Acclaimed screenwriter and playwright, Jack Thorne has advocated for disability representation on the small and big screen throughout his career. Speaking to Lorne Gillies, Jack discusses why meaningful representation is so important – and you can help be the change.
At the close of 2019, award winning screenwriter Jack Thorne wrote a piece for the Radio Times calling for improved disability visibility within film and television. During the piece, Jack detailed his calls for disabled actors to be cast during meetings to writing shows exclusively disability-led, only for them to be rejected.
During his career, Jack has been a figurehead of change and inclusion within the industry.
From writing Skins – where one character cared for her mother with multiple sclerosis, only for the mother to be cast by a non-disabled actor – to the BBC’s most recent adaptation of the Philip Pullman novels, His Dark Materials, featuring actor Mat Fraser who has thalidomide-induced phocomelia: Jack has carried disability representation throughout his screenwriting.
During your career you have written scripts featuring disabled characters, but, in what way do you think it’s detrimental for non-disabled actors to play disabled roles?
Every disabled role should be played by a disabled actor. In fact, in an ideal world plenty of non-disabled roles would be played by disabled actors.
And I’m not comfortable when a non-disabled actor plays a part that’s been written as disabled. But sometimes that does happen. Sometimes because I have no power – I’m not going to make Hollywood change its mind on disability, though I’m trying – at times, because there are aspects of the part that require a non-disabled performer (for instance before and after a disability).
I do try to make it clear at the beginning of a process what I’d want to happen with casting, there are times I’m even able to make it contractual; in every project I do I like to make sure there are some disabled actors in it.
People want to see disability on the large and small screen, why do you think casting directors are so hesitant to hire disabled actors?
I’d say fear is the main reason, fear of the unknown and fear of the requirements that will be imposed on the production. I have heard some offensive things said in casting meetings, from producers and casting directors, but I’d say the main thing I hear is fear.
The other thing I’d say is television is an industry and it is built on name recognition: “I’ll watch that, it’s got such and such in it,” and until we’ve established people as names people want to watch the industry is always going to be a tiny bit resistant.
Is there a reason, in your professional or personal opinion, that disability is still not widely represented in the media?
The truth is I am a tiny bit bewildered by how far behind the media industry is, and my problem is that no-one is shouting about the lack of representation in the media.
Or, rather, there are people shouting, people who’ve been shouting for years, and they simply aren’t being heard.
In the following five or ten years, how would you like to see disability representation change?
I’d like to see a genuine star emerge, one who will hammer down the doors, a Phoebe Waller Bridge for disabled performers.
I think there are plenty capable of doing it. I’d like to see a number of disabled writers and disabled directors making work for BBC One, the National Theatre and the BFI. Some already are to be clear, but we need more.
Within your Radio Times column you called for disability targets to be introduced. In what way will this help improve representation and change casting attitudes?
I think it forces people to look further afield than the same-old, same-old, that thing of just causing people to look at themselves and question their choices.
Lenny Henry is right that these targets need inducements though, financial ones, and I really hope that happens.
What more needs to be done to celebrate the talents of disabled people in the media?
Diversity is happening, it’s not happening fast, but it is happening.
It’s just disability is not being included within that. Drama schools need to take responsibility; subsidised places for disabled people; casting directors need to ensure that the question of disability be included within their diversity remit.
Makers need to look at themselves and question the absence of disabled people from their work. But more than all of that, the gate keepers need to realise this is not simply a question of casting, this is about ensuring that in the next generation of makers there are disabled people amongst their numbers.
Disabled people will make the best work with disabled people in it.
For budding disabled actors reading this, what advice do you have for them to pursue their passion?
The doors are being kicked in slowly. All is not lost. Your voices will be heard.
It’s not about networking, not really, it’s about making. Make the stuff that make other people notice. Use every opportunity you can get.
Find people you trust. Work with them until you’ve got something that can destroy all competition. I’m sorry I’m afraid the world isn’t quite ready, but you can make it ready.