A Quiet Place proves there’s no excuse for using non-disabled actors to play disabled characters

Regan Abbott is a fully formed character. It's her, not just her deafness, that is central to the plot

James Moore
Thursday 03 May 2018 13:07
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Exclusive clip from movie A Quiet Place

Hollywood is a cesspit of sleaze, scandal and celebrity. We’ve always known that. What the #MeToo movement did was to show we were just scratching the surface.

But at the same time tinseltown sometimes gets it right – in a light in the darkness sort of way.

A case in point is A Quiet Place, the sleeper smash horror movie that’s sadly nearing the end of its cinematic run. You should take the opportunity to see it if you can, and not just because it’s one of the most original movies in years that manages to create something unique despite calling on just about every creature feature trope in the book.

You see, A Quiet Place features a character with a disability. That in itself is vanishingly rare in popular entertainment. But it goes further by casting an actor with that disability in the role in the form of Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf.

Her lack of hearing is central to the plot.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world haunted by blind monsters that zero in on sound with the aid of supersensitive hearing. Silence is thus a matter of survival. Because her family uses American Sign Language (ASL) they have an advantage: they can talk to each other in a world where speaking can get you killed.

The script could have fallen down at this point by having Simmonds perform a functional role without much else to do other than move the plot along for the other actors, including A-lister Emily Blunt, to shine.

But it has more ambition than that. Simmonds’ Regan Abbott is a fully formed character; a stroppy teen, chafing against her parents’ overprotectiveness and haunted by what she sees as her role in her little brother’s death. It’s not just her deafness that is central to the plot: she is. She’s neither an afterthought, nor is she an inspiration, which is another trap films involving disability fall into. She’s a person. She’s also the best thing about a film that is full of good things.

Director John Krasinski, who pushed to cast her, has further revealed that she changed one of the signed parts of the scripts in an important way that makes it better.

In fact she elevates the whole project. As Kamran Mallick, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK, says, she brings “an extra dimension to the role which a hearing actor would not have been able to do”.

This is, however, sadly, rare, even with films that are specifically about disability such as My Left Foot (1990) or Inside I’m Dancing (2004) or last year’s atrocious You Before Me in which the leading male character kills himself rather than live as a tetraplegic.

Emily Blunt ordered her husband John Krasinski to 'fire' friend so she could star in new horror film A Quiet Place

It happens in films that aren’t specifically about disability too. The X Men’s Professor X is a rare example of a superhero with a disability. But the able-bodied Patrick Stewart was cast to play him (much as I hate to criticise the great man).

Says Mallick: “The nagging worry is non-disabled people continue to land the roles of disabled characters. It’s no longer acceptable for white actors to ‘black up’ for nonwhite roles, and rightly so. The same is true around disability.”

That for me sums it up. It needs to change because, as Mallick points out, and Simmonds proves, the talent is out there.

Jeff Nicholls employed Tova Stewart, who is also deaf, for his critically acclaimed Take Shelter back in 2011. RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, became a star through his appearance in the hit TV series Breaking Bad. Simmonds herself appeared in the 2017 drama Wonderstruck before being cast in A Quiet Place.

So it can be done, even with the financial imperative to use “name” actors to get people watching. It just too rarely is.

Perhaps A Quiet Place, and the attention Simmonds’ performance has garnered, will prove to be the turning point that these earlier examples weren’t.

I wish I could have a little more confidence about that.

Simmonds has talked in interviews about a desire to play roles that don’t specifically revolve around her deafness and, well, why not? She’s a good enough actor to do it and I think the movie going public would be far more open to it than Hollywood gives it credit for.

In the meantime, a sequel is planned. It’s not clear whether any of the cast will return but I hope we’ll get the chance to see Simmonds again, even if they don’t.

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