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For a dozen seasons, Laura Innes played ER’s Dr. Kerry Weaver, a tart-tongued surgeon with an unnamed disability that caused her to walk with a limp. Initially Innes, who is able bodied, thought little of that aspect of her new role. But playing the part over so many years and getting feedback from friends and peers who have disabilities, sensitized the actress to the realities they faced. Now, as a TV director, her increased awareness broadens her casting choices and motivates her to do a bit of advocacy when she thinks it necessary. Recently, ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Pamela Johnson met up with Innes in Hollywood as she walked alongside Performers With Disabilities (PWD). Out in force, they were supporting striking members of the Writers Guild of America.

Pamela Johnson: We got you fresh out of the editing room, what were you working on?

Laura Innes: I’m directing an episode of Brothers and Sisters.

Chet Cooper: When you read for the role of Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER, did you know going in that you would play a person with a disability?

Innes: Yes, when I read for the part, the character was described as having a limp and using a cane. She was written with that intention. I never asked John Wells—the show’s executive producer—but I heard it through the grapevine that when he was observing hospitals, he saw a doctor who had a cane and he thought, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.”

Johnson: You knew Weaver had a limp, but did they tell you the back story?

Innes: No. When I asked, “Well, what’s her malady or injury?” they said, “We haven’t decided yet.” They wanted to keep it open, and not have it be something that was an issue. We discussed what kind of crutch or cane I should use, and I actually suggested the cuff crutch, because I thought with all the moving around and concerns with cleanliness, that a doctor wouldn’t always want to be grabbing onto a cane or setting it down. With a cuff crutch, it could always be on my arm, and if I was at a trauma table I could have it for support and still use my hands. So that’s how that choice was made. When I got the part and the character was described as having a limp, I didn’t really think about it in terms of the impact as a disability.

Cooper: Do you remember getting any heat for being an able-bodied person taking a part that might have gone to an actor with a disability?

Innes: I remember speaking to a good friend of mine, Nancy Becker-Kennedy, who uses a wheelchair. She and I had done a sitcom together and we got to be friends. When I mentioned this part I landed on ER, she was the first one who made me aware of the fact that there was a possibility that some people might be upset that the role was given to me. I hadn’t even thought about it at that point.

Johnson: How long had you had the part when you two discussed this?

Innes: Oh, it was early on. I think I was initially hired to do only six episodes or three episodes, and Nancy and I had just finished working together, so we were in touch all the time.

Cooper: I know Nancy; she’s a part of PWD. One thing they fight for is to get actors with disabilities to portray people with disabilities.

Innes: Yes, it’s a complex issue, and I talked to Nancy about it extensively. And then we got into this whole conversation that basically went: Well, what if the character’s in a wheelchair, but the person’s actual disability is with a crutch? Should they not play the part in the wheelchair?
For me, the prospect of playing Dr. Weaver amounted to: “Wow, this is such a great character, she’s so acerbic, she’s so smart, she’s so powerful, she’s so good at what she does, she’s funny, and, oh yeah, she has a limp…

Johnson: One small aspect of who she was.

Innes: As an artist I said,”Oh, what a great character!” when I spoke to Nancy and she said, “Wait a minute, did they bring in actors with disabilities to read for the part?” I said, “I never even thought about that.” And she goes, “Well, this is a big issue.” After that, I actually called John Wells, the casting person, and said, “Did you guys do sessions with actors with disabilities?” He said, “Yes, we did.”

Johnson: So you were happy to have a part on a top-rated show, and yet you were feeling a bit conflicted about it at the same time.

Innes: Yes. Initially I thought, Oh, gosh, I feel really bad about this.” And then I thought, Hey, you know what? I got this part, and I’m going to make the most of it, and I’m going to have it help me evolve and make choices that help other people. After playing Dr. Weaver a while, and meeting more people with disabilities, I’ve come to believe strongly that it’s important to do casting sessions with people who are actually disabled.

Now, as a director, because of my experience, I do that first. Like we had a character on ER who was deaf. It was a big part. So there was all this back and forth about Should we look for someone?… The guy had to be an African-American high school student who could be interpreted as threatening by a Chicago policeman. The officer arrests him on the suspicion that he’s a gang member. They treat him a certain way because they assume he’s being belligerent, when actually he’s deaf. It was a tall order, but we found a young man out of Washington, DC, who was deaf. As an actor, he was inexperienced, but somebody knew him. We ended up casting him based on this tiny little audition tape. He turned out to be fantastic.

Johnson: You flexed muscle that you wouldn’t have had if you were in actress mode as Dr. Kerry Weaver.

Innes: True, and I was just directing another episode of ER recently. The story line is very heavy, and features a father who was in a wheelchair; he’s concerned for his son who’s suffered a fall. It was a big part, and we used an actor with a disability for it, and that was a result of me saying: “We need to absolutely go down this road to the Nth degree before we choose an able-bodied actor.” So in those two cases—and then again recently on Brothers and Sisters—we picked an actor with a disability. On Brothers, there’s an actor named Alan Toy. We cast him as a Vietnam vet who uses a wheelchair. So now I’m very proactive about it.

Cooper: It’s great that you’ve chosen to use your power for advocacy.

Innes: On the other hand, I don’t think the rules are set in stone. I mean, I think Daniel Day-Lewis was amazing in My Left Foot. I think he should have played that part. But should he have gotten to play that part just because he’s a big star and it was a high-profile movie? I mean, is that where you draw the line? I don’t think it’s something that’s an absolute.

I think the bigger issue is that you seek out actors with disabilities for such a part first, and if you can’t find somebody that you think is going to really keep the quality or keep your intention, then you go to able-bodied actors. But I think you have to, in good conscience, go down that road. It’s difficult because there are more and more disabled performers who are available, but it depends on the part and the age; it’s extremely specific. That’s the point I’ve come to on that.

Cooper: What are other battles that you find yourself waging?

Well, one is that it’s hard to convince producers and show runners that we need to bring people in who are just in the background, in the workplace. Choosing them has nothing to do with their disability. They just work in places the way we all work in places. That’s the harder sell for people, because they’re worried that it’s going to be a distraction, or they’ll ask, “What’s the audience going to think?” They’re going to think just what they thought about Kerry Weaver. Many people thought I was actually disabled.

Johnson: It’s like the’50s: What will they think if we put a black person on TV!

Innes: I’ve worked on a show that I won’t name where there were lots of discussions around performers with disabilities. They went like this: “Well, what are we going to do? We have to build a ramp and we have to get a special trailer.” But I was able to push things along by saying, “You know what? You need this kind of ramp and it needs to be this angle. It’s going to cost you X.”

Johnson: The cost wasn’t that expensive, right?

Innes: Right. It ended up being minimal. I think that’s the thing, people think accommodations are going to be a big deal, but performers who come in are ready to deal with certain issues, and if you just prepare them and somebody makes one phone call to them and says, “What kind of chair do you have? What kind of ramp do you need?” There are all kinds of guidelines for that. I mean, when I directed that recent episode of ER, we had to build a ramp to help Grant Albright get up to this observation room, but that wasn’t that big an expense. It’s very doable, you know?

Cooper: How can performers with disabilities get in, when the door’s so hard to budge?

Innes: I would encourage people to just stick with it, work hard and stay in their classes, stay with their training, because nobody in LA works enough. So what happens is, if you don’t get called into very many auditions and you don’t work that often, when you do get called in, it’s such a big deal that you might not be primed to do your best. You’re going to be nervous.

Johnson: Makes sense.

Innes: So I think almost more than other actors, performers with disabilities have to really be in class and keep their chops up, because unfortunately those opportunities don’t come along that often, just as they don’t come along that often for, say, women who are over 40, you know?

The business is not receptive to people who don’t look a certain way, no matter what that is. Still, I think that people should just go for it and keep pursuing it. God knows things have gotten a lot better. But that person has to come into the room and basically prove everybody wrong. Like, “You need me here. I’m the only one who can play this part.”.
.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Laura Innes issue include Headlines — CVS, Red Cross, AT&T Foundation; Humor Therapy — It’s Sad Not Being Happy; George Covington — When Life’s A Blur; Humor Therapy; Senator Letter — Ben Nelson; DRLC — Is Your Health Care System Accessible?; Allen Rucker — Thoughts on the Writers Strike; Green Pages — Save Bucks in the Bathroom; Betsy Valnes — Sticks and Stones; Deaf Cruise — Partiers of the Caribbean; ChairKrazy — The Marcus Ingram Story; Dr. Hans Keirstead — Stem Cell Pioneer; Richard Pimentel — Get A Job (Here’s How); ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

Dec/Jan 2007-08

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More excerpts from the Laura Innes issue:

Laura Innes -- Interview

Ricky James — Still Zooming Ahead

Hans Keirstead — Stem Cell Pioneer

Call Me Chairkrazy: The Marcus Ingram Story

Will Downing -- Will Power

UCP — Life Without Limits

Raytheon — Rhodes To Independence

Betsy Valnes — Sticks and Stones

Richard Pimental — Get A Job (Here's How)


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