Take a look at the Oscars nominees for this year. Go ahead. We can wait. Notice anything? It’s overwhelmingly white, male and hale. For as much as mainstream entertainment likes to tout its interest in diversity there is still a glaring lack of representation across the board.
For people of color, minorities, disabled persons, and women, the opportunities to shine in film or on stage are limited. It’s already a cut-throat profession but if you don’t fit the mold, your chances of getting “the part” can be slim to none.
To find diversity in entertainment, you have to look beyond mainstream media. Film festivals are often a haven for diversity and creativity, and Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, is a premier example.
Jill Gray Savarese, producer of the Sundance entry Catching Up, knows just how difficult it is for actors who aren’t white, straight, male and able-bodied to make it in entertainment. As a woman who has worked both in theater and film, she has faced down the challenges that confront actresses specifically. She has become an advocate for better representation in her field.
“I like to advocate for others with disabilities, but not just that — for women,” she said via phone from her home in Connecticut. “As a woman, I would like to see more women producing and directing and acting. A lot of the films we see, the blockbusters, tent pole features, there really are not as many strong women. Not as many as there could be. I think we’ve improved a lot over the years, but I’d like to see more.”
Savarese pointed out the dearth of opportunities for actresses. Firstly there are fewer roles, and fewer still that are decent ones. And the competition is fierce.
“I believe — I don’t have the statistics in front of me — but I really believe that there are more women auditioning then there are men who are in the business of being actors,” she said.
The love of acting started when Savarese was a toddler. She would watch the soaps her mother put on the TV while doing the ironing. The spark that ignited in her earliest years remained strong all the way through college and beyond. However, Savarese realized early on that acting was not necessarily a stable career. It was then that she enrolled in an interpreting school.
“It was something I could do in between jobs in case I didn’t have one, and I really loved it. Then I decided to go to school for linguistics and I kind of went off in a different direction,” she said.
It was her love of acting and theater which brought her back to the field and she was able to combine her two passions into one career. Savarese began working with deaf and actors with other disabilities, helping them both secure and prep for auditions.
“I’ve always had an interest in disabilities,” Savarese explained. “I think everybody knows somebody who has a disability or has family members that have one kind or another. I think it’s hard to be not touched by something.”
She founded and was the president of Sign Language Media and consulted on casting for ABC Family’s Switched at Birth. She also became the original vice president of theatrical distribution for MouseTrap Films.
“He told me about the project (Catching Up) and I decided I really wanted to get into producing,” she said.
The roughly 10-minute short is about a physically disabled high school teacher who has fallen hopelessly in love with an able-bodied coworker. He goes to his friend, who is also disabled, for advice. Yet the cynical response he gets is not what he’s looking for.
Although the film is a short, it gets right to the heart of human nature as it explores the difference between sex and love, and what it means to try and navigate those quintessential human experiences while being disabled. At the same time, it is hilarious and in some parts shocking.
For mainstream moviegoers, it’s a rare thing to see a film about people with disabilities played by actors with real disabilities.
“You really don’t get to see it,” Savarese said. “(Some) do have some characters with disabilities but they may not always be the main character or they may not be played by actual people with disabilities. Our film has the characters themselves have disabilities, which I think is important.”
Savarese pointed out that many people are uncomfortable around disabled persons. Most people don’t want to be offensive and yet they struggle with how to handle an interaction with someone who has a disability.
“Everybody, I think, is cognitively aware that people who are different from us are just people,” she said. “You just have to be exposed and get to know people and then you start to feel more comfortable.”
Filmmakers like Crossland are providing a platform not only for disabled actors and filmmakers but also for able-bodied people to glimpse into their lives. Catching Up deals with the same worries and concerns that plague everyone. Does this person like me for me? Do they only see this thing I don’t like about myself? Is this my only shot at true love?
It is a project Savarese fell in love with. It is her hope to get more films like “Catching Up” out there. The biggest obstacle remains convincing studios that there is an audience for films like “Catching Up.”
“I really think that there is an audience for all of these varied stories. I think that people are looking for something new. They’re just a little uncomfortable with approaching it,” she said.
“I say that because I want anybody who reads this...(any film) executives to realize that there is money to be made. There is an audience for it.”
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