years there has been a growing number of people hired—and not just in disabled character roles—but we're still looking for more. The biggest issue that we face is the language in the codified contracts (SAG/Producers) that says that when you're going to have a character with a disability in your show, you must make that known so that actors with similar disabilities will have an opportunity to audition. Although it exists in the contracts, it just doesn't happen often enough. We're not saying performers with a disability necessarily deserve the job, but they deserve the opportunity to apply for that employment. We're educating little bits at a time.

"The most positive thing that's happening is that the people who are now getting into telling the stories—the writers and producers—probably went to school after 1975, which was when we got Public Law 94-142, which provided inclusional education for children with disabilities. These industry professionals grew up with friends and classmates who have disabilities. My hope is that this full-inclusion generation will now create even more opportunities for performers with disabilities."

Williamson counts industry leaders such as agent Riley Day of KSA, casting directors April Webster and Rick Montgomery, directors the Farrelly Brothers, and executive producers Anthony Zuiker and John Wells as leaders in this movement. If you'd like information about the Media Access Office call Gloria Castañeda in membership at (818) 752-1196.

E., ultimately your goal is to be seen as a gifted actor. You asked me how you could get people to see you as other than disabled. The only control you can have is by being the most well-trained and well-prepared performer. Have your audition material well rehearsed. Have your monologues ready to go. Challenge yourself by playing roles you're not accustomed to and own those roles when you walk in a room. All actors can do, aside from the marketing stuff, is to put the best of themselves out there and hope some lightning comes their way.

And finally, as a writer and director, you can and should create work for yourself. When you succeed at that you can do it for others, as well.

Dear Tombudsman:

I am an independent filmmaker. One of my pet peeves when casting is actors whose headshots completely misrepresent them. Having minored in theatre, I'm now trying to launch my acting career. A year ago, I got headshots that I think capture my ability and range, and I consulted friends, fellow filmmakers, and complete strangers to make sure the photos represented me well.

Problem is, I like to constantly mess with my look. I landed a show several months ago for which they wanted me to look a bit more "shaggy." In my headshots my hair is relatively short and spiky, and I'm clean-shaven. Presently, my hair is about 3 inches longer and I've got a goatee. I like the way I look now, but with the show ending and therefore my auditioning resuming, am I obligated to cut my hair and shave?

When I was thinking about bleaching my hair, a friend told me I would then have to indicate the change on the back of my headshot. Is that correct? Should I just note the longer hair and goatee? I'm very happy with the headshots I have, but am I locked into that look? Or am I going to have to get new headshots every time I try out a new look?

Ron Beyers

Los Angeles, Calif.

via the Internet

Dear Ron:

You'll want to consult with your agent or manager on this, but generally speaking it comes down to the degree of change in your look and how long you plan on keeping that change. Cutting your hair shorter or letting it grow a little longer does not mandate a new headshot—as long as the one you're currently using still basically looks like you. If you do something dramatic like coloring your hair from brown to platinum blond and plan on maintaining that look longer than a road-trip weekend, get some new pictures.

Most of the time minor changes to your look will not require you spend big bucks for new photos, and, as your friend suggested, you can easily note on your resumé that you now have a goatee. Again make it as easy and sensible as possible. If you would shave the goatee in a heartbeat for a job, it might not even be necessary to put a note on your resumé, as the casting director can easily see what you look like without it simply by looking at the picture. Conversely, if you love the goatee look so much that you're not willing to shave, even if Spielberg calls (yeah, right) you'd need new headshots.

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