Bodies On The Line
Able-Bodied Actors, Disabled Roles, and Praise
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th, we're publishing a series of pieces focusing on issues of accessibility and visibility in theatre.
There is an inherent danger in being an actor. You take mental and, some might say, spiritual risks in devoting yourself to a character. In the case of reviews, you put your reputation on the line, and in the case of your physical self, you put your body on the line for the sake of the work. Indeed, an actor’s body is a critical aspect of his career. You must be able to totally transform yourself into the character. To what lengths are you willing to go to give a great performance? What toll will it take on your body? And how will you be rewarded for such efforts?
The occurrence of able-bodied actors playing disabled characters is not at all new. Indeed, if there is a phenomenon around this issue, it is the increased questioning of the practice (examples of which have been published on this website). For the purposes of this blog post, however, I am particularly concerned with the examination of these able actors and how their bodies, and the risk factors involved, contribute to the performances and ultimately garner critical acclaim. The cases of Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Kevin Spacey’s performance as the title character in Richard III give unique insight into the current trends regarding these issues.
In a recent online article published by BBC News, Bradley Cooper discussed his Broadway turn as John Merrick in The Elephant Man, the physical toll it took on his body, and his preparations for a West End transfer. Cooper explained that the constant contorting of his face and arms—he did not use prosthetics to suggest Merrick’s deformities—had made one side of his face bigger and he could feel those muscles getting stronger. “The physical challenge is having to twist my body and hold it for two hours. It’s brutal,” Cooper said. The article went on to report that Cooper would be bringing an inversion table with him to London to treat the damage the role has done to his spine.
Despite the inherent physical risks in awkwardly, and unnaturally, contorting his body to inhabit the character, the expectation that the actor will do just that is written by playwright Bernard Pomerance into the script: “No one with any history of back trouble should attempt the part of Merrick as contorted. Anyone playing the part of Merrick should be advised to consult a physician about the problems of sustaining any unnatural or twisted position.”
Pomerance at least assumes that the actor playing John Merrick will be able-bodied and will be motivated to put himself through the grueling practice of contorting his body for every performance. Though Pomerance warns the hypothetical actor about the health risks, Bradley Cooper’s performance and his subsequent ailments are more or less what the playwright expected. Cooper’s sacrifice has not gone unrewarded, as his performance received both Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations.
Also nominated for a Drama Desk Award, as well as critically acclaimed, was Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Cripple Billy in The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway. Chris Jones from The Chicago Tribune exclaimed that Radcliffe’s performance “really breathes as it hobbles along,” and that the actor had “one heck of a limp, a body-twisting contortion that, when in motion, is quite the theatrical thing to behold.” Colloquialisms aside, Jones suggests that the physical anomalies of the character executed by Radcliffe strongly contribute to the overall quality of the performance. Radcliffe’s ability to contort his body is one of the things that make him a good actor. One can assume that if he did not have the aforementioned “heck of a limp,” Radcliffe would not have been so successful in the role.
Why is one considered a beacon of acting talent for playing a disabled character convincingly?
In comparison, Kevin Spacey received his own acclaim as part of The Bridge Project’s 2011 production of Richard III that played the West End, and engaged in an international tour before a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the documentary film about the production, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, Spacey exclaims, “acting in theatre is without a doubt…fraught with danger.” Some of that danger becomes the physical toll a 200-performance run takes on his body. Spacey speaks of the transformation he must make in order to play a character whose lust for power is linked to his deformities: “What would it be like if you were born that way, if you had heard everyone call you every name in the book, if you had in your blood ambition and royalty? How long would it take you to overcome those disabilities that people made fun of?”
These questions are absolutely necessary when analyzing the character of Richard III, but they are also clearly experiences to which Spacey cannot relate. An actor who actually lives with a disability could immediately speak to these questions from personal experience. The New York Times critic Ben Brantley remarked that Spacey “act[ed] up a storm,” making the “hunchback who would be king...a blood-spattered psycho.” Michael Billington of The Guardian noted how impressive it was that, despite having “his left leg encased in a caliper splint, he still bustles about the stage with ferocious energy.” Apparently, an able-bodied actor’s ability to overcome the physical constraints required to play a disabled character is another contributing factor to the perceived quality of the performance.
Thankfully, the rate of equitable casting continues to evolve, as the notion of able-bodied actors playing disabled roles faces more criticism. However, we still see texts like The Elephant Man, which more or less assume able-bodied actors will play the protagonists. We still see actors like Daniel Radcliffe being critically lauded for their “authentic” transformations. We still see able-bodied actors struggling to comprehend how Richard III’s physical disability affects him psychologically, and being commended when they overcome the challenges of wearing prosthetics and padding. And maybe that’s all okay. After all, an actor is expected to transform into the character he is playing. What stands out to me, though, is the fact that able-bodied actors consistently receive such high praise and even industry awards/nominations for their work in disabled roles. Furthermore, these performances are given such praise largely based on the actor’s approximations of the character’s physical disabilities or deformities. It seems that, in order to give a great performance in a disabled role, one simply must be able-bodied, because only able-bodied actors can pull it off.
I’m not saying the aforementioned actors aren’t talented, nor am I suggesting that they are incapable of giving fine performances in these roles. Nevertheless, able-bodied actors continue to be celebrated for “researching” and “practicing” and “putting their bodies on the line” to create “accurate” representations of disabled people. Why is one considered a beacon of acting talent for playing a disabled character convincingly? Why is it a common expectation that these actors will transform into characters whose experiences they can never truly understand? And, perhaps the most important question: if able-bodied actors continue to be cast in these roles, what opportunities are left for disabled actors?