Diversity in the film industry seems like a new trend. After all, CODA, a film about a hearing child of Deaf parents, took top awards in 2022 with the cast being comprised of amazing Deaf actors including Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durante, and Oscar winner – Troy Kotsur. Plus, more and more programs we watch and stream seem to have at least one actor with “unique needs” in the cast.
In actuality, in relation to the film industry – “diversity” is not a new term. For years, television programming, and commercial and theatrical products have been made with actors who have unique challenges. The difference is that back in 1980 the person in the wheelchair might have been in the background. Or the child with Down Syndrome was a character on a TV series for a few minutes in one episode. It wasn’t until the last ten years or so that diversity in the entertainment arena made headway to become an industry standard.
I am glad that FINALLY, we can talk about diversity in the entertainment field as if it was “commonplace.” Needless to say, I have been waiting a long time for the public to see the amazing qualities of actors with exceptional needs, as I have for decades.
Waiting for Ronald is an internationally award -winning short film I wrote, directed, and produced many years ago. It starred actors who happened to have Autism and Down Syndrome. It was one of the most delightful and insightful experiences as a director I have ever had. If you are curious, you can watch the film trailer here.
The Waiting for Ronald experience, along with years of working with people as a therapist, supporter of special needs projects, etc., taught me that there is very little difference between being a filmmaker in a film cast with individuals who are unique and those who are more “typical”.
Actors, “as a species” all have commonalities such as a passion to perform and to absorb the characters that they are cast to portray. They live for the response of the audience and an opportunity to do it all again – with some financial benefits, of course. It simply does not matter what IQ the actor possesses or if they are moving around a television set with a wheelchair. What matters is their drive, willingness to learn, and commitment to the process. All of this can be very exciting!
And let’s face it… learning to be a professional actor at a caliber that pays the bills or more – doesn’t happen overnight and usually doesn’t happen without training. So, for the person with special needs, it would be helpful to have an acting teacher/acting coach who knows how to teach using methods that are relatable, engaging, and at the pace of the learner.
That is where I come in. I recognize that not all people who want to learn to act live within the Los Angeles – Hollywood area. For that reason, and my desire to reach actors who have skills at all levels – I am offering virtual acting coaching.
Interested? Let me know by completing the form below and I will be connect back as soon as possible.
Who is this Ronald and where he has been for 20 years? Well, let me tell you – Ronald has made the rounds – from festival to festival. Actually, Ronald and I have quite an entangled relationship. One that has lasted more than most marriages. Filled with life lessons, laughs, and tribulations. How about I tell your our story .. from the beginning…
Back in 2003, I wrote, produced, and directed the international award-winning short film Waiting for Ronald. I was ahead of my time as a filmmaker – recognizing that all people should have the opportunity to be in front of the camera and not just cast an “able” person to play the role of someone with special needs. It just seemed like the right thing to do. All actors should have an opportunity to enjoy filmmaking and not be tossed to the curb just because they have some limitations! (Don’t we all!). So, when I went to cast Waiting for Ronald I insisted on a blended ensemble of characters – all with unique talents and some who had never been an actor before.
As a filmmaker – this is where intuition can guide you. I knew that a blended cast was going to make Waiting for Ronald more authentic and very much a stand-out among films.
First, I needed to cinch up the story that revolved around Ronald, a 34-year-old man with developmental disabilities. My idea was to honor this character by giving him a rich backstory. So, I decided to tell the tale of his life after spending decades in an institution. I spotlighted the way he says goodbye to his friends and caretaker. The arc of the script then takes Ronald to join his buddy Edgar, a previous resident of the institution who is now living independently.
Ronald embarks on his journey armed with bus fare, a lifetime packed into his one small suitcase, and a heart full of courage. He boards the bus excited to meet up with his pal, but Edgar, is fighting demons of his own and this reunification does not start smoothly. No spoilers here about what happens next – but really it isworth watching!Waiting for Ronald is a testament to faith, humor, bravery, and true friendship.
About the cast…
Ronald was played by the actor Jody Clark (click to see interview), who has unique developmental challenges. His experiences were limited until this film as he only had some roles as an extra but never really worked as a principle before the camera. I coached him prior to filming for this role. Oh, we had so much fun!
Watch Ellen’s Interviews with actors Jody Clark and Blair Williamson- CLICK IMAGE TO WATCH
This story of Waiting for Ronaldhas stayed with me for two decades. The whole concept of casting people with challenges -authentically- was not really the traditional “Hollywood” way. In case you haven’t figured out I am a non-traditionalist! So, in many ways, I believed and practiced access and inclusion in casting way before many of my colleagues.
I always wondered what happened to Ronald and Edgar after they settled into their new life together? This prevailing and gnawing set of thoughts inspired me to write my new series, Just South of Normal. In the vein of The Odd Couple, this half-hour comedy follows the lives of Ronald and Edgar, two high-functioning men with developmental challenges, who together, “take on the world”!
It is my hope that similar to these films – CODA, AUDIBLE, I AM SAM, The THEORY of EVERYTHING, and many other endeavors- our film community will continue to demonstrate that people can blend together to tell stories about real lives. My hope is that Ronald and Edgar will have many opportunities to continue to teach lessons and make people smile.
The current film culture is changing my friends and I invite my fellow filmmakers to join me by writing, directing, casting, and producing stories that make a difference and include the fabric of our world – all of it.
One of my longtime students, Philemon Chambers, was cast in a starring role in Single All The Way, a rom-com on Netflix. What makes this extra special is that Philemon is the first black, queer actor to star in a Netflix rom-com! He has studied with me for over 11 years, and even after his recent success, he is still taking my class.
One of my longtime students, Philemon Chambers and I sat down together in my acting studio and had a conversation on Instagram Live.
P: This is Netflix’s first gay holiday rom-com. There are so many barriers being broken and so many lights being shed on the queer community in a very mainstream way. We’re in 190 countries and over 214 million homes. To think that Netflix greenlit a project like this, with diversity in the cast, is monumental. I’m very humbled by it.
E: Oh, I love that. And you’re opening the door, aren’t you?
Philemon shared his insights on why he feels it’s important to study with a coach and take acting classes. He identified the things he has learned from me in class, what he feels are the most important to him as an actor, and how working with an acting coach has contributed to his success.
Preparation and Auditions – why going over auditioning in class is so important.
P: Auditioning helps us learn, because, at one point, we’re going to fail. We all have off days. Sometimes you mess up. I learned from Ellen to understand what didn’t work, so I know what I need to work on to conquer that.
E: That’s why we do a lot of auditioning in class. If you go back to the basics and you are specific, it really does ground you. Auditions are your chance to act. Instead of thinking it’s an audition, treat it like you’ve already got the job. Go in there and do it, because the more you do it, the more you get used to it, and that’s when you start to enjoy it.
E: Script analysis is not something every acting coach teaches, but it’s a cornerstone of my method.
P: This is a big one. Script analysis is important, especially when it comes to breaking down a story and breaking down your character. Nine times out of ten, what is on the paper is everything that you need. Of course, you need to create the back story, but script analysis definitely helps me out still, to this day.
E: Being specific is a key part of script analysis. The more the specifics the better. General is not good enough. Right?
P: Yeah, generally won’t get you anywhere.
P: It takes commitment to learn your craft.
I’ve been studying with Ellen for 11 years. I don’t remember the first class, but I do remember I was the youngest in the class.
E: That’s right and you were shy. You couldn’t hear him. I had to tell him I was a little deaf (I’m not), but I told him that so he would talk up. It worked. Right?
P: I’m a loudspeaker now. As people probably know.
Meditation and Relaxation
E: Meditation and relaxation are key.
P: A lot of the time, you are just go go go go go. There’s no real downtime, so you must find those moments in which you can relax.
E: An actor cannot have tension, so relaxation is very important,
Finally, we discussed what it really takes to become a successful actor.