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Thursday, Dec 7, 2023

Studios Get More Real Casting Disabled Actors

Michael Patrick King turned to an Inglewood company for help needed to cast actors with Down syndrome for his new Amazon.com pilot.

The co-creator and executive producer of CBS’ “Two Broke Girls” and writer-producer of HBO’s “Sex and the City” features seven actors with Down syndrome in his latest show, “Love You More.”

Two of those actors, John Tucker and Luke Zimmerman, studied at Performing Arts Studio West in Inglewood, where the company has offered training and professional representation for performers with developmental disabilities for 19 years.

Performing Arts Studio West received slightly more than $1 million in state support last year for its training program. The organization also represents its clients as a manager and often has a representative on set during production, said founder and President John Paizis. It collects a 15% management fee.

Tucker and Zimmerman received $15,000 a week for their work on the “Love You More” pilot, the highest salaries thus far received by the studio’s clients. The company made $6,700 in fees last year.

King said the motivation for casting actors with Down syndrome had nothing to do with money, but rather a commitment to realistic casting. He and others involved in hiring actors with disabilities said demand for such actors is increasing, fueling businesses that provide the training required to meet Hollywood’s standards.

King attributed the heightened demand to an increasingly competitive TV landscape. Producers have been challenged to explore new worlds as streaming platforms such as Amazon and Hulu of Santa Monica try to offer content outside the mainstream.

“Something that hasn’t yet been seen is the best business model at this point in television,” he said. “There is so much television that people are looking at an entirely new range of characters, something that’s completely nowhere else.”

King added that “Love You More” is part of an observable wave of growing acceptance of actors with disabilities on TV. The pilot was produced by his Burbank-based MPK Productions Inc. in association with Warner Bros. Television.

ABC’s “Speechless,” a comedy about an eccentric family, features a teenager with cerebral palsy, portrayed by Micah Fowler, who has the condition in real life.

The series ranked No. 6 of 40 network sitcoms last year, according to Nielsen ratings. That amounted to about 7.2 million viewers an episode, good enough for the network to renew the show for a second season in May.

King said that actors with Down syndrome did not cause any additional production costs. Producers had to adjust to a bit more spontaneity and improvisational work than usual, but those generally don’t cause delays.

Industry acceptance

Paizis of Performing Arts Studio West said “Speechless,” as well as A&E’s Emmy-winning reality series about adults with Down syndrome, are also helping to create changes in the way people with disabilities are perceived by studio executives.

“They are showing the industry that shows with people with disabilities can be moneymakers,” he said.

The number of TV characters with disabilities increased to 15 in 2016 from eight the year before, according to data from media-tracking organization GLAAD. Last year’s figure amounted to 1.7 percent of all on-screen characters, the highest tally since the company began gathering statistics on disabled TV characters in 2010.

A 2014 study released by the Ruder Family Foundation of East Hampton, N.Y., meanwhile, noted 95 percent of those characters are portrayed by actors without disabilities.

Adam Moore, national director of equal opportunity employment and diversity for SAG-Aftra, said he does not think the TV and film industries have yet reached a tipping point, but he anticipates a continued increase in the casting of disabled actors.

“The conversation is at its highest pitch in quite a while,” Moore said.

King tapped Gail Williamson, an agent at Studio City’s Kazarian Measures Ruskin & Associates Inc., who handles clients with disabilities for the agency, to help him cast “Love You More.” She referred him to Performing Arts Studio West, where he found Tucker and Zimmerman.

Williamson started in the business to aid her son Blair Williamson, who has Down syndrome, in pursuing an acting career. She said social media has opened up circles of communication for families dealing with disability, and that increased awareness has created a bigger demand for representation on screen.

“Social media has given us a virtual dining table,” she said.

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