After countless years of watching nondisabled actors play characters with disabilities in movies and on television, a bright spot is on the horizon. A weekly TV series on American mainstream network television will star an actual wheelchair user, and it promises a truly inside look at what life is like when a member of your family has a disability.
Speechless is a family comedy akin to Modern Family that premieres this September on ABC. It centers on the Dimeo family and stars Minnie Driver as that familiar crusading mama-bear and 18-year-old newcomer Micah Fowler as JJ, her nonverbal son with cerebral palsy.
Here is the trailer, in case you haven’t seen it yet:
As a wheelchair-using teen with CP, Fowler has first-hand experience and that’s by design. Series creator Scott Silveri (Friends, Joey) has a brother with cerebral palsy and wanted the series to be true to his childhood experiences.
Fowler’s being cast as JJ is a giant step forward for television, since Fowler has the life experience and the acting experience, too. He actually made his acting debut in the 2013 romance Labor Day opposite Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet. He even did some work on Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street when he was a young child. Acting is a family business, too. His sister is 19-year-old Kelsey Fowler, a Broadway actress whose credits include Mary Poppins and Grey Gardens.
With a major network series on the horizon, we’re betting Micah will soon be the most famous Fowler in the family. But before he reaches Peter Dinklage heights, he talked to NEW MOBILITY and I quickly discovered that Speechless only applies to his character.
NEW MOBILITY: Is acting something you’ve always wanted to do? How did you become involved?
Micah Fowler: I didn’t ever really picture myself pursuing acting, but one day, after my sister performed on The View, her agent, Ellen Gilbert, saw me in the audience and called my mom and said, “I want to represent him!” I thought it would be fun, so I figured I’d give it a try. From there, I started with an episode of Blue’s Clues, then did a couple episodes of Sesame Street and eventually booked a role in the movie Labor Day.
NM: What is it like being a person with a visible disability during an audition? Are the audition spaces usually accessible and what do you do if they’re not?
MF: I don’t audition often because I tend to only audition for disabled characters. When I do audition, I usually just send in a tape.
Once, when I was auditioning for Labor Day, we had to go to this casting office in New York City’s Chinatown. A lot of buildings there are older and not completely accessible. We went up several floors, in this tiny elevator, and then my dad had to drag my wheelchair and carry me up the final four steps to the office. I guess it worked OK though, since I booked the movie.
NM: How did you land the role of JJ Dimeo on Speechless?
MF: My agent sent me the pilot script to read and my family and I thought, “This is like our house!” Just like the scene in the trailer, we could identify with people complaining we’re using an accessible spot, thinking I don’t need it until they see my wheelchair. The craziness of constantly not getting out of the house until the last minute was just like my life, too.
For the audition, I sent in a personality video, introducing myself and telling them about me. Then, in the next round, I recorded my performance of several scenes and hoped for the best.
NM: In what ways does the show accommodate your disability on set?
MF: The studio is terrific. When we arrived on set I was so excited to see they had found me this amazing trailer to use, with a large ramp on the back-end. They even set up a hair and makeup station on the trailer’s back patio and had hair and makeup come to me, since I could not access the regular one.
NM: How does having cerebral palsy help you in the role?
MF: It has helped because I’ve lived with CP all my life and many things JJ goes through, I go through on a daily basis.
Watching Speechless and knowing that JJ is played by an actor who has cerebral palsy allows people to get a real perspective, an inside look at what life is like living with CP. It lets them see the ups and downs, all the challenges and even the fun, humorous moments that we experience.
NM: Is it a challenge playing a character with cerebral palsy, but who is nonverbal?
MF: I love playing a character who is nonverbal, with a more severe diagnosis than myself, because it’s an acting challenge for me. I really hope I can represent the disabled community well and show us in the best light possible.
NM: Do you get to influence how your character is portrayed and the direction of his storylines on the show?
MF: Yes, from my experience the creative team is very responsive to me. I speak up if something doesn’t seem real, and they value my input. My parents have also given them some ideas from their experience raising me!
We’ve even changed some scenes in the middle of filming to make them more realistic to my life as a disabled person.
I could so identify with having a mama-bear who fights for the services I need, but my onscreen mom, played by Minnie Driver, is much more crazy, over-the-top and funny. Minnie is so nice, generous and kind and she is so loving. I really enjoy working with her.
We said at the beginning we wanted to make it real as possible. Scott Silveri, the network and the creative team were totally committed to having a disabled actor play the role from the very beginning. Scott and the team consult with professionals in the disability community for their perspectives as well.
NM: If you could give any advice to any creator looking to add a character with a disability to their next show, what advice would you give them?
MF: Make it as real as possible and cast actors with disabilities who have lived it — we are out there! Show people you do care and just try your very best.
NM: As one of the only visible people with a disability on television, do you feel a sense of responsibility to the larger disability community?
MF: Yes. I’ve been given a huge responsibility, and thinking about it stresses me out a little, but I am ready to represent them and make them proud.
I hope as people watch Speechless they get to know JJ as a very normal person, to the point that they don’t even see his disability, but his humor and personality and that they can bring that into their own lives.
One of the things I’m most committed to is showing people that you don’t have to act differently or be uncomfortable around disabled people. We are so normal. Just say, “Hi!” Look beyond the physical or other limitation and see the real person, the heart, the personality, the love and yes, even the humor.
Watch Micah Fowler on Speechless, premiering Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.