It's a great time to be an actor with a disability

Mat Fraser

It's a great time to be an actor with a disability

Actor, writer, performer and activist Mat Fraser works with the impact of mass-media into changing our image of disability.

With his natural charisma and radical views, he met Mari for a chat and a pint of beer in an English pub, for the second episode of the series.

You probably remember Mat from his role in the 'American Horror Story' - Paul the Illustrated Seal.
Working for more than 20 years in the film&TV industry, Mat is also playing theatre (in 2017 he played Shakespeare's Richard III at the Hull Truck Theatre) and starring in cabaret and freak shows. Now 57, he splits his time between New York and his hometown of London.
We recommend you to watch his 2004 documentary 'Happy Birthday, Thalidomide!', centered around the medicine that caused his impairment and its current usage in Brazil, to treat leprosy.

“What the disabled community needs is a Spike Lee. And we don’t even have a Sidney Poitier yet. Fuck it, we don’t even have a Paul Robeson.”

Mat remembers one of his first auditions from back in the ’90s, for the Sylvester Stallone ‘Judge Dredd’ film. “I knew what it was, before going there I have read the comic that the script is based upon – there were lots of mutants in it. I had really long dreadlocks back then, so I looked like a real mutant. But the reason why I didn’t get the job to play a mutant was actually because I was a real mutant.’

He considers that back in those days, the film&TV industry was not ready for the  ‘real thing’ yet. The numbers confirm it: since 1987, more than 40% winners of the Oscar Academy Awards have been able-bodied actors interpreting characters with a physical or mental disability, as this research shows. 

Retrospectively, Mat sees to power of that casting to have precipitated him to ‘come out’ as a disabled person, to understand and change the fact that he felt disabled inside the social context. He explored the various nuances of his on-stage/screen persona, through reflections on disability through documentaries, extravagant and weird freak shows, acting, speaking and musical performances.

The industry is also changing. This year, Netflix produced the comedy series ‘Special’, centring on a gay man with mild cerebral palsy whose character is inspired by the series’ writer&protagonist Ryan O’Connell. Programmes are being implemented in order to support the professionalisation of actors with disabilities – like this one, from UK. 

It’s still left to be discovered how the opportunities provided for disabled actors will grow in the future and how we turn this change into a sustainable one. 

What advice would you give to an emerging actor with a disability?

"If you asked me this 20 years ago, I would have probably said that: “They are going to tell you ‘no’ and they are gonna lie about the reason. You have to keep coming back, to insist, and then, one day - you might get a job’.

But now things are different and They are actually looking for disabled actors. Now, we’re niche actors. It is a great time to be a disabled actor!

So, now I would say to a disabled actor the same thing I would say to any other actor: ‘Learn your lines, know them well, make sure you can tell them when someone is punching you at the same time, be professional, be there on time, do it as well as you can.That’s it! …and it’s ok to ask for access! In the old days, we didn’t dare asking for anything that we needed, because that would have been a reason to not get the job. Now they are aware that they need to provide access, so it’s ok to ask - it’s hard to ask for it, but it’s ok."