“Best Foot Forward” is a story about and by people with disabilities
Picking the right actor for a role often means finding someone who matches the character’s description in a script, but Josh Sundquist wasn’t sure if that was possible for his “Best Foot Forward” series.
“It seems silly in retrospect, but that was four years ago,” Sundquist recently recalled. “At the time, it just didn’t occur to me that it would even be possible to hire an amputee actor.”
Sundquist was helping launch a fictionalized version of his younger self, the lead role in “Best Foot Forward,” which debuts Friday on Apple TV+. Loosely based on Sundquist’s memoir, “Just Don’t Fall”, the series centers on a 12-year-old boy who is the only child in his school with a limb difference. Sundquist, executive producer of the series, lost his left leg to bone cancer when he was 10 years old.
The character’s disability is central to “Best Foot Forward,” but Sundquist’s expectations were measured. “I just thought, ‘Oh sure, we’re going to have to choose a valid child and have a double,’ he said. “Because that’s all I’ve seen in my entire life. .”
Much to Sundquist’s delight, the production company behind the series, Muse Entertainment, intended to find an actor who shared the character’s disability. After casting newcomer Logan Marmino as the fictional Josh, Sundquist’s perspective on what was possible shifted significantly.
“By the time we got to where we were lit and started looking for a crew, I was completely converted to the importance of authentic representation both in front of and behind the camera,” he said.
What happens on camera often dominates the discourse around representation in entertainment. Although the news media has paid some attention to the lack of opportunities for actors with disabilities in recent years, much more needs to be done.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26% of American adults have a disability, but according to a GLAAD report released earlier this year, characters with disabilities, including children, made up just 2.8% of series regulars in all scripted TV shows airing in the 2021-22 TV season. (The report did not thoroughly examine the portrayal of people with disabilities on cable and streaming services.) Previous GLAAD research, from 2021, found that the majority of television characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors.
Even when actors with disabilities are cast, it often only solves half the problem, Sundquist noted. In many cases, if you were to turn the camera around, he said, “you would see that the disability is only portrayed in one direction.”
While making “Best Foot Forward”, Sundquist was determined to hire people with disabilities throughout the production, but finding crew members with disabilities was more difficult than he had anticipated. As for actors, “agents know that sometimes you want people with disabilities and they already have those people on their files,” he said. But when producers contacted unions and guilds that represent crew positions, he said, they found that most of them didn’t monitor which of their members had disabilities.
So Sundquist resorted to broadcasting calls on social media and connecting with disability advocacy groups like RespectAbility. “We’re not a staffing agency,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who runs the Entertainment Lab at RespectAbility, a workshop for professionals with disabilities working in television and film. “We’ve found ourselves in this position where studios and individual productions are reaching out to us saying, ‘We want help with this. “”Seven people who worked on “Best Foot Forward” were Lab alumni, she added.
“Best Foot Forward” isn’t the first show to include people with disabilities on both sides of the camera. Several shows in recent years, including Sundance Now’s “This Close,” about two deaf best friends, and Netflix’s “Special,” a comedy about a gay man with cerebral palsy, have been created by and starred by people disabilities. Appelbaum said “Best Foot Forward” builds on the foundation laid by those shows.
“What makes ‘Best Foot Forward’ truly unique is the intentionality behind bringing in a disabled crew,” she explained. “Team at all levels, from production assistants to directors.”
One of the show’s writers, Zach Anner, previously wrote for “Speechless,” an ABC series that ran from 2016 to 2019 and won acclaim for its gritty portrayal of a teenager who, like Anner, has cerebral palsy. Anner said there were only a few writers with disabilities for “Speechless”, “and it was very new at the time”. On “Best Foot Forward,” he said, “it was half the writers room.”
“No one felt responsible for representing an entire community,” Anner added. “It also freed us up to just be funny.”
Unlike many productions, the writers and disabled crew of “Best Foot Forward” were not tasked with also educating non-disabled cast members and promoting accessibility. It was someone’s real job. Kiah Amara served as the production’s Accessibility Coordinator, a relatively new role in Hollywood that is typically filled by professionals with disabilities who consult on on-screen authenticity and how to accommodate crew members with disabilities. .
The first step on set, Amara said, is to survey the team and figure out how to make the production as accessible as possible. “I’m going to list things like, ‘Check the box: Would you like access to a sensory room?'” Amara said. “Do you need your scripts or documents in dark mode? Do you need a dyslexia-friendly font? This is followed by crew training which covers disability language and how to create an inclusive space.
“It’s not people with disabilities who need to learn anything,” Amara said. “It’s all non-disabled people who have to continue to be in this space of, like, ‘Here’s how not to be afraid to think you’re going to mess up.'”
Amara has found in consultations on past productions that the reluctance to hire a crew with disabilities often stems from the assumption that it would cost too much time and money. This pervasive belief can cause some crew members to hide their disability. “They can choose not to tell anyone – it’s still very dangerous in the industry to be disabled,” Amara said.
This was something Sundquist was aware of when trying to recruit crew members with disabilities. “We were able to call and say, ‘Hey, I heard you had bad experiences on set. Sorry about that. We’ll try to do better on our set. Can we persuade you to come on board? ?”
In doing so, the production was frequently attracting “people whose resumes didn’t yet reflect their level of talent,” Sundquist said, who were then able to further align those things due to their credit on “Best Foot Forward.” He mentioned as an example Ashley Eakin, a director with different limbs whose previous work was mostly limited to short films. Eakin directed two episodes of “Best Foot Forward”.
“When she enters the show, she then enters the Directors Guild, which makes it much easier to find future directorial work,” Sundquist said.
The production team also included evidence of the untapped skills that may reside in people that others might overlook. One example was Marissa Erickson, a production assistant responsible for rounding up and transporting child actors from school to set. “In my hometown of Alameda, I usually work in a kindergarten as a teacher’s aide,” said Erickson, who added that she was excited to combine her previous production experience with her work experience. with the children.
Erickson, who has Down syndrome, was one of Appelbaum’s recommended crew members to RespectAbility, after participating in the organization’s 2019 Entertainment Lab. Appelbaum recalled a workshop Erickson attended alongside executives from a major studio: “Marissa got up and started talking about some of the work that she did, and I saw an executive, like, their mouth just fell off.” Appelbaum said Erickson’s work ethic and background have upended the executive’s expectations of someone with Down syndrome.
“I think in their minds they were thinking, ‘Yes, sure, we could hire someone who uses a wheelchair’, but they didn’t think they could hire someone with an intellectual or developmental disability” , said Appelbaum. “Marissa clearly proves that to be wrong.” Recently, Erickson was offered three production assistant positions simultaneously. (She’s accepted a position on a Disney+ short film anthology series called “Launchpad.”)
Appelbaum and others said that in order to increase the representation of people with disabilities on film and television sets, it was crucial for guilds and unions to survey their members about disabilities as well as demographic information. such as race and gender. The Writers Guild of America does, and the Director’s Guild of America began soliciting information about disability status in member surveys in 2021. artists, voted last year to begin holding an annual census in the aim of stimulating diversity among its members. But it is unclear whether it will contain information about disabilities. (IATSE did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Without data, it’s hard to make a difference,” Appelbaum said. “When you have hard numbers, people are much more likely to want to change something.”
Until then, Anner, the writer, hopes “Best Foot Forward” could be a big step forward for hiring practices in Hollywood.
“For me, that kind of ended that argument that you sometimes hear people say, ‘Oh, we looked for a disabled person, we looked for a person of color and we didn’t find anyone.'” he said. said. “We can point to that and say, ‘No, there’s a lot.'”