Anita Hollander – Actor (2003)
I have had the good fortune of being a professional actor for just under 40 years now. The first half of those years I had two legs and the latter half I have had one. Thus, I have the unique perspective of a performer who has been both able-bodied and disabled, both “traditional” and “non-traditional” in casting terms. My life and career have afforded me experiences that perhaps nobody else could have had as well as a greater sensitivity about how we treat our fellow human beings. I have had a glimpse of how one can be treated from two very different perspectives, one considered “normal” and one thought of as “diverse.” The following is one of those experiences in the world of show business…
In the summer of 2000, I was called by the producers of The Sopranos. My understanding was that, as a one-legged actress, I was being auditioned for the role of the Russian amputee character on the show. I got to the audition (six flights of subway stairs later) to find that I was NOT going to a casting call, but rather a production meeting. On arrival, I was told the meeting space was one flight up, reachable only by stairs. The meeting started: a group of four producers and a director began grilling me about artificial limbs while evaluating me physically in the third person with comments like “she’s not like her at all – way too big”. I stopped them all in their tracks by asking, “Am I to understand that I am not here being considered for a one-legged role but rather as a double for a two-legged actress?” To which the response was, “Is that a problem for you?” To which I responded, “In your SAG contract, you are required to audition disabled actors for disabled roles. My agent never mentioned this role showing up on any Breakdown casting notices.” The executive producer (who had seated himself slightly behind me, making it more difficult for me to speak directly to him) replied, “Well, I don’t give a crap about the contract, but she had to have a Russian accent, so ARE YOU WILLING TO WORK WITH US OR NOT?” (Never mind that I had convincingly played the Russian wife of an authentic Russian actor in London’s West End.)
Said I: “So she’s skinny right? (all nod) And I’ll just bet she’s blonde! (I laughing, they nodding) You know what? What you need is a technical consultant.” Another producer asked, “Why would we need a consultant?” “Well, you just asked me twenty questions about my prosthesis; it seems to me you don’t know much about amputees. And if you wish to hire me as a consultant we’ll need to negotiate a separate fee in addition to the body-double fee. But, hey, if I’m not the right body type, then that’s the way it goes.” The director: “That’s the way it goes.” So I got up to leave, throwing my artificial leg over my shoulder and grabbing my crutches. They all laughed and asked if that’s the way I usually walk around. I said “This is the way I PREFER to go around! My daughter likes to hold the leg, though!” I turned to discover—“IS THAT AN ELEVATOR?” Red-faced, an assistant murmured “Oh yeah, we forgot.” “But I called you a car!” offers the production manager. “You called me a car? Well, all is forgiven!” Moving toward the elevator, I heard behind me, “Wait, she’s not so fat, look, she’s got a great leg, she looks better standing up.” I spun around and blurted out “Look, THIS is how an amputee looks. We have very developed upper bodies and great leg muscles. We’re not skinny people!”
The production manager followed me out to wait for the car. She said, “They don’t mean what they say in there. They need you. They’re going to say that to each other now. What I need to know is, DO you want to work with us and for how much?” I told her $500/day for the consultant’s fee on top of the body-double fee, hoping that would be too much and they’d just drop it.
Once in the car, I spent the long traffic-filled ride home from Queens wondering how I could sell out my disabled colleagues by allowing The Sopranos people to get away with this violation of contract, when I should have been auditioned for the role to begin with.
As soon as I got home, the phone rang. I got the job. They agreed to it all and in addition, paid me for consulting at that day’s production meeting. The next day, my agent called to tell me that the role showed up in Breakdown. That would be the already-cast role, not the body-double. Somebody must have “given a crap” about the contract after all.
On the day of the shoot I was met with two withering greetings. One was the skinny Russian actress who bubbled, “Oh, tell me everything about having one leg – I know nothing!” The other was a production assistant who asked, in a most patronizing tone, “Have you ever been on a set before?” YIKES! That was only 8:30 AM! By 12:15 am that night, after “consulting” all day and saving the Russian actress from breaking both her arms holding the crutches backwards, they finally got to my doubling scene (which was really a featured bit). I hopped down the hall (in a night shirt and blonde wig), banged angrily on a door, bashed it open with my arm, punched the wall, and shook my head. Well, the anger was certainly truthful. They printed my first and only take. Smiling, I asked, “You’re not really going to use this bit, are you?” The director: “Are you kidding? This is what this is all about! This is the best moment in the show!” He shook my hand vigorously saying “We couldn’t have done this without you.” (He’s the one who said I was too fat.) Then as I walked away I heard him quip, “You see, this is how it’s done. You get the actress and then the amputee and it works!”
In that moment, I felt the full weight of responsibility as the future of disabled actors in America crumbled all around my bare foot.
FAST FORWARD/FEBRUARY (six months later):
I received a Fed Ex invitation to the Radio City premiere of The Sopranos addressed to Anita Hollander, Technical Consultant, which I ignored. A week before the splashy, hip event, the executive producer’s assistant called to ask if I got the invitation and why hadn’t I responded? I said I couldn’t go. She said, “Oh, David personally wants you to be there. That’s quite a compliment.” I said I couldn’t be there and said goodbye.
It dawned on me immediately that perhaps the actress playing the Russian amputee couldn’t make it and having my one-legged self there would make the producers look good, i.e., progressive, if people THOUGHT I had done the role. I’ll never know whether it was self-preservation or an offer of the olive branch that prompted them to extend the invitation. But I do know that the extraordinary level of insensitivity I’d encountered from almost everyone connected with the show throughout this short-lived experience pushed me toward thinking the worst. This thought made me ill for weeks.
On the other hand, during that same time period I had GREAT experiences in the role of Rita on As the World Turns, throughout which the director, writers and executive producer were thrilled to have my input on the script, and also as an NBC Today Show promo announcer for a couple weeks. Several satisfying stage roles followed as well.
The Yin and Yang of my collective experiences was very important to my sanity.
Since that time I have been cast on HBO’s Oz series and I have been auditioned for better
and better roles on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Sex & The City. I have played Emma Goldman in Ragtime and principal roles in a couple of world premieres of new plays, including one at the NY International Fringe Festival. This summer, I am playing Golde in Fiddler On The Roof, Sister Hubert in Nunsense and Blanche in Brighton Beach Memoirs in New Jersey, after directing Five Guys Named Moe in Naples, NY.
The producers and directors who hire me benefit not only from my talent but also from my life experience, as do audiences. These producers and directors have discovered the ADVANTAGE of casting disabled performers, whether or not disability is relevant to the role. We bring with us a valuable truth: Our humanity is universal. No matter how diverse or different we may seem, we all share the experience of being a human being. If my unique perspective has shown me anything, it has shown me this truth.
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