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Speechless- E4, Weekdays, 7.30pm

March 14, 2019

After two decades, London-born actress Minnie Driver is finally returning to the UK – albeit only for her latest TV series, Speechless, an acerbic American comedy which follows the family of a teenager with non-verbal cerebral palsy. The series, which will air on E4, has won plaudits in the US for its honest, and funny, depiction of disability. And Driver thinks British viewers will lap it up.
“The UK has embraced disability,” she says, noting the success of new BBC series Jerk, another sitcom which depicts cerebral palsy, in which the main character uses his disability to behave as badly as possible. “I feel like people are just going to laugh with the show.”
Other TV series or films about disability, says Driver, treat it as a negative.
“You’re always looking at people who are trying to get away from their disability – whether that’s looking for a way to die or their life being miserable and some able-bodied saviour comes along to make them feel better,” she says. “As opposed to disabilities just being a different way of living a life.”
Sure, Speechless’s main character, JJ – superbly played by Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy himself – is disabled, but he is also a “really annoying teenager”. It was time for a series like this, adds Driver – “something that wasn’t putting disability on a pedestal”. ‘
Crip-face’
That Fowler has cerebral palsy is one of the reasons why Driver was so proud to work on the show. “Crip-face” – a term coined by disability rights activists to describe able-bodied actors taking on disabled parts – has “categorically got to stop”, she says.
“In the same way that we do not have people who are not of colour playing characters of colour now, the overarching argument is always: ‘Do I want the best person for the role?’ Well, you can find the best person for the role who also has the experience of being disabled, if that is what the part calls for.”
Driver plays Fowler’s mother, Maya, a lioness of a woman who is determined to fight for her children no matter what. In one episode, she thumbs her nose at the city’s speed limits, jumping red lights and screeching around corners, just so she can make it to a diner in time to redeem a free breakfast coupon.
“She’s what I would call a self-aware narcissist, in that she knows she is the biggest nightmare in the room but she’ll hold her hand up and go: ‘Well, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.’”
She is brilliant fun to play, says the actress, who credits the show’s writers with recognising what their cast members are good at – in her case “absurdist, farcical, weird shit” – and leaning into it.
The show has proved resonant with families in similar situations in the US.
“On social media I probably get between 50 and 100 tweets or Instagram posts a day from people going, ‘Oh my God, you are my mother!’ or ‘Maya is me’,” says Driver. “There is clearly a recognition of the fight and the behaviour.”
And, although they differ, there is one element of Maya that Driver can relate to. “She loves her children more than anything else in the world,” says the 49-year-old, who has a 10-year-old son. “I give [Maya] a lot of leeway, even though I’m constantly laughing at how awful she is.”
Political intrigue
Driver moved to the US 20 years ago. She misses the UK (“I miss walking out of my house, going down to get a pint of milk for tea and running into four people and then being three hours late with the milk”) but is grateful for the opportunities that the US has afforded her. She became an American citizen in 2017 for “practical” reasons.
“This country, from where I’m standing, has a dumpster fire going on in the White House,” she says, bluntly. “I wanted to be political and not just from my armchair. I care passionately about politics. I wanted to be able to vote. I wanted to be able to get involved in political campaigns.”
But there were other, more sinister, reasons behind her decision. Driver had started to feel her place in the US was in jeopardy. 
She describes being audited from Washington DC as “a little bit threatening when you hold a Green Card that can be rescinded at any time” and, after Donald Trump was elected, she felt her legitimacy in the country was being looked at and, possibly, threatened because of how outspoken she was on social media.
In fact, there was nothing romantic, idealistic, or even especially momentous about Driver’s decision to become an American citizen – despite living in the country for years. She did it, almost, as a battle cry, as though Trump’s election was a call to arms.
“It suddenly became very important to me.”
Why not sooner? Before Mr Trump was elected?
“I was in the bubble,” she concedes.
“I’m as guilty as the next person by feeling that I’d done my bit. I realised my bit really wasn’t good enough.”
Driver is looking forward to exercising her right to vote in the 2020 election, which, she says, is going to be “insane”. So who will get her cross in their box? She thinks for a moment.

“I want the person with a sword that is going to slay the orange dragon.”

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