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Kurt Yaeger On Being An Actor And An Amputee

August 10, 2018

I was a very overweight child with older brothers and I had to keep up with them. We all used to ride bikes and motorcycles together but, because they were older, I had to push myself – that’s always been part of me. In 2006, I was involved in a motorcycle accident in LA. My leg was torn off when I was hit by a car travelling at 100 miles an hour. It left me a below-the-knee amputee and, in the aftermath, that drive was essential to pull myself through, both mentally and physically.

I learned to view my disability as a positive. I’ve become more successful as a result, because I understand the human condition more accurately. Before losing my leg I didn’t comprehend when a doctor asks you about your pain on a scale of one to 10. I now understand what 10 means – it means suicide is a viable option. That gives you humanity and it has made me a better actor – being able to tap into it is incredibly useful.

The Hollywood system employs a laughably small number of disabled actors, so I’ve had to be tenacious. Less than 2% of characters on TV have a disability and 95% of those are played by able-bodied people. The mathematics tell the story: the numeric value of disabled actors on screen has remained the same and yet the amount of TV production with Netflix etc has, say, tripled in the past 10 years. That means discrimination has actually increased. I’m watching disabled friends’ lives disappear because they are not able to practise their craft.

Unequivocally, union rules state that you must audition disabled people for disabled roles. But take, for example, Joaquín Phoenix in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot – they didn’t see a disabled actor for that role. I think we need to get to a stage where a major star playing a disabled character can’t be accepted until disabled performers are accepted.

With regards to my casting in The Festival, the decision to use a real disabled actor came from the top. Channel 4 was looking for disabled actors and I did a read for the film. Iain Morris was very aware of disability and humour and how far he could push it. He created a brilliant character: an optimistic and plucky American who stomps on people’s emotions but with no idea he is doing it. Disability doesn’t play into the character’s motivation – the leg in itself isn’t a character trait. I’ve played a lot of characters who had nothing to do with disability, but it was refreshing that the comedy didn’t pull any punches. Humour is a great bridge to truth.

I find there is a difference between the attitudes of disability-phobic execs versus crews. When you’re in the trenches, you deal with people on a daily basis; when you’re removed, you lose this connection to how people really are. The crew on The Festival never had an issue with my disability. There was no genteelly asking hard-to-answer questions – because they understood.

I believe more representation and interesting roles for disabled actors will happen. Disabled people have $175bn (£136bn) in discretionary spending – there is a market and Hollywood is waking up to that. The series Speechless has been a huge success; John Krasinski demanded they hire an actor who is deaf in A Quiet Place. Once that becomes the norm, disability will be acceptable.

The biggest problem is that the execs are scared. They feel like they need to be PC but don’t know how, so instead the issue is swerved. I didn’t think about disability before I lost my leg, so I know how they feel, but they need to not be afraid of language. I don’t care if I’m referred to as an amputee or a one-legged bastard. Come and talk to us – and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

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