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Actress Melissa George read through the script for Music Within, as she would any other project she was considering. But by the closing pages, she knew she had to make the film. She would play Christine, the love interest of activist Richard Pimentel, in a story that struck her as hauntingly familiar. Similar to Pimentel, her father had been injured in Vietnam, sustained a condition marked by constant ringing in the ears along with hearing loss.

“It really affected his life,” George says of her father.

The uncanny connections didn’t end there: During the shoot for Music Within, due out this fall, the Australian actress learned that director Steve Sawalich’s stepfather is the founder of Starkey Laboratories, maker of “the smallest hearing aid ever,” George says. “We would like to help your dad out,” Sawalich told her. So her father flew to an affiliate in Western Australia, got fitted for the hearing aids and walked solidly into the world of sound for the first time in decades.

“Now I can’t hear your mother yelling at me,” her father joked.

George’s story is humorous with an undertow of emotion just like the film, which follows Pimentel as he becomes politicized after he and others with disabilities face repeated discrimination. While the smaller story is of his friendships with Christine and Art Honeyman, a college classmate with cerebral palsy, the larger tale is of the historic rise of the disability movement, which culminates in the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act. Music Within won the Audience and Star Awards at AFI’s Film Festival in Dallas.

“The first time I saw the film, it was very traumatic,” Pimentel recalls. As background, he had supplied the producers with 90 pages of notes on his life, allowed them to videotape him during two days of in-person interviews, and gave them a copy of his 1980 book Tilting At Windmills, a guide to employing people with disabilities.

“It was important to be real candid, to show up warts and all,” Pimentel explained. A highly sought-after speaker, he’s fought for disability rights for upwards of 40 years. The difficulty for him in watching the film had less to do with how he was portrayed, than in seeing the depiction of his late mother, who was emotionally and mentally delicate, and of his father, who died in a sudden fall from a ladder when Pimentel was a boy.

After the initial shock of seeing the intimate details of his life projected onto the big screen, he saw the film a second time and evaluated it as a movie. “Then I was so thrilled,” he said. “Everybody did such a fabulous job. I was especially pleased with the integrity of the script.” He realized then that they were using his life experiences as a vehicle to tell the story of the disability movement.

Actor Ron Livingston took on the role of Pimentel, aware that his performance could not help but draw comparisons to the real man, who is something of a celebrity in his own realm.

The actor and activist first met in Minnesota, where Livingston flew to hear Pimentel at a speaking engagement. “It was kind of important to see him in action, since I play him speaking throughout the movie,” Livingston related. Watching from the audience, he found the public Pimentel to be “an engaging and friendly speaker who, on a dime, can turn very passionate.”

The two men spent private time together over lunch, where Livingston observed Pimentel’s mannerisms while asking a laundry list of questions. “It was a cross between a student newspaper interview and a therapy session,” jokes Livingston, who is a graduate of Yale’s School of Drama.

“I could tell he was studying me, my gestures, the way I say things,” Pimentel recalls.

If it was some kind of test, Livingston, perhaps best known for his roles in the comedy, Office Space, and HBO’s Sex and the City, scored with high marks. “Ron really took a lot of care to portray my character with truth, he didn’t just imitate me.” Playing his free-spirited love interest Christine—a character also based on a real person—George came up with her own set of questions for Pimentel, to help her better understand the person whom she believes was “the woman who really made it all happen, who made him become a bigger man.” Theirs starts off a hippy-dippy relationship in which Chistine is willing to make sacrifices, while Pimentel refuses—a choice he later regrets.

George says the film was shot in Pimentel and Honeyman’s hometown Portland, OR, while the Vietnam scenes were set in the Philippines. The actress, who just wrapped a season of the new HBO show In Treatment with Gabriel Byrne, Diane Wiest and Blair Underwood, divides her time between homes in Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. She is a veteran of the long-running Aussie nighttime soap, Home and Away where, at only 16, she starred opposite Guy Pierce and Heath Ledger, and is a former championship skater.

For her, Music Within made her highly aware of challenges people with disabilities face, particularly on a physical level. She finds such accommodations as accessible entrances and restrooms widely available in the U.S., Australia and England, but largely non-existent in the rest of Europe. “Still to this day,” she says, “they don’t seem to care.”

Actor Michael Sheen, who drew impressive notices for his portrayal of Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, had to play someone who needed those accessible entrances and restrooms. In perhaps the most arduous performance in the film, he affected the mannerisms of a person with cerebral palsy and learned to maneuver a wheelchair in his role as Pimentel’s best friend. “When I started off, I wasn’t great at using it. I remember causing a bit of obstruction as far as some persons were concerned. While some people were helpful, others seemed to find me invisible.” The experience, he says, “made me realize how inaccessible certain buildings were.”

Many of the revelations the actors came to collectively while making the film, however, had more to do with things people don’t say in those awkward moments when people with disabilities and people without seek common ground. “I always used to think that most of the challenges with people who had disabilities was the disability itself,” says Livingston. “What I started to figure out, doing this movie, was that most of the challenges stemmed from the fact that people without disabilities are scared of people who have them. Once you started teaching people not to be afraid of each other, most of the problems went away by themselves.” .... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Ron Livingston issue include Autism—A Fathers Story; Green Up!—9 Things You Can Do; Humor Therapy; Yo God, Down Here; Allen Rucker—Stuck at the Starting Line; Disability Legal Rights Center; Fighting Cancer Discrimination; Senator Letter—Hillary Rodham Clinton; Assistive Technology—20 Years of the ATA; Amputee Camp—Fun Without Limits; Extremity Sports—Have Prosthetic, Will Rock!; Wheelchair Games—At 83, They Kick Butt; Horse Therapy—Gallop Your Way to Good Health; Paralympics 2008—Countdown to Beijing; George Covington—To Lawyer or Not to Lawyer?; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences.subscribe

More excerpts from the Ron Livingston issue:

Ron Livingston — Music Within

MS — In Children

Walgreens — Hire & Hire

Behind the Scenes — Music Within

Humor Therapy — Yo God, Down Here

Allen Rucker: Stuck at the Starting Line

DRLC — Fighting Cancer Discrimination

A Father's Story — Adopting a Boy with Autism

Horse Therapy — Gallop Your Way to Good Health

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