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November 11, 2019

Winds of Change

See sets up a wave of momentum for actors with disabilities.

Craig Tomashoff
  • Courtesy of Apple

Going on auditions is never easy. For actors who are blind or have limited vision, it can be soul-crushing.

Consider the time Marilee Talkington — who plays tribe member Souter Bax on See — went in for a commercial. She asked for a 15-minute break so she could reformat the script in a font she'd be able to read, but the director said she could have just five. Another time, she was told that if she couldn't read the audition script, she would have to leave, because she didn't belong onstage.

Meanwhile, Bree Klauser — who appears on See as the warrior Matal — says she's faced casting directors so patronizing that "they talk to me like I'm a child."

Such moments are difficult, but they're hardly unique.

"I don't think most people realize how hard it is as a person with a disability to break into entertainment," says See associate producer Joe Strechay, "and to be seen for our acting skills versus just being viewed as a person with a disability."

Strechay is visually impaired and has served as a blindness consultant on the Netflix series The OA and Daredevil as well as See. And if an actor who is blind or has low vision lands a role, he adds, "It's not a character who has a life beyond the disability — you're not a mother, you're not a lover, you're typically not in a relationship."

Given all that, you can't blame Talkington and Klauser for having been skeptical when they heard about See, which is set in a future where humans have lost the power of sight.

While 20 to 25 percent of Americans identify as having a disability, only about 2 percent of fictional characters on screen are disabled. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for persons with disabilities, 95 percent of disabled characters on scripted television are portrayed by non-disabled performers.

But the producers of See were determined to cast visually impaired actors in major roles, Strechay says. "It surpassed any experience I'd ever had. I don't know that any show has ever incorporated so many actors who are blind or low vision."

For Klauser and Talkington, the jobs came with unexpected benefits. Working on See "helped me come out as someone with a disability," Klauser says. Previously, "I felt like I needed to hide it — I didn't want to be seen as someone who wasn't able to work."

Talkington says she is excited to be on a show "where I can make a difference. I want all of us to come forward."

The actors say they felt free to speak up when something didn't feel right. Klauser recalls that early on, she and Talkington were told "to use our peripheral vision to not look at someone in the face. For Marilee and me, doing this kind of thing is uncomfortable for our eyes, so we said the best thing we could do was bring our own experiences of what it's like to be low vision and rely on our other senses. And they listened to us."

Insights like that, she believes, "helped with the authenticity of the storytelling." Executive producer–director Francis Lawrence agrees, adding that the sighted cast and crew may have gotten more out of See than the blind and low-vision actors.

"We knew it was very important for them to have these opportunities that they wouldn't ordinarily get," Lawrence says. "But another part of the experience for me was to be around somebody like Joe Strechay, to work with someone who has lost his sight but has adapted in such an inspiring way. That was moving and empowering, to the point where at times this didn't feel like just a job. It was nothing I could have anticipated when we started."

See may be one of the first series to give so many disabled actors a chance to showcase their skills, but Talkington senses it's not the last.

"My deepest hope is that this show and our roles create momentum and open doors for other disabled actors," says the actress, whose credits include NCIS and New Amsterdam. "When audiences see authentic people playing blind and low-vision characters, belief systems can begin to change. When they see Bree and me and others on the screen, those are the moments that can change hearts and minds."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2019

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