Monday, June 22, 2020

Kayla Cromer: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’ inspired me to go public about being on the autism spectrum

from Hollywood Life:

Kayla Cromer plays Matilda in the series ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.’ Kayla spoke with HL about autism representation on TV, Matilda’s evolution, and season 2 hopes.

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay premiered in Jan. 2020 and became an instant critical darling. The show follows Nicholas, Matilda, and Genevieve as they come together and grieve the loss of their father. Over the course of the first season, the trio experiences all of life’s ups and downs with laughs aplenty.

Kayla Cromer, 22, was a standout performer as Matilda in the first season. Her terrific performance at the funeral for Matilda’s father set the tone for the series. In an EXCLUSIVE interview with HollywoodLife for our Emmy Contenders series, the neurodiverse actress and activist opened up how the show “inspired” her to come out about being on the autism spectrum, the season 1 scene that sticks out to her the most, and her hopes about the future of Hollywood for any actor with a difference.

What was your first impression of Josh Thomas [the show’s creator and star]? Had you heard of him before this project?
Kayla Cromer: I hadn’t heard of him but did research him before submitting to his casting. My first impression was, “Wow, he conducts auditions differently!” He came across real. He wanted to get to know me. I wasn’t just a number. We spent time chatting, even before I read for the part.

Did you draw on your own experiences as someone on the autism spectrum to help build the character of Matilda?
Kayla Cromer: I believe in finding something within the character that is you in order to create a more organic performance. Yes, I definitely revisited experiences and pulled from them. From the start, I found some similarities to Matilda that resembled me when I was younger. Autism is a very board spectrum, so I also researched by watching documentaries, movies, and read, too, so I could relate to more people.

How do you feel about Matilda’s evolution from the beginning of the season to the end?
Kayla Cromer: For it only being a 30-minute show, the writers penned her experiences very well. One key strength Matilda and I both possess is perseverance. Matilda really pushed through hurt, displayed humor without even knowing it, and showed struggle and growth. She kept it very real and relatable for viewers.

How has Matilda inspired you in real life?
Kayla Cromer: The eulogy scene was part of the audition process. It impacted me a lot! Just like Matilda, I’ve been open about my differences, except in my career. Matilda and the show inspired me to publicly come out about being on the spectrum, which turned into a snowball effect. So many people have reached out to me in a positive way.

Is there a season 1 scene that sticks out to you the most — whether it’s your favorite or the most challenging? The eulogy scene remains one of my favorites.
Kayla Cromer: The eulogy speech is also a favorite of mine. The Peach Schnapps scene that went viral was challenging in a comedy sense. In real life, I choose not to drink and I’ve never been drunk. I watched Youtube videos of people recording someone drunk and studied speech and mannerisms. My glass in the scene was filled with water [laughs].

Matilda loses her dad at the start of the series. What was it like exploring the many facets of grief through the character?
Kayla Cromer: I climbed inside and really wanted to feel her hurt. You can feel emotionally spent revisiting experiences. I lost my Grandma Shirley and tapped into that, which left me sad and happy. It’s like a tug of war with emotions exploring inner challenges in one scene and then pushing forward with healing humor in another.

The show has been renewed for a second season. Is there anything you want to explore with Matilda in future episodes?
Kayla Cromer: Advocating more for herself in school, life, and a job, driving, learning life skills, benefits of working through change, exploring romance options, too. She’s in an experimental phase. Watching her evolve will be fun and amazing.

Do you think we’ll see Matilda go back to New York to try again?
Kayla Cromer: With COVID-19, they’ll be lots of changes in production. But, hey, sets can be made! I want Matilda to realize she faced her fears head-on, to get back on track and look at it as a life lesson. It has the potential to empower people to be resilient with their goals and not give up!

Since the show premiered, have you heard from other actors and actresses on the autism spectrum? If so, what’s that experience been like?
Kayla Cromer: I mainly receive messages and fan mail from the autism community, more than actors with differences. But it’s always the same: “Thank you for representing us,” and “finally seeing myself on the small screen!” Sometimes it’s quite heartbreaking, having some pour their story into a DM. To have girls say “I look up to you” warms my heart and inspires me to do more.

What are your hopes for the future regarding actors on the autism spectrum in Hollywood?
Kayla Cromer: Not just actors with autism, but any actor with a difference. To toss stereotypes out the window! I don’t want production to think their budget will go higher with accommodations if we cast this person. Frankly, we work harder than the average person. I strongly believe we should be able to audition for characters without disabilities, too. We made a lot of progress in 2019, and I want that to keep flourishing. Casting needs to reflect the real world. Now more than ever, entertainment audiences are seeking imperfect role models! It’s time to cast them in the big and small screens!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Disability advocates fear losing fight for inclusion in post-pandemic Hollywood

From Forbes. In the picture, Tobias Forrest, who plays Patrick in Daruma, on set, filming the trailer for the film.

For almost a year, Kelli McNeil has been fundraising for her movie Daruma, a film she calls a “dysfunctional family road trip.” 
The big twist: the two main characters, Patrick and Robert, are disabled. Patrick is a paraplegic and Robert is a double-arm amputee, but unlike most Hollywood narratives, the disabilities aren’t the focus of the script, nor are they an obstacle to overcome. And, after a nationwide search, McNeil cast two actors with disabilities to play the lead characters. 
Her work is notable in an industry still grappling with a dearth of disability-centric storylines and characters. Although representation has seen some improvement over the years in television and film, advocates argue it is still all-too-rare to see people with disabilities working in front of or behind the camera.  
Now, with the presence of a worldwide pandemic – and Hollywood virtually shut down – they fear the fight for inclusion will only get more complicated once productions start back up. 
“We don’t know how things will turn out, but there is a lot of fear among activists,”  said Deborah Calla, Co-CEO of The Media Access Awards, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and creates opportunities for people with disabilities in media. 
“Once production begins, there will likely be fewer opportunities because of modified production, lower budgets, less money, and modified storylines. We have a good chance of going back a few steps in terms of inclusion.” 
And if disability inclusion falls behind, Calla and her co-CEO Allen Rucker say, it will be detrimental. 
“You have to understand that in the field of diversity, people with disabilities were not even included until a few years ago in Hollywood, they were just left out,” Rucker said. “But about three years ago, because of the ‘Me Too’ movement, all of the sudden people with disabilities were getting hired to be guest stars on shows, then to be stars and then people with disabilities were creating their own shows.” 
“It was a real positive feeling,” he said.  
“But with the COVID pandemic, who knows what’ll happen next.”
In mid-March, COVID-19 forced the vast majority of Hollywood to come to a screeching halt. Theatrical releases were cancelled, and everything from indie film productions to entire festivals were shut down or postponed indefinitely. Everything stopped.  
Many Hollywood professionals have been out of work since, including Tobias Forrest, a quadriplegic, cast by McNeil to play one of the leads in Daruma. While it was his first lead role in a 15-year career, Forrest has seen much success in recent years, and fears how the Pandemic will impact him and other professionals with disabilities. 
“I’m really hoping the big movie people, the Spielbergs and big time producers and directors, will be like, ‘Now is our chance for authenticity,’ because they were having to watch what all of us have been having to watch during this quarantine,” Forrest said. 
“I don’t want to go back to being the ‘guy in the wheelchair.’ I want to be the lawyer or doctor… the person who just happens to be in a wheelchair.” 
Although strides have been made in recent years, doors have typically been closed for people with disabilities in Hollywood, despite being the largest minority in the United States. A quarter of the population – about 61 million Americans – identify as a person with a disability, according to the CDC. 
According to a GLAAD's 2019- 2020 Where we are on TV report, the amount of regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability was at an all time high of 3.1 percent— but still a severe underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the American population. Then there's the fact that 80 percent of disabled characters on television are portrayed by able-bodied actors, according to the Ruderman Foundation. 
“We’re also fearful, post-pandemic, that people with disabilities won’t be hired because they are considered the most fragile group in terms of COVID-19,” Calla said. 
Rucker agreed, adding, “There may be producers out there and showrunners who suddenly don’t want to take that chance.”
Rucker and Calla aren’t the only advocates trying to prevent this from happening. 
Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President of Communications for RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works to fight stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities. Over the last three months, RespectAbility has been conducting virtual training sessions for numerous studios in Hollywood, including The Walt Disney Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment. They’ve worked with people in marketing, development and even screenwriters. 
“The fact that these studios are creating these opportunities for their employees to have training during this time is a good thing, because we can talk about how it’s not just the right thing to be disability-inclusive, but also the best thing to do economically,” said Appelbaum. 
The numbers don’t lie: according to Nielsen consumers with disabilities make up a billion-dollar market. When their families, friends and associates are included, that total increases to more than $1 trillion.
“There is money to be made by ensuring disability-inclusive content,” said Appelbaum. 
“People are always looking for new stories, and since there has been so few authentic disability stories told, it’s just a huge option for new material.” 
RespectAbility will also be holding a lab program during the summer for people with disabilities who want to work behind the camera. NBC Universal, The Walt Disney Company, and Viacom are among the studios sponsoring and providing content for the lab. The individuals who take part will be introduced and have the chance to network with industry professionals, with the hope that it will lead to job opportunities for the participants. 
Only time will tell how Hollywood executives handle a post-pandemic reality. In the meantime, filmmakers like McNeil are fighting for their projects to see the light of day. She hopes her film inspires other TV creators and filmmakers to create more inclusive content and make hiring people with disabilities, and writing about disabilities, more mainstream. 
“I am afraid if we don’t make this film, it’ll be years before someone tries again,” McNeil said. 
“But we’re doing everything in our power to get this made.”