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Jameela Jamil Turned Down a Role as a Deaf Woman in Hopes Producers Would Hire a Deaf Actress Instead

Actress Jameela Jamil on a red carpet.
Jameela Jamil attends the Critics’ Choice Awards.
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

In an interview with the Press Association, The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil said she turned down a recent offer to portray a deaf woman in hopes that a deaf actress would be cast in her place. Jamil made her comments in the wake of a conversation about disability representation sparked by Bryan Cranston’s role as a paralyzed man in The Upside. Although she didn’t name the project, Jamil explained why she turned down the role:

I said it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take that role and they should find a brilliant deaf woman to play that role. I think you have to make those choices and not be too greedy and make space rather than take space. … I don’t want to be part of erasure.

Jamil’s comments mirror those made by Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who recently discussed the issue in a between-scenes conversation with his studio audience. Noah came down on the side of not taking roles that could go to an actor with a disability, although he credited his thoughts on the issue to an actor with a disability who he somehow never got around to naming:

… he completely opened my eyes to a perspective I never thought of. He said, “I understand what an actor is. I, too, am an actor. But I’m an actor in a wheelchair, and I never see parts that are leading roles for a person in a wheelchair. And so the one time I see a role where there’s a person in a wheelchair, I think, wow, this could be it. This could be the moment where I have all of the tools necessary to play this part. Do I get a shot at playing it?” And he was like, “Because when you think of it on the flip side, they never call people with wheelchairs in to play able-bodied people, and they’ll get able-bodied people to play people in wheelchairs.”

Actress Marlee Matlin, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1987 for her role in Children of a Lesser God—and who is still the only deaf actor to win an Oscar—thanked Jamil on Twitter for setting an example:

Jamil was born partially deaf but regained most of her hearing after a series of childhood operations. She was sympathetic to the argument, put forward by Cranston and other actors, that actors should be allowed to play Cate Blanchett’s words, “roles beyond [their] experience,” but said that the more important fight was changing the types of movies that get made to begin with:

I think the thing we should actually be fighting for is more roles for people with disabilities and more roles for LGBTQ so there aren’t just five a year and then those get taken by big names. … And that’s the big change that needs to happen. And then we won’t need to worry that we’re stealing the scarce amount of roles from other people.

Jamil, last seen being misidentified at the Golden Globes, has long been outspoken about social issues. In December, the actress, who suffered from an eating disorder as a teen, wrote an opinion piece for the BBC about the damage airbrushed photos do to women. As Slate’s Shannon Palus noted at the time, that’s a convenient position to stake out when you’re a ridiculously good looking person who is modeling in unretouched photos to sell swimsuits—or at the very least, it’s not much of an inconvenience. Turning down a role, on the other hand, is money right out of Jamil’s pocket, a material sacrifice made in hopes of making things better for other people. Kudos.