A Pot of Gold for Actors with Disabilities

By Tracey Coveart

The film industry is a fickle mistress with a predictable appetite. There are few scripts featuring characters with disabilities and even fewer movies willing to take a risk on actors with disabilities. This makes a feature film like The Rainbow Kid—which does both—a rarity in today’s cinematic landscape.

This debut feature by writer-director Kire Paputts is a gritty coming-of-age tale that follows teenager Eugene (Dylan Harman) as he journeys through rural Ontario searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The story could be about any bullied teen from a broken home who is searching for the balance between independence and acceptance; it just so happens that the protagonist has Down syndrome. In fact, both lead characters have Down syndrome and are played by actors with Down syndrome (the second lead is actress Krystal Nausbaum).

In a decision extraordinary in itself, Kire also cast 14 other actors with disabilities to appear on screen. Yet the most remarkable thing about the film is that it isn’t a story about people with disabilities. It’s a story about people. Casting actors who have disabilities was a conscious choice, not one that was script driven.

“Our film doesn’t focus on the disability,” says Kire. “It’s about the story and the character and his struggles—and they’re universal struggles. You could replace the lead with someone else and it would still be an interesting story. The fact that Eugene has a disability and is played by an actor with Downs syndrome just adds another layer
of interest.”

Kire graduated from Ryerson University in 2007 with a degree in film. He started out in the corporate video industry, channeling money into his own projects, and five years ago began volunteering with Drama Way, a Toronto-based organization that offers creative classes to people with disabilities. What he discovered surprised him. These were talented actors with much to offer. Why were they so underrepresented in film and TV?

According to Isaac Zablocki, co-founder of ReelAbilities (a US film festival showcasing films made by and about people with disabilities), the disabled community “is the largest minority in America—well over 10 per cent of American society—but they’re hardly shown in the mainstream media.”

The same is true in Canada. Kire searched long and hard for films that featured actors with disabilities in lead roles. He turned up a handful, but the titles were obscure. It didn’t seem right. “These are passionate, talented actors.”

On set for another film one day, Kire let his mind wander between takes. “I started thinking, ‘What if a guy with disabilities went off to find the end of the rainbow and had this crazy, wacky adventure? What would he get up to?’”

And so Kire made a decision. He would write a screenplay to showcase the talent he had discovered and then find a way to make the movie. But it wouldn’t be your typical movie.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that on the rare occasions when actors with disabilities are featured in films, it’s through a ‘sympathetic lens’ or they’re handled with kid gloves. There’s nothing really out there that deals with mature subject matter.” Yet, Kire knew from his personal experience that “people with disabilities are capable of doing things ‘normal’ people can do. I thought it would be interesting to put such a person in situations that would be extremely tough for people who don’t have a disability, and show him toughing it out.”

It was an uphill battle. “Even when I was working on the script, people would read drafts and wonder why I was making this kind of movie,” recalls Kire. Without a stereotypical leading man, “they didn’t think it had great commercial appeal. They didn’t know where it fit in or if I would even be able to sell it. It was tough to get people on board.”

What started out as a desire to make a “kick-ass” movie soon became a political rally. “The more opposition I encountered, the more determined I was to make people realize how rare it is for film and TV to use actors with disabilities, and how important it is for this to change. There are a lot of talented actors out there who just happen to have a disability.”

The road to the rainbow
Being a trailblazer, Kire didn’t really know what to expect from his cast. So, with his eye never wavering from a feature film, he cut his teeth with a shorter version, Rainbow Connection, which screened in 2012. “It was our trial run: a chance for Dylan and me to test the waters.” It was an excellent learning experience.

Dylan and Kire have been working together now for almost five years. “We’re like an old married couple!” jokes Kire. And like any two people in a creative relationship, they have their differences. “When you work with someone that closely for that long, things are bound to flare up. Sometimes people pander to Dylan’s disability a bit, but he’s a professional actor and I treated him like a professional actor. We’d get into fights on set, but we’d always hug it out and we’re closer because of it.”

Kire’s time in the classroom allows him to bring integrity and authenticity to the big screen and to portray people with disabilities honestly, realistically and in a way that hasn’t been done before…complete with their flaws and sense of humour. “I incorporated some of my experience from Drama Way into the script, and even some of the people into the movie. In telling this story, I’ve definitely been true to the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve known. I didn’t shy away from anything.”

And he turned challenges into opportunities.

“The biggest problem with Dylan is his enunciation. We did try to slow him down when he talked so his words didn’t get jumbled,” says Kire, “but he is who he is as an actor.” He refused suggestions to subtitle the film. “If you lose the odd word here and there, it doesn’t matter because you never lose the plot. It makes it more authentic and forces you to pay a little more attention to the story.”

  That story is heartwarming, touching and sincere—but it’s a mature film with mature content. There are some very beautiful moments, but there are some very uncomfortable moments, too. “When I go to see the film in the theatres, I watch the audience. I’m interested in their reaction,” says Kire. “There’s an edge to it, but it’s also a lot more funny in places than I thought it would be, and I want people to laugh. I want them to feel free to express themselves; I don’t want them to hold back because it’s a person with Down syndrome.”

When Kire first started with Drama Way, he’d never been around anyone with disabilities before, and he felt overwhelmed. “There I was, sitting in a circle of 15 people with totally different abilities, attitudes, personalities. I had no idea how to react or if I was saying the right things. It didn’t take me long to figure out that you just have to be yourself and not overthink it. People are people. Treat everyone equally—like you would want them to treat you. That’s all anyone expects from you.”

Filming Rainbow was an eye-opener for a lot of the cast and crew, many of whom had no experience with people with disabilities. Dylan’s Down syndrome quickly became invisible, however. “No one sugar-coated things. He was just another guy on set,”
says Kire. So were the ‘kids’ in the classroom scene and the group home. “They had no idea what these actors were capable of doing.”

Including their spontaneity. “Even with Dylan, whom I know so well,” says Kire, “there is always this element of surprise. You can rehearse a scene a million times, and then things go somewhere completely unexpected. I love that. The way people with disabilities see things and how they view the world brings an interesting perspective to anything you’re filming. A lot of times we would use the script as a guideline and let the actors improvise. I’d say, ‘Here’s a rough outline. Do it how you would do it and have fun with it.’ We were always amazed with what we got.”

Finding true gold
Kire is also amazed by the support he received to make the film. The shoestring budget included his personal savings, several arts council grants, a Telefilm Canada completion grant and $30,000 from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. “Without the community, this film wouldn’t have happened,” he says.

It looks like the fans are backing a winning horse. The Rainbow Kid was one of five Canadian films selected for the prestigious Discovery (Directors to Watch) section at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film had its world premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre, before a sold-out audience, on September 12. With the distribution rights up for grabs, The Rainbow Kid could soon be playing at a theatre near you.

“I think people might be concerned that actors with disabilities can’t carry a feature film, but we’re going to prove they can,” says Kire. “By showing people with disabilities persevering in situations that would be tough for the ‘neuro-typical,’ we’re helping break down barriers regarding expectations or assumptions about what people with disabilities should say, how they should behave, and what they can and can’t accomplish. Everyone struggles, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone makes decisions they regret—including people with disabilities.”

ReelAbilities’ Zablocki believes that life often mimics art. “Because we don’t see people with disabilities on TV or in films as part of the normal world, they’re further excluded within the real world.” By extension, he says, increasing the visibility of people with disabilities in cinema and television can have a positive impact off-screen.

If Kire Paputts has his way, audiences everywhere will fall in love with The Rainbow Kid: with a great story, a great character, a great actor and a great example of how art can inform life.

Tracey Coveart is a writer, editor and award-winning columnist. Her work has appeared in Long Term Care magazine, Neighbourhood Living magazine, The Standard Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and Autism Matters. She has 13 educational books published by Lorenz Books in the United States and her essay, I am a Mother, was published by Random House Canada in the Carol Shields anthology Dropped Threads III: Beyond the Small Circle. A mother of three, Tracey has a daughter with autism, global developmental delay and epilepsy.