'Stranger Things' Actor Charlie Heaton Cast as 'Elephant Man' in Upcoming BBC Biopic
BBC has tapped “Stranger Things” actor Charlie Heaton for the title role of its upcoming adaptation of “The Elephant Man,” a two-part biopic scheduled to air in 2019.
Heaton, who is able-bodied, will portray Joseph Merrick. Merrick was born in London in 1862, and after he exhibited physical differences as a child, was relegated to a freak show as the “Elephant Man.” He was eventually befriended by a doctor, Frederick Treves, and lived the remainder of his life in a hospital. Though a diagnosis has never been made, it’s believed Merrick had a rare condition called Proteus syndrome. He died at age 27.
A stage version of Merrick’s story, also titled “The Elephant Man,” was first introduced in 1979, followed by a 1980 film from director David Lynch. The play has a long history of casting able-bodied actors in the lead role, which has included Bradley Cooper, Mark Hamill and David Bowie.
The decision to cast Heaton to portray Merrick in the BBC’s production was met with frustration from the disability community, who have long highlighted the need for disabled actors to play disabled characters. Lisa Hammond, a former actress on the series “EastEnders,” who lives with a restricted growth condition, took to social media to call out the casting decision.
“Ah the familiar story of a non disabled actor getting 2 tell story of a real disabled man,” Hammond wrote on Twitter. “We cant get a foot in the door 4 so called non disabled roles & we also aren’t allowed to tell our own stories.”
Ah the familiar story of a non disabled actor getting 2 tell story of a real disabled man.. We cant get a foot in the door 4 so called non disabled roles & we also aren’t allowed to tell our own stories #depressing #disabilityasacostume #Crippingupagainhttps://t.co/BKIPRxZQ1Y
— lisa hammond (@lisahammondwhop) August 26, 2018
In a press release announcing his casting, Heaton expressed excitement over the role.
“I’m extremely excited and honoured to be given the opportunity to take on the portrayal of Joseph Merrick in the BBC’s adaptation of The Elephant Man,” Heaton said. “This is such a special role and a challenge for any actor. Joseph has such an incredible story and I can’t wait to go on this journey and bring him to life.”
The Mighty’s disability editor Karin Willison highlighted that a disability isn’t a “challenge” to take on. It’s a reflection of real people with complex, multifaceted lives. She writes in her piece, “The Shape of Oscar: Why We Need Authentic Disability Representation in Film“:
Disability is not a costume nor a performance to be imitated; it is an identity, a core aspect of a person like race or gender. Disability doesn’t fully define a person, just as race and gender don’t, but it plays a role in shaping who they are: how they move, how they communicate and how they perceive the world. An actor without a disability may think they’re depicting a character accurately, but…they usually aren’t. You can’t learn how to be disabled by following someone with a disability around for a few weeks.
Others on Twitter further shed light on the need for disabled representation in film and TV, including “Coronation Street” actress and disability advocate Melissa Johns.
So it strikes again. All too often.
Many of us fight tirelessly to stop this happening. Nondisabled actor playing the role of someone with a visible disability. Disability is not a costume. If you’re a decision maker in this industry, please help stop this https://t.co/mSVZnI8Fkr
— Melissa Johns (@Melissa_Clare_J) August 26, 2018
To tell my story in the way I wanted through documentary I had to become a production company. Most films are made by non-disabled people, I want to be more than just a subject – I want to be a maker. Without better representation disabled peoples lives easily become stereotypes
— Touretteshero (@touretteshero) August 29, 2018
You will never get a true portrayal casting a non disabled actor just a stereotypical text book portrayal!
— My Muddled Mind (@MyMuddled_Mind) August 26, 2018
U.K.-based disability nonprofit Scope also called out the BBC and production company New Pictures for casting Heaton in “one of the most recognizable films to portray a disabled character.”
“This is a missed opportunity but sadly, a lack of diversity in the industry is nothing new,” Scope told BBC News. “Disabled actors still often face huge barriers to break in to the business, not only are the roles few and far between, but castings and locations are often not accessible.”
Scope’s statement is backed by numbers. Data released in July 2018 from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found only 2.5 percent of characters across 100 popular 2017 movies featured a disability. The Ruderman Family Foundation found in 2016 that while an estimated 20 percent of the population has a disability, less than 2 percent of all TV characters do. Of these, 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.
In response to the backlash of casting Heaton as “The Elephant Man,” both the BBC and New Pictures have defended the decision.
“The Elephant Man is an iconic drama that has had an important role to play in highlighting changing attitudes to disability,” a New Pictures spokesperson told BBC News. “We are currently in the process of casting disabled actors in a variety of key roles.”
Additional details as to what those “key roles” are have not been released. The Mighty reached out to the BBC for comment and has yet to hear back.
Header image via Charlie Heaton’s Instagram.