For a dozen seasons,
Laura Innes played ERs Dr. Kerry Weaver, a tart-tongued surgeon
with an unnamed disability that caused her to walk with a limp. Initially
Innes, who is able bodied, thought little of that aspect of her new role.
But playing the part over so many years and getting feedback from friends
and peers who have disabilities, sensitized the actress to the realities
they faced. Now, as a TV director, her increased awareness broadens her
casting choices and motivates her to do a bit of advocacy when she thinks
it necessary. Recently, ABILITY Magazines Chet Cooper and Pamela
Johnson met up with Innes in Hollywood as she walked alongside Performers
With Disabilities (PWD). Out in force, they were supporting striking members
of the Writers Guild of America.
Pamela Johnson: We got you fresh out of the editing room, what were you
Laura Innes: Im directing an episode of Brothers and Sisters.
Chet Cooper: When you read for the role of Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER, did
you know going in that you would play a person with a disability?
Innes: Yes, when I read for the part, the character was described as having
a limp and using a cane. She was written with that intention. I never
asked John Wellsthe shows executive producerbut I heard
it through the grapevine that when he was observing hospitals, he saw
a doctor who had a cane and he thought, Oh, thats kind of
Johnson: You knew Weaver had a limp, but did they tell you the back story?
Innes: No. When I asked, Well, whats her malady or injury?
they said, We havent decided yet. They wanted to keep
it open, and not have it be something that was an issue. We discussed
what kind of crutch or cane I should use, and I actually suggested the
cuff crutch, because I thought with all the moving around and concerns
with cleanliness, that a doctor wouldnt always want to be grabbing
onto a cane or setting it down. With a cuff crutch, it could always be
on my arm, and if I was at a trauma table I could have it for support
and still use my hands. So thats how that choice was made. When
I got the part and the character was described as having a limp, I didnt
really think about it in terms of the impact as a disability.
Cooper: Do you remember getting any heat for being an able-bodied person
taking a part that might have gone to an actor with a disability?
Innes: I remember speaking to a good friend of mine, Nancy Becker-Kennedy,
who uses a wheelchair. She and I had done a sitcom together and we got
to be friends. When I mentioned this part I landed on ER, she was the
first one who made me aware of the fact that there was a possibility that
some people might be upset that the role was given to me. I hadnt
even thought about it at that point.
Johnson: How long had you had the part when you two discussed this?
Innes: Oh, it was early on. I think I was initially hired to do only six
episodes or three episodes, and Nancy and I had just finished working
together, so we were in touch all the time.
Cooper: I know Nancy; shes a part of PWD. One thing they fight for
is to get actors with disabilities to portray people with disabilities.
Innes: Yes, its a complex issue, and I talked to Nancy about it
extensively. And then we got into this whole conversation that basically
went: Well, what if the characters in a wheelchair, but the persons
actual disability is with a crutch? Should they not play the part in the
For me, the prospect of playing Dr. Weaver amounted to: Wow, this
is such a great character, shes so acerbic, shes so smart,
shes so powerful, shes so good at what she does, shes
funny, and, oh yeah, she has a limp
Johnson: One small aspect of who she was.
Innes: As an artist I said,Oh, what a great character! when
I spoke to Nancy and she said, Wait a minute, did they bring in
actors with disabilities to read for the part? I said, I never
even thought about that. And she goes, Well, this is a big
issue. After that, I actually called John Wells, the casting person,
and said, Did you guys do sessions with actors with disabilities?
He said, Yes, we did.
Johnson: So you were happy to have a part on a top-rated show, and yet
you were feeling a bit conflicted about it at the same time.
Innes: Yes. Initially I thought, Oh, gosh, I feel really bad about this.
And then I thought, Hey, you know what? I got this part, and Im
going to make the most of it, and Im going to have it help me evolve
and make choices that help other people. After playing Dr. Weaver a while,
and meeting more people with disabilities, Ive come to believe strongly
that its important to do casting sessions with people who are actually
Now, as a director, because of my experience, I do that first. Like we
had a character on ER who was deaf. It was a big part. So there was all
this back and forth about Should we look for someone?
The guy had
to be an African-American high school student who could be interpreted
as threatening by a Chicago policeman. The officer arrests him on the
suspicion that hes a gang member. They treat him a certain way because
they assume hes being belligerent, when actually hes deaf.
It was a tall order, but we found a young man out of Washington, DC, who
was deaf. As an actor, he was inexperienced, but somebody knew him. We
ended up casting him based on this tiny little audition tape. He turned
out to be fantastic.
Johnson: You flexed muscle that you wouldnt have had if you were
in actress mode as Dr. Kerry Weaver.
Innes: True, and I was just directing another episode of ER recently.
The story line is very heavy, and features a father who was in a wheelchair;
hes concerned for his son whos suffered a fall. It was a big
part, and we used an actor with a disability for it, and that was a result
of me saying: We need to absolutely go down this road to the Nth
degree before we choose an able-bodied actor. So in those two casesand
then again recently on Brothers and Sisterswe picked an actor with
a disability. On Brothers, theres an actor named Alan Toy. We cast
him as a Vietnam vet who uses a wheelchair. So now Im very proactive
Cooper: Its great that youve chosen to use your power for
Innes: On the other hand, I dont think the rules are set in stone.
I mean, I think Daniel Day-Lewis was amazing in My Left Foot. I think
he should have played that part. But should he have gotten to play that
part just because hes a big star and it was a high-profile movie?
I mean, is that where you draw the line? I dont think its
something thats an absolute.
I think the bigger issue is that you seek out actors with disabilities
for such a part first, and if you cant find somebody that you think
is going to really keep the quality or keep your intention, then you go
to able-bodied actors. But I think you have to, in good conscience, go
down that road. Its difficult because there are more and more disabled
performers who are available, but it depends on the part and the age;
its extremely specific. Thats the point Ive come to
Cooper: What are other battles that you find yourself waging?
Well, one is that its hard to convince producers and show runners
that we need to bring people in who are just in the background, in the
workplace. Choosing them has nothing to do with their disability. They
just work in places the way we all work in places. Thats the harder
sell for people, because theyre worried that its going to
be a distraction, or theyll ask, Whats the audience
going to think? Theyre going to think just what they thought
about Kerry Weaver. Many people thought I was actually disabled.
Johnson: Its like the50s: What will they think if we put a
black person on TV!
Innes: Ive worked on a show that I wont name where there were
lots of discussions around performers with disabilities. They went like
this: Well, what are we going to do? We have to build a ramp and
we have to get a special trailer. But I was able to push things
along by saying, You know what? You need this kind of ramp and it
needs to be this angle. Its going to cost you X.
Johnson: The cost wasnt that expensive, right?
Innes: Right. It ended up being minimal. I think thats the thing,
people think accommodations are going to be a big deal, but performers
who come in are ready to deal with certain issues, and if you just prepare
them and somebody makes one phone call to them and says, What kind
of chair do you have? What kind of ramp do you need? There are all
kinds of guidelines for that. I mean, when I directed that recent episode
of ER, we had to build a ramp to help Grant Albright get up to this observation
room, but that wasnt that big an expense. Its very doable,
Cooper: How can performers with disabilities get in, when the doors
so hard to budge?
Innes: I would encourage people to just stick with it, work hard and stay
in their classes, stay with their training, because nobody in LA works
enough. So what happens is, if you dont get called into very many
auditions and you dont work that often, when you do get called in,
its such a big deal that you might not be primed to do your best.
Youre going to be nervous.
Johnson: Makes sense.
Innes: So I think almost more than other actors, performers with disabilities
have to really be in class and keep their chops up, because unfortunately
those opportunities dont come along that often, just as they dont
come along that often for, say, women who are over 40, you know?
The business is not receptive to people who dont look a certain
way, no matter what that is. Still, I think that people should just go
for it and keep pursuing it. God knows things have gotten a lot better.
But that person has to come into the room and basically prove everybody
wrong. Like, You need me here. Im the only one who can play
continued in ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Laura Innes issue include Headlines CVS,
Red Cross, AT&T Foundation; Humor Therapy Its Sad Not
Being Happy; George Covington When Lifes A Blur; Humor Therapy;
Senator Letter Ben Nelson; DRLC Is Your Health Care System
Accessible?; Allen Rucker Thoughts on the Writers Strike; Green
Pages Save Bucks in the Bathroom; Betsy Valnes Sticks and
Stones; Deaf Cruise Partiers of the Caribbean; ChairKrazy
Making Music, Making Change; Dr. Hans Keirstead Stem Cell Pioneer;
Richard Pimentel Get A Job (Heres How); ABILITY's Crossword
Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe