Vincent D'Onofrio Sits Down With Disabled Actors to Discuss Inclusion in Hollywood
Tucked away in a corner of Queens Theatre in New York City, actor Vincent D’onofrio, known for his roles in “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Men in Black,” and the Netflix original series “Daredevil,” sits with two aspiring actors. They are finishing up a class on acting for the screen. Even seated, D’Onofrio’s presence looms large.
“That was great,” he says leaning forward in his chair toward Rachael Abbot, a visually-impaired actor. Surprised by the praise, Abbot probes its validity asking D’onofrio if her visual impairment was obvious. Was she looking in the wrong direction or too far above him?
“It was great,” he says doubling down on the compliment. “If it wasn’t, I would tell you. I wouldn’t say you sucked but I wouldn’t say you were great either.”
The class is part of a workshop series run through Queens Theatre’s Theatre For All program. Now in its second year, the two-week program trains early-career actors with disabilities through sessions led by industry veterans, including D’Onofrio, who has taught both years. The free program covers acting for the camera, acting for the stage, movement, voice, improv, auditioning, commercials and ends in a showcase for invited industry players.
The Mighty sat down with D’Onofrio, his students, Queens Theatre’s Executive Director Taryn Sacramone and its Director of Inclusion Greg Mozgala to discuss disability in Hollywood.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Why is it so difficult to break into the industry when you have a disability?
Vincent D’Onofrio, actor and TFA training instructor: We’re trying to help change that. It’s a long road. I teach all the time, not just here. I teach in universities. I teach at the Strasberg Institute. I teach real courses in acting and method acting. My teaching here is no different than the classes there. I approach everything on a one-on-one basis with the rest of the students as an audience. So, there’s no difference in the way that I teach this class than the way that I teach any other class. I treat them, and whoever else, just like any student, any actor, and thing are going to come up that we need to work around. They keep me clued in on that and I’m not afraid to ask questions.
But when it comes to actual technique and the way in which I approach it is in a one-on-one kind of way, in a personal way, there’s no difference. If you were to see the way that we work, it’s a very one-on-one way with the other students watching. They bring in a piece and we build it brick by brick. I build their performance. These are actors first. Their careers, what’s important to them, how good their skill is and how good of an actor they are is important to me. The main thing here is to let them feel what being in that company is like. They work with me, another actor, on what they do and know that I’m not treating them in any special way that I wouldn’t treat anybody else. I think it’s really important.
Now, the big task at hand is to get casting directors to think the same way. And some of them are coming around, but I’m still offered parts of characters that have disabilities and I don’t do it. I just can’t do it anymore.
What do you think the industry could do better to integrate actors with disabilities into film?
D’Onofrio: Well, they have to get educated. I think the easiest way into it is through the casting directors. I think the casting directors have a better shot at educating producers and productions more than, let’s say me, or disabled actors. Casting agents are the ones that are directly responsible for bringing people in and making them known.
When I was a young actor, before I had what you could really call an agent, I was meeting casting directors because I was going on cattle calls with 100 other actors. But I was meeting those people. I was presenting myself in front of those casting agents and those casting agents would present me in front of producers or people involved in productions like directors. So the same thing needs to happen in the same way. There are casting directors that go out and go to showcases and stuff like that. I think that it’s really hard for people to do showcases these days in cities. It’s not easy.
When I was a kid, you could take over a shabby little theatre somewhere, do a night of scenes and get three of four casting directors coming [to see you]. In the digital world, everything’s done on video these days. It’s much harder to make sure that a casting agent is actually seeing your work. Hundreds of things go their way and for them to see everything is very difficult. I think, unfortunately, disabled actors are not on the top of that list as other actors are, but they need to start.
I personally can’t think of a better way to do it than with programs like this. Casting directors can become savvy and then hence they become savvy with the actual actors. Then they turn people out as the educated part of it.
Gregg Mozgala, Queens Theatre director of inclusion: How do you think this program, based on your experience here, allows disabled actors to get in the door more? First of all, we have to be acknowledged and considered to be called in. Just those opportunities just to be seen are very few and far between. And then I think there’s a knowledge gap. There’s that pressure of being seen by a casting director for a leading role or a large supporting role or something.
I feel like this program is maybe trying to mitigate that excuse of, “we look for them, but we don’t know where they are” or “we don’t know where to look for them.” We want to make that excuse no longer an excuse.
Vincent D’Onofrio, Actor & TFA Training Instructor: Nobody knows you better than you guys. You have much more experience with this world than I do. I do know what I know when it comes to the straight-out educating people about your talent. I think that one of the most important things right now, when it comes to here and now, is keeping this program alive. Having it next year and having it the year after that doesn’t cost much to do. We have to start raising money to do that so we can keep doing this because as we go, we’re still figuring this out.
This year is the first time we’re actually doing press like this so we can get it out there. The point of this whole thing is eventually to get these guys on their feet acting, making them feel like actors, not disabled actors. We’re doing our first showcase where there’s going to be three panelists and they’re going to critique the performances after each actor goes. There are about 17 performances with monologues and one of those people watching will be a casting agent. It’s like baby steps, brick by brick. This is why we’re trying to do it. If it was just a wave of a wand, it would be awesome. But it’s not. It’s hard enough to just be an unknown actor.
Maggie Keenan-Bolger, TFA training participant: As a participant in some ways, this is a very safe space in which to try out being an advocate as well as being an actor. As someone who worked in the industry as someone without a disability and then had transitioned into being someone with a disability and couldn’t figure out how to make that transition, this offers a really nice way to interact with people. There are instructors who are here and are on your side and are interested in engaging with you in a way that is accessible and in a way the works with you. So when you go to a casting director you’ve never met before, you can know what you need, state what you need and be able to present yourself in a way that makes you look as competent and as ready to go as any other performer who walks in the room. I think a big part of that is just getting the competence and the experience to be able to do that in a way that’s legitimized and validated by people in the industry who are already on our side. People who are willing to do the work and like making the transition from this smaller space into the much broader community.
Rachael Abbot, TFA training participant: This theatre program is so important. I’m coming from more of an academic background because I haven’t had a lot of experience yet. I can tell you that this program has given me so much confidence because, in the academic sense, I am treated as more of a problem in my acting classes [normally]. They’re like “Oh, how do we fit her into a scene?” Or “How do we accommodate for here?” So I’m treated as a problem. But when I come here, it’s like I’m already in a place where I’m just a person. I gained so much confidence to be able to know that I’m an actor and not treated as anything else. I feel that’s why this program is so important just because it’s free.
There are things here that I’m not even exposed to in an academic atmosphere because I’m isolated. I’m watching everyone perform and I’m just told to maybe offer feedback. So when I was selected to come here last year, I felt like I just won the equivalent of “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent” because that’s how much I value this program. Everybody should be able to have the opportunity to participate.
“Daredevil,” which D’Onofrio stars as the villain in, is a show where the hero is blind and is played by a sighted actor. What would you say to the feedback that people with disabilities can’t play disabled roles when extraordinary things are required?
D’Onofrio: I think they could. In the case of that show, I think it would require a rewrite. The way that it’s written, it’s written for a sighted person to play somebody who doesn’t have vision. It would be impossible the way that it’s written for somebody with no sight to be that good a fighter and actually film it. Charlie Cox does 80% of the stunts on his own. It’s just not possible. Not according to the old comic books.
Now, is there a different Daredevil? They make a lot of these “what if” movies like they’re doing with the Joaquin Phoenix “Joker” thing. There’s no reason in the world why someone couldn’t do what it would really be like in real life for a blind superhero. That would be cool to see.
Mozgala: I disagree with you a little bit just based on my experience. There are a whole host of other issues with that particular material and content. But I would just like to that that several years ago, I was in a four-person production of “Romeo and Juliet.” I, myself with cerebral palsy, played Romeo. An actor who was totally blind played the nurse and Tybalt. And there’s a huge sword fight, right? The actor who played Tybalt had a greater sense of spatial awareness, proprioception and kinesthetic sense and was the most efficient person with a blade and an edged weapon of anyone in the cast and any actor I’ve ever seen.
D’Onofrio: Yeah, I’ve really accepted it as I’ve seen it myself. I do think though that it takes the writing.
Keenan-Bolger: I think to that point, we don’t just need people with disabilities as performers. I think we need people with disabilities writing. I think we need people with disabilities casting. We need people with disabilities on all levels of the entertainment industry. As a person who is also a creator and producer, we can be the people who are pushing the content that is created by people with disabilities.
The reason why “Daredevil” wasn’t written for a person who was blind, was probably because the person who wrote it was not a blind person. If we expand our ideas of what the entertainment industry looks like as a whole than I think that it will expand to who we see on screen and on stage enormously. It would create a far more authentic version of the characters we get to play.
D’Onofrio: I don’t think it’s beyond companies like DC and Marvel to do something like that. I think they should do that. There are so many characters in the world of comics and superheroes that could be influenced. It could be amazing if they actually did something like that and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.
Nicole D’Angelo, TFA training participant: This is something that comes up a lot in my particular community as an autistic person. A lot of the time, people think they can just get away with casting neurotypical actors because autism is an invisible disability. They think the can just get away with it and that really, really drives me nuts.
We have a whole play called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” which surrounds the life of an autistic character. And so many times I’ve talked to people and asked how can they cast a neurotypical Christopher? And people say, “Oh, well there’s no way an autistic Christopher would be able to handle the demands of that role.” It’s either from the point of view of like, “Oh, they wouldn’t be able to learn the lines,” or something like that. “Oh, they wouldn’t be able to handle the sensory experience of being on stage in a heightened sensory environment.” So that’s why they make excuses. But this is a character that’s written for us.
What drives me crazy the most as a disabled actor is when there finally is a character that has my disability and then somebody neurotypical comes along and says, “but an autistic person could never play an autistic character.” I think that’s just the most ridiculous thing.
D’Onofrio: I think if you got Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel TV, into this room to watch these actors perform, I guarantee you that actors would be cast from this class. You need to get these people in the room to see it. They need to be educated. Who knows what would happen if Jeph was more involved in the kind of community when they were first discussing the development of “Daredevil?” It’s clearly a lack of education. It’s clearly a lack of awareness and the actual specifics of what is involved in what a disabled actor is like true to the definition of them, who they are and what they’re capable of. That’s something that is far, far from people’s thoughts and imagination. They need to be turned onto it. That’s the point of this program.
Actor first, rather than disabled actor is important because that’s so true. We’re obviously not saying that anybody that has a disability can play a part in a movie of somebody with a disability. The actor is first. They need to be an actor and they need to be a good one.
Many able-bodied actors playing disabled roles defend their casting saying, “Well, it’s called acting.” A lot of these disabled roles tend to then go on to win Oscars or be nominated for other awards. It’s perceived as the height of a challenge. What do you think about that?
D’Onofrio: It has been like that forever. Those are the Oscar-winning roles and that’s how we were brought up as actors back in my generation. But I think it’s going away. I think that people are going to learn the hard way that it’s going away. I know that I can no longer do that. I know that there are clearly people out there that can do the same job as I could playing that disability.
I think it’s ridiculous that an actor would play somebody with a disability at this point. The idea that some actor would be looked at before a person that actually lives that life and is also an actor is just… I can’t see it anymore. Again, I think it has to do with being educated. I was blind, but now I can see.
Mozgala: I think the community has recently begun identifying its own culture, that we do have a collective history. We do have a series of histories and a series of stories and cultures. That’s incredibly intersectional, right? We’re trying to figure these things out and we just haven’t quite broken through to the mainstream in the same way that other marginalized populations have done so yet.
I would say that in theater, in film and television across streaming platforms, disability representation is happening all over the place. You’re seeing it pop up, maybe not to the same amount that you’re seeing ethnic representation or gender identity or sexual representation, but it is happening. I guess what we’re trying to do here is say that we’re trying to support that and give as many people who want the opportunity to participate in this industry a place here. We can help you realize that goal and that dream.
Abbot: As a low-vision blind person, people will be like, “Oh well, they can’t do x, y, z because they don’t have the eyesight for it.” But you can’t know what I can do until I show you. Give me the opportunity. So it’s really great that here, we’re learning to be able to articulate our needs. We’re learning to be self-advocates. And in the end, we are bringing awareness and education.
D’Onofrio: Being somebody that has worked in the business a long time and has seen it go through changes, I’ve also seen the difficulties in getting cast for certain things. For instance, there was a period in my career when I was in my 20s where I had to choose the route of a leading man, but that wasn’t really my deal. So I chose to just stay a character actor and that’s the kind of life that I lead now. It’s more artsy, fartsy. I’m lucky enough to have a career that’s consistent, but I’m not going to get cast in certain parts no matter how good of an actor I am. I’m not going to get cast as Daredevil; I’m going to get cast as Wilson Fisk. I could audition my ass off for Daredevil and they would never give me that part.
So this is a good discussion to have because where does it begin? And where does it end? Where do disabled actors fit into all that? And where do the casting directors and producers of these shows fit in? There need to be more people with disabilities involved in this business to create projects and there need to be more people educated in it.
I really firmly believe that if somebody saw an actor or actress without sight who could perform the kind of stunts that Charlie [Cox] and his stunt guys do on that show, I truly believe that it would enlighten them in a way where somebody like that could be cast. The education is not there. Is everybody in the room always going to be kept away from certain roles in life? Yes, we are. Why? Because that’s the way people see us. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or maybe you’re just a big dude like me and you can’t get cast as a ballerina.
Taryn Sacramone, Queens Theatre executive director: Education isn’t a one-way street, right? That’s what’s positive about this. The more people that are seeing [things], the more you can’t say, “Oh, I never saw a blind actor who could do those stunts.” Now you know they exist. So whatever decision you’re going to make, you’re going to make, but you’re going to make it knowing that these options do exist.
D’Onofrio: The reason why I get along with these people is because they’re artists. We would get along less if they were not artists. That’s the way I think. We are comrades; we are part of the same tribe. We are peers and the only thing that separates us is experience. That’s it. There’s no mystery. There’s no secret to what I do. I don’t covet my skills and in that way, I feel failures, worthlessness and insecurities. I second guess and I doubt. I feel everything they feel depending on the environment or the circumstance. So you quickly learn that language.
You quickly learn that there is no real difference when it comes to the human psyche. There is no real wall that blocks us from doing what we’re asking. The more you get involved, the more you understand that there isn’t a wall and I think that’s the key. We’re all going to have our history. Look at the way I’ve suffered from dyslexia in my life and the way that I write and read, the way that I comprehend scripts. It’s so different compared to some of my friends who can read a script and know it inside and out. I have to spend 10 times the amount they spend reading a 300-page script.
Our goal is the same. Everybody has their struggles. We struggle as writers, poets, painters, singers. Everybody has their struggles as artists. When I’m connecting with these folks, there is clearly no difference between the way I deal with life and the way they deal with life. I can look them in the eye and honestly tell them, “Let’s go there instead of here.” And that’s a big deal. People need to understand that in the end, it comes down to human behavior. And in the arts, there should be nothing that holds us back.
What would you tell people with disabilities who want to break into screen or theater but don’t have access to this program?
D’Onofrio: This is not what I just tell disabled people, I tell this to everybody. I was in New Mexico and I was talking to this kid in the mall. He was Mexican and both of his parents were born in Mexico and so was he. But then they all came over when he was about seven years old and was working in a sporting goods store [when I met him]. So I asked him what he did and he said he writes. I asked him what he writes and he said he just writes anything. He said, “I love it. I love it. I wish I could get my stuff out there.” And I told him that there are lots of venues to get your stuff out there these days. There’s this thing called YouTube and other stuff on the internet like that. I mean, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you want to start, get a feel of what it’s like to expose yourself to audiences in another way.
If I was his age now and I had the ambition that I had when I was young, I would have used YouTube and I guarantee you I would have 10,000 followers within a few months. I promise you. I would have worked my ass off until I got that 10,000. So that’s what I would definitely be doing, exposing yourself. And then if you have the opportunity to further your education, then I would say do that. You can also move to one of the cities that has a lot of culture, like New York or Los Angeles, and get involved in the entertainment business. Do it like everybody else does it and get out there because you have not chosen an easy profession.
I had the thought when I was young which was that I’m not going to stop doing this until somebody gives me a job. After six years of studying and doing shit-theater in New York, I got a job. And I’ve been working ever since. But that was six years of questioning. “How much of a fool am I exactly?” But that’s the same question that everybody’s going to be asking themselves when they first start. You just need to keep asking yourself that and keep putting one foot in front of the other.