The joke's on us

The actors aren't wheelchair-bound, but Inside I'm Dancing still reflects real life in a way that few films have ever managed. Even better, says the disabled comedian Greg Walloch, it's really funny
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In movie land, we love our leading men big and stupid... sometimes downright retarded. Want to win an Oscar? Easy. Play disabled. Just look at the sweet, yet sexy, Starbucks simpleton played by Sean Penn in I Am Sam, or the impressive Daniel Day-Lewis and his even more extraordinarily talented foot in My Left Foot. Look at Tom Hanks as the ever-loveable retard in Forrest Gump, or Tom Hanks in any other of his movies for that matter.

In movie land, we love our leading men big and stupid... sometimes downright retarded. Want to win an Oscar? Easy. Play disabled. Just look at the sweet, yet sexy, Starbucks simpleton played by Sean Penn in I Am Sam, or the impressive Daniel Day-Lewis and his even more extraordinarily talented foot in My Left Foot. Look at Tom Hanks as the ever-loveable retard in Forrest Gump, or Tom Hanks in any other of his movies for that matter.

Watching these characters is inspiring; it allows us to feel good in that gooey, heart-warming - yet strangely satisfyingly superior - way. We get to have that special feeling about special people. But what seems to be missing in the film world are movies that reflect the breadth and depth of who people with disabilities are; films about real people dealing with real life, who just happen to be disabled.

With the passing of the actor Christopher Reeve, I find myself reflective about how we view disabled people in the media. In the years since his 1995 horse-riding accident, Reeve used his fame to raise millions of dollars for research and lobbied for scientists to be allowed to conduct stem- cell research. Reeve's candidness, spirit and heart will be missed. Facing his accident, he seized the opportunity to re-invent himself and displayed real courage and conviction - not a martyr or his alter ego, super-human comic-book hero, but simply a man.

What seems to have been missing in the film world are movies that have reflected the breadth and depth of who people with disabilities are, films about real people dealing with real life who just happen to be disabled. Of the few that come to mind, the only one that strikes home was Children of a Lesser God, with its full of piss and vinegar star Marlee Matlin; she is angry, swears like a truck driver (albeit in sign language) and even gets to screw William Hurt. Not bad. But the film came out way back when we were listening to Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus", and dressed in skinny ties and Miami Vice jackets. The details of the story have become as faded a memory as my platinum blond Duran Duran pompadour haircut.

Which is why I'm ecstatic about the release of Inside I'm Dancing. Directed by Damien O'Donnell, who also directed Heartlands and East is East, and starring Romola Garai, James McAvoy and newcomer Steven Robertson, the Working Title production is set to be a big hit.

Written by Jeffrey Caine, the film is based on an original story by Christian O'Reilly, explores the relationship of two disabled friends - misfit Rory (McAvoy) and his neighbour, Michael (Robertson) - in a Dublin nursing home. McAvoy and Robertson create characters we can identify with. They have the same hopes and desires as anyone. Most importantly, they are disabled - rather than special.

Of course, some will say the comedy is un-PC; the characters routinely describe themselves as "cripples" and some of the gags are extremely close to the bone. Still more have decried the fact that the film stars two able-bodied actors, instead of disabled ones. But I disagree. I would say the film's characters are simply people, with all of their imperfect, mischievous humanity intact. And if these able-bodied actors are called on award night - and the signs are that they will - it certainly won't be due to the film's sentimentality that they win the plaudits. Inside I'm Dancing won the Standard Life Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

But who am I to be so opinionated about disability? And what right have I got to call Hanks a retard? OK. I'm an actor, solo performer and comedian. I also have cerebral palsy. Some of you may have seen my film Fuck the Disabled, a documentary about my live stage show, at London's Raindance Film Festival recently. It features appearances by Stephen Baldwin, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. It's been getting a pretty good reception.

In some circles, some might say I'm a bit of a celebrity. But living and working as a disabled writer and actor hasn't always been Baldwins, Stillers and star spots on the film festival circuit. My most memorable humiliation concerned the day I went to audition for Sesame Street. I was really excited about it, not only because it was a show that I grew up with, but because I thought that maybe this was the show that would put me on the map.

Having been whisked uptown in a yellow cab, I found myself seated in a tastefully decorated waiting room in the fabulous Rockefeller Center. Sitting there, studying my lines and thinking about how wonderful the audition was going to be, imagine how I felt when, suddenly, a woman with curly, red hair and a cigarette hanging from her lower lip poked her head out of her office door and announce: "Send in the white disabled talent."

I glided into that audition, counted one to 10, said the alphabet backwards and forwards, and was fantastic. But I didn't get the part.

I don't care that I didn't get the job, and Big Bird can blow it out his big bird butt, but I did have something of an epiphany that day. I looked at them and told them: "You know what? This white disabled talent is picking his canes up and taking his show on the road." There and then it became my goal to become the most beloved disabled performer in the world.

It can be tough facing the trials of being an actor with a disability, but I will never let that stop me from following my dreams. When I came to New York, like every other actor that arrives in the city, one of my big dreams was to become a waiter. I applied at places all over town, but I kept getting turned down.

Finally, I got a job at a place downtown. They said that they were an equal opportunity employer, and I wanted to do really well at my new job; impress people. I'd walk up to someone's table and say: "Your dinner's ready... it's in the kitchen." Although I thought my attitude fit in perfectly with my New York co-workers, I got fired.

I was undaunted, because I have that undaunting spirit that every single disabled person possesses. Oh sure, I could overcome insurmountable odds, run a marathon, or even explain complex theories of quantum physics, but that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to open my own restaurant in New York City and call it "Pour your own Fucking Coffee". It didn't happen. But I've had to find a way to go on, like I always do. Day by day, fighting the adversities of life, brave and strong.

A lot of people come up to me and they say: "I think you're really brave - just for being who you are." But they're not saying that about who I am, or what I've accomplished in my life; they're just saying that based on how I look when I walk by. So I look at them and I tell them: "No, I believe that everyone is disabled, in their very own special way."

So, as a disabled actor, I hope to continue playing more complex and interesting roles throughout my career. Whether the characters are played by able-bodied or disabled actors, films like Fuck the Disabled and Inside I'm Dancing are going a long way to prove that the image of people with disabilities in film is changing. Disabled people are smart, sad, sexy, angry, strong, frail, heroic and full of faults - just like everybody else. Look out Hollywood - you've got a new kind of leading man.

Greg Walloch headlined at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival, and stars in the concert film 'Fuck the Disabled'. Visit www.GregWalloch.com for more information

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