Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a trans man in Rub & Tug sparked so much backlash that Johansson withdrew from the role, acknowledging in a statement that she “learned a lot from the community.” An actress and Paralympian is now calling on Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to do some learning of his own after he played an amputee in Skyscraper.
In an open letter published in Deadline, Katy Sullivan said that she was “thrilled that a film about a kick-ass veteran and father (who is a unilateral below-the-knee amputee) got greenlit in the first place.” But she also invoked the outrage around Johansson’s casting to ask Johnson to consider refusing roles like the one in Skyscraper in the future, in order to open up opportunities for disabled actors. In the letter, Sullivan challenges many of the common arguments against authentic casting, including that a disabled actor would not be able to handle the rigors of filming a movie—“Try navigating New York City in a wheelchair. Believe me, a movie set is a dream”—and that there are no disabled actors with enough star power to top-line a big-budget film:
… a performer with a disability will never get to the point of being “a name above the line” unless they are given the opportunity to get on that path in the first place. By casting these roles with people who bring authenticity to them, (i.e., an actual amputee actor) you in turn change the talent pool over time. Because maybe there’s a kid living with limb loss out there who hasn’t taken an acting class, or gone to an audition before, because of the thought “Who’s gonna cast ME?” If they can see it, they can be it, right? But they have to SEE IT. That’s the difference.
While Hollywood is undergoing a (still very recent) reckoning when it comes to casting white actors in roles meant for people of color or cisgender actors as transgender characters, disability is routinely left out of the larger representation conversation. And Sullivan, whose credits include appearances on Last Man Standing and NCIS: New Orleans and stunt work in Annabelle: Creation (“just to try to make my health insurance for the year”) can speak to the effect on disabled actors when there are few disabled roles left available to them.
Sullivan acknowledges that Johnson is not solely responsible for what is ultimately an industrywide problem, but she did ask him as “a genuinely good dude” to lead the way for A-listers to start turning down roles that could go to disabled actors instead:
I know you have expressed support of authentic casting recently. And that’s a step in the right direction. But the step in a better direction would be, the next time you are presented with an opportunity to portray a character whose life experience includes some sort of disability, please consider saying “No.”
Ask if they have looked for an actor who wouldn’t have to “put on” the mask of disability. Is there an actor out there who could play a kick-ass father that scales a building to save his family who also happens to be a unilateral below-the-knee amputee? If so, I encourage you to stay on as a producer with the project so that there IS a name above the line that could help get this movie made or better yet, play his amazingly awesome best friend and save his family together.
You can read the full op-ed in Deadline.