Reclaiming Roles: Actors Play Beyond Disabilities Even after a canoeing accident left him largely paralyzed, all Zack Weinstein ever wanted to do was act. Now, with a guest role on Fox's Glee, he's part of a new wave of performers who are bucking the Hollywood trend of casting able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities -- and challenging producers to think more broadly about those roles.
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Reclaiming Roles: Actors Play Beyond Disabilities

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Reclaiming Roles: Actors Play Beyond Disabilities

Reclaiming Roles: Actors Play Beyond Disabilities

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Fans agree, the TV series "Glee" is terrific. But they don't agree on whether it makes sense that one character who uses a wheelchair is being played by an actor who is not disabled. Tonight, the show features a young actor who does use a wheelchair both on and off the set. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Earlier in the season, one of the biggest challenges in "Glee" was how to get choir member Artie Abrams to the all-important sectionals competition.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Glee")

Mr. MATTHEW MORRISON (As Will Schuester): The school won't pay for the special bus we need to take Artie and his wheelchair with us to sectionals.

Unidentified Woman: What?

BATES: Teacher Will Schuester, played by Matthew Morrison, wanted all his students to understand the obstacles Artie faced daily. So Mr. Schue gave them an assignment.

Mr. MORRISON (As Will Schuester): For the next week, each of you is going to spend three hours a day in a wheelchair.

BATES: Of course, in the end, the kids not only understood, their competition number included a Tina Turner classic - with everybody in wheelchairs.

(Soundbite of song, "Proud Mary")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Rolling on the river.

BATES: Actor Kevin McHale only uses a wheelchair for his role as Artie. He's not disabled. But Zack Weinstein is, and as soon as he heard about a guest part for a disabled actor on "Glee" he wanted it.

Mr. ZACH WEINSTEIN (Actor): The part was written as a character who has a spinal cord injury very similar to mine, so I can relate directly to it.

BATES: Weinstein has been acting since he was four. He was majoring in theater at Skidmore College. When he was 19 a freak canoeing accident made him a quadriplegic. After a year off he returned to Skidmore in a wheelchair, graduated with a degree in theater studies and headed for L.A. where he was thrilled to land a part in "Glee."

Mr. WEINSTEIN: It's a guest starring role on one episode, and I got the audition, and I did pretty well in the audition because I got the part.

BATES: It doesn't bother Weinstein that "Glee" regular Kevin McHale doesn't use a wheelchair in real life.

Mr. WEINSTEIN: People who have disabilities or who use wheelchairs who could still conceivably play that part should have the equal opportunity to audition for those roles as well. And if it goes both ways, then the best actor gets the part.

BATES: But casting doesn't go both ways, says Alana Wallace, and that's the problem. Wallace is an actor, choreographer and dancer who uses a wheelchair. She was stunned to discover that even broadminded producers only considered disabled actors when the part specifically called for a disability.

Ms. ALANA WALLACE (Actress; Founder, Dance Detour): I just was so floored that that's the vision, that we can only play victims or heroic individuals who are overcoming tragedy. You know, we're charity cases.

BATES: She wants more.

Ms. WALLACE: How often do we see a strong actor with a disability playing a lead role for instance, or a very prominent role?

BATES: Not very often. But this season there's a recurring part on the "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff "Private Practice." Regular guest star Michael Patrick Thornton plays geneticist Dr. Gabriel Fife. Here he's correcting a colleague played by Audra McDonald.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Private Practice")

Ms. AUDRA MCDONALD (Actress): (as Dr. Naomi Bennett) When they told you that you would ever walk again that must've been the worst day of your life. How did you deal with it?

Mr. MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON (Actor): (as Dr. Gabriel Fife) Why would you assume that that was my worst day? Losing my legs changed my life but it certainly didn't ruin it. It was a period of adjustment but you deal with it.

BATES: Thornton's been dealing with it and using a wheelchair since 2003 when he had a spinal stroke. He says saccharine stories about how disabled characters noblely conquer their handicaps aren't the answer to on-screen diversity.

Mr. THORNTON: What I'm interested in these days is playing the lawyer, the best friend, with the wheelchair never once being mentioned. And I think that does a lot more towards the greater good at the end of the day as opposed to a really inspirational story about triumph over adversity.

BATES: "Glee's" newest guest star, Zach Weinstein, agrees. He urges casting agents to look at actors' disabilities as an additional skill set.

Mr. WEINSTEIN: I would say, if the person is seriously talented, don't think about what it takes away from the character; think about what it adds to the character. I think it adds a lot.

BATES: And he hopes his "Glee" debut tonight will add a lot more acting roles to his resume going forward.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Rain on My Parade")

Unidentified woman: (Singing) Don't tell me not to live, just sit and putter. Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter. Don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade. Don't tell me not to fly - I've simply got to. If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you. Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade? I'll march my band out...

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