Adam Pearson: 'I thought it was a really clever script and premise for a film commentating on the history of disability in cinema'

Adam Pearson: 'I thought it was a really clever script and premise for a film commentating on the history of disability in cinema'

Activist and actor discusses his role in Aaron Schimberg's meta filmmaking comedy Chained For Life

A meta filmmaking comedy set around the making of a low-budget horror, Chained For Life skewers and examines notions of on-screen representation of disabled or disfigured bodies to entertaining effect, while also avoiding being a patronising, didactic story.

Activist Adam Pearson transitioned into acting with Under the Skin, opposite Scarlett Johansson. In Chained For Life, he plays Rosenthal, one of a number of disfigured or disabled performers in the ensemble of the movie-within-the-movie, under the questionable direction of a supposed artistic visionary. Jess Weixler (The Good Wife) plays the able-bodied lead actor, whose role is as a blind woman, slowly connecting with Rosenthal in-between filming.

Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis (a condition causing tumours to grow on nerves), was scouted by writer-director Aaron Schimberg. Pearson says, '[Schimberg] has a hard rule now where he doesn't write characters with actors already in mind. He once wrote a role for Mike Tyson, who said no, and he's still never fully recovered from the emotional trauma. About 20 pages into writing Chained For Life, he had a vague idea of Rosenthal being British and having neurofibromatosis. He went to see Under the Skin, saw me in that and instantly went, "That's Rosenthal!" I thought it was a really clever script and premise for a film commentating on the history of disability in cinema – almost mockumentary-esque, with this light-hearted nuance to it.'

The screenplay stood out to Pearson as coming from a genuine place: 'I'm very picky with what I do. I'm not going to do the kind of shitty disabled guy roles, like the film Wonder. I try to stay away from tropes, or if there is a trope there, I ensure that it's cleverly written and isn't just lazy and overly cliché. I think it's made me a smarter actor and a better businessman, because I'm also an activist and I know the game; I know motives. I know when someone's trying to spin me bullshit. You sit in all these diversity meetings and you hear the same words over and over, and you can tell when someone's being genuine and means it and when they aren't, simply by the script you get handed.'

On the topic of media representation's effects in shaping people's minds, Pearson says, 'I don't necessarily think it needs to be the be-all and end-all. I think the cinema-going public are smart enough to separate fiction from reality but suspend their disbelief for long enough to be drawn in by good storytelling. However, because the representation of, particularly, disability is so one-dimensional, it makes it slightly harder to separate that fiction from reality. And it's even more compounded by the fact these performances aren't even, for the most part, being done by disabled actors. It's able-bodied actors almost "crippling up", whether it's Bryan Cranston in The Upside, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. You hear people say, "This is a really brave portrayal of disability." Oh really, how many blind people did they have? None. So, what's the benchmark for accuracy and authenticity? The idea that someone's brave just because they put on disability like a costume and run with it feels a bit farcical and patronising.'

Limited release from Fri 25 Oct.

Chained For Life

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • USA
  • 1h 31min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Aaron Schimberg
  • Cast: Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett
  • UK release: 25 October 2019

Mabel (Weixler) is a well-meaning actress playing a blind woman, opposite Rosenthal (Pearson), in the English-language debut film of Herr Director (Korsmo). Schimberg tackles the representation of disability and disfigurement in cinema with a funny, nuanced, multi-layered drama that doesn’t provide easy answers.