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John Lawson — Actor, Pilot, Scuba Instructor and Advocate

John LawsonWhat do pumping gas and painting water towers have in common? Neither are glamorous exertions, and neither rise to the occasion of being called an aspiration. Both are a means to an end- a task to be accomplished so that something else, maybe something great, can happen. In the world of John Lawson, both of these things have taken on new meaning. John is an award-winning actor, singer, pilot, and a scuba diving instructor. And he has become one of the leading advocates of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. As a performer with disabilities, John is active with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) and frequently gives talks to studio execs and others on the importance of casting authentically.

Recently, ABILITY caught up with John to talk about his involvement with the movie Daruma. He discussed his role in this film as well as being cast in “a role I never auditioned for, but it’s one that’s been filled with perils and rewards of living with a disability and trying to be an advocate in a field—in the entertainment industry that’s very slow to change.”

Chet Cooper: How did you get involved the film Daruma?

John Lawson: Well, the producers had a nationwide casting call for a double amputee. I’ve been to a lot of castings in LA and I know a lot of people, but I seem to be the only true double amputee in Hollywood. There’s a lot of guys missing one arm, left or right, but nobody missing both arms.

Anyway, I taped an audition. So, I went to my good friend Toby’s house, because we read for each other when we’re doing auditions, and we live a couple of miles apart. I said, “Man, you should really audition for this. Let’s just turn the camera around.” He goes, “No, man, they’re looking for a paraplegic.” I said, “Well, you can do it. Come on, it won’t hurt. You’ll read the lines opposite what I just read.” So he hadn’t even submitted or anything like that, so we submitted him as well, and we both got call-backs to come in, and they ended up casting both of us. It was strictly off of a nation-wide casting, with the producers looking specifically to cast the roles as written, with two disabled actors playing the disabled leads.

Chet: Authentic.

John: Right. Actual authentic casting.

Chet: That’s good!

John: And that’s what I’ve been advocating for for nearly 25 years. It’s not only about casting actors with disabilities in disability roles, but it’s casting actors, casting characters who just might happen to have a disability. Why can’t the computer nerd be in a wheelchair? Why can’t the attorney be missing an arm? Because with 25% of the population, approximately, having some form of disability, that means that there’s a lot of those people who are in those roles.

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I fly airplanes. I’m a private pilot. And I’m a scuba diving instructor with PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, who just happens to be missing hands.

That’s one of the things I say. One of my quotes. I speak on a lot of panels and film festivals, I speak to all the studios, Paramount, Sony, Warner Brothers, NBC Universal. In fact, I’m going there next week to speak to their writers. They have an internship for writers, and they asked me to come in and speak to the writers about disability. One of the things I tell them is that in real life, I’m a dad, a granddad, a private pilot, and a scuba diving instructor who just happens to be missing hands. But in the make-believe world of Hollywood, I am an amputee who just happens to be an actor. When there is an amputee role, when there is a role for a disability, I get called in or I get to audition. But when it’s just “old guy,” it’s very seldom that I’m called in just to be the dad or the granddad, and I certainly wouldn’t be called in to audition to be a pilot or a scuba diving instructor with no hands. Yet that’s my real life.

Chet: And I’ve known you for a while, and I always think of you as “old guy.” (laughs)

John: Whatever the character is, I can’t play a 20-year-old African American waitress.

Chet: At least not very well.

John: (laughs) Yeah, at least not very well. But I can play “old guy”. So that’s what I try to do.

Chet: Tell me about your flying and your scuba diving. Are you still active in both of those areas?

John: Oh, yeah. Not as much flying any more. I sold my airplane back in 2001 when my wife died, and I kept my license current for quite a while renting airplanes. But it just got so expensive. I had four kids and by the time I kept a roof over their heads and fed them, I couldn’t afford an airplane, too, so I had to sell it. But I still enjoy flying. One of these days I hope to get a powered parachute or something that takes off at 25 miles an hour, flies at 25 miles an hour, and lands at 25 miles an hour.

Chet: Oh, one of those powered kites?

John: Yeah, it’s just a little kite. You either wear a motor on your backpack or some of them have a tricycle with a little motor on them and a fan. And then the parachute, or they have paragliders, like a motorized hang-glider. They’re ultralights. They just—[makes a buzzing noise]. It’s like a bunch of damn bees in a mason jar.

Chet: (laughs) That’s what it sounds like! Now that you’re saying it out loud, I had forgotten that we did an article years ago on a guy who’s quadriplegic and they rigged up a system for him down in Brazil, and there were images of him in the article soaring in the sky. They were above him when they were taking the photographs.

John: That’s cool!

Chet: He was having a great time up there. What about the scuba diving?

John: I still scuba dive. In fact, I’m planning a trip to go probably during the holidays out to some place warm and go diving for a little while. Now that I have kids and grandkids, it seems like I’m traveling back to the East Coast to visit my grandkids more, and I’ll do that as well. I’m planning to go scuba diving this winter somewhere in the South Pacific and take a few days off. A few years ago my daughter got married, and she and her husband, she wanted to go on a scuba diving honeymoon, and her husband was not certified, so they got certified and she called me about a week before they were supposed to leave and said, “I’m kind of scared. He’s not taking this real seriously. Will you go with us?” I said, “You want me to go with you on your honeymoon?”

Chet: (laughs)

John: And she says, “You’ll have your own hotel room.” I said, “Thank you very much, I appreciate that!” So I ended up flying back east to Jacksonville, Florida, somewhere, or Miami, and I went with them and went on the first couple of dives, and sure enough, he was having some problems. I was able to get him straightened out. They spent the rest of their honeymoon diving.

Chet: Where’s the most beautiful setting that you’ve been scuba diving?

John: I would have to say anywhere is the Caiman Islands. But the South Pacific, Hawaii or Fiji, have their own specialized critters that got blown there years ago or whatever, crossed with the tides and stayed there. So there’s fish there that you won’t see anywhere else. That’s why I’m headed back that way now, somewhere in the South Pacific. I like to dive in warm water. I’m doing the old guy roles now, so I don’t care to do cold-water diving or go super-deep. Everything you want to see is within 15 to 20 feet. The deeper you go, the more pressure, the more air it takes to breathe down there. The deeper you go, the less amount of time you can stay. I’ve been down to 150 – 160 feet, doing some technical dives on Japanese wrecks and things like that.
I find now that I’d rather be in 15 to 20 feet of water and stay underwater for an hour and a half.

Chet: And the water’s warmer?

John: The water’s warmer. I don’t have to put on long, thick, heavy, wet suits. There’s nothing wrong with that type of diving, but it takes you 30 minutes to get dressed to go down to stay underwater for three minutes at depth, 5 to 10 minutes at depths, and then you’ve got two or three hours’ worth of decompression hanging on a line just to get back up to the surface. That’s technical diving, and I’ve done it, and it has its place and I’m glad to do it, but to me right now, I am 100% a recreational diver. I like to jump off the back of the boat in my swimsuit with just a tank of air and go look at pretty fish.

Chet: Do you bring your prosthetics with you? Do you go without?

John: With prosthetics. Everything is with prosthetics. The only thing I do without my prosthetics is sleep. Well, maybe there’s a couple of other things, but this is a family magazine.

Chet: (laughs) It’s a family show!

John: Yeah, it’s a family show. My prosthetics are my hands, and they have been for over 30 years. But I don’t use any specialized equipment. I can leave here, go to Fiji, rent whatever I need to jump in the water, and I can dive. If I used some sort of specialized equipment, if I had some special thing to help me grab my regulator, whatever I needed, if it broke when I’m halfway around the world, my dive trip, my vacation’s over. I’m not going underwater anymore.

I was very adamant about learning to do the task with my prosthetics. Early on when I got hurt, I don’t know how I figured it out or why, but I felt that it would be better for me to learn to adapt to the world rather than expect the world to adapt to me. With my pilot’s license, I can go in any airport if I’m current and rent any airplane. I don’t use any special adaptation to an airplane, to a car, or to scuba dive.

Chet: That’s a single engine plane?

John: Yes, single engine is my certification.

Chet: Are you comfortable talking about your accident?

John: Sure. I was working a real job in between acting and singing jobs, as my dad used to say, for a company that painted above-groundwater tanks. February 4, 1987, I was working in North Carolina. We were up on a water tank, like the Warner Brothers or Paramount water tank, that was built in the 1930s on an industrial site. We were about 30 feet up in the air on a scaffolding, that hangs off the side of the water tank, much like you see with high-rise window washers.

The foreman was on one end of it, spray-painting. Normally he just needed me on the scaffolding to work the air motor so the scaffold would come down. We would come down a little bit, he’d hand the spray-painter to me, I’d spray-paint for a little bit and hand it to him, he’d spray-paint and then we’d come down a little lower.

We’d done this for however many weeks, and we were just finishing up. While he was painting, I saw a spot that was missed on one of the strut rods that stabilize the legs. You think of what the Paramount water tower looks like, it’s got four legs that come up and there are x-bars in between them. It was similar to that. I picked up the aluminum extension pole, dipped it into the paint, reached out in front of me, painted the little spot that was missing. With the pole extended about 17 feet, there were approximately two feet behind my arm, under my left armpit with my left arm wrapped around it and my right arm, right hand holding onto the pole with the other 15 feet in front of me.

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And even though it was aluminum with a small roller, it was still very heavy and awkward. I rested the pole perpendicular to the scaffolding with it hanging out into the water tower on the handrail behind me and one of the strut rods in front of me just to rest. The foreman on the other end, stood up and I thought he was finished. We were about 30 feet in the air. He was just straightening his back up. He went back to spray-painting on the other side of the leg, and just as I got ready to wrap my left arm, I squatted down to pick up the paint pole, I had my left arm wrapped around it and had just grabbed it with the right hand to pick it up when the electric line arced over. There was a high-voltage electric line in close proximity to the scaffolding, and 7,600 volts was what was one leg of a three-phase electric that was coming in to feed the motors that worked the motors and stuff in the cotton mill.
That was February 4, 1987.

Chet: Did you fall onto the scaffolding?

John: We had safety, we had extra cables, we were tied up to the safety cables. So no, I didn’t fall. It was like getting hit with a big stun gun. Everything went limp. All of my muscles went stiff at first and then went limp. I sort of fell forward and I was hanging by my safety rope, but my knees and feet were still on the scaffold. Had I not had the safety rope, I would have probably fallen and become a quadriplegic. We followed all safety precautions, but this line was brought too close to the existing metal structure of the water tank, and that’s when it arced across over to us.

Chet: So you stayed conscious?

John LawsonJohn: I stayed conscious through the whole thing, never lost consciousness. I remember as it happened, I looked across the scaffold at the Forman and as I looked at him, he looked like a cartoon figure with an electric charge going all around his body, as if he had some kind of glow or aura around him.

Chet: I thought you were going to say his eyes zoomed out like in a cartoon series.

John: No, no, that would have been me! But that’s one of the things the doctor said, that I would be more susceptible to cataracts because of the electricity going through my body and my eyes. But so far that hasn’t happened. I did have what they called kidney stones right after the accident, within a year afterwards, and that had to do with the electricity burning proteins, stuff in my blood, body, and muscles.

Chet: I was going to say, that might have been more painful than the—

John: Yes, it was. It was not fun. Other than not having hands, that’s the only otherwise side effect. I haven’t had any cataracts or anything like that.

Chet: Wow. So, you decided not to do any more painting of water towers?

John: Yeah, that ended my water tower painting career. It was just, like I said, temporary. I originally started singing opera and was a classically trained musician. I started playing piano when I was three, started taking lessons when I was four. I studied piano continuously for 17 years. 30 years old, when I lost my hands, I’d studied piano over half of my life. In those few seconds after that accident, I would never play again. I left the hospital after four months in the burn center with hooks in the place of my hands. I was never going to play again.

But now, that day when I got hurt started me down a road that I never intended to take and cast me into a role as the advocate for disability in film and media. It’s a role I never auditioned for, but it’s one that’s been filled with perils and rewards of living with a disability and trying to be an advocate in a field—in the entertainment industry that’s very slow to change.

Chet: You mentioned opera. I forgot that you sang—didn’t we try to connect you to do something with Lia Martirosyan one time?

John: I think so. I don’t remember if it was scheduling or what, but we never got anywhere with that.

Chet: That’s too bad. I’ll talk to her again and see where she stands. I know she’s working on a one-woman play right now. I don’t know what she’s doing with singing independently beyond what she’s trying to do with the show she’s trying to produce. On the acting front, the casting front, what are your thoughts to better increase the availability of actors with disabilities into the entertainment industry?

John: I don’t think that anybody in the industry or in casting has it in for people with disabilities. I don’t think they’re going, “Oh, my God, we’re not going to cast them. We’re just going to be mean girls.” I don’t think that’s it. I think it comes with education. Educating the industry and the overused word the “gatekeepers” has a lot to do with it. Last year I worked—I am a committee member on the SAG-AFTRA national PWD committee, the performers with disability committee, partnered with Russell Boast, who is the president of the Casting Society of America, the CSA. We had an open call last year, a nation-wide open call for performers with disabilities. Pretty much everywhere the CSA had a casting director. They videotaped every one of these people with disabilities.

The other thing is, as I meet with writers, it’s not about writing characters with disabilities, when we allow an able-bodied actor to portray someone with a disability, we are denying one of the nation’s largest protected groups, and in this case, people with disabilities, it’s nearly 25% of the population, the right to self-representation. But when we allow this, what’s been coined crip-face, like crippled-face,

Last TV season, less than 2% of the characters had disabilities, and that includes invisible disabilities such as depression, anxiety, cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, and autism. 2%, if you want to use that number, that’s only 18 regularly appearing characters out of 857 on the four major networks. Now remember, the population is currently at 20% or greater. That’s 20% with visible disabilities, and when you add invisible disabilities, it goes higher, close to 25%. Out of 857 regular roles, only 18 of those were characters with disabilities.

Out of those roles, almost 95% of those were not done by disabled actors. Can you imagine if 95% of all female roles were done by men acting like women? We would never stand for that, and nobody would ever do it, but yet, that’s what we allow with disability because I think the casting directors and the producers and the directors are not educated about actors with disabilities who are trained and able to work. We want actors with disabilities portraying characters with disabilities.

But when I speak to the writers, I try to explain to them that there’s no way unless you are a writer in a wheelchair that you can write an authentic part for a person in a wheelchair. You can guess what their life is like, but unless you have the lived experience, it’s hard to write that. If you write a character in a wheelchair and then cast an actor in a wheelchair, yes, that person can say, “Hey, in this script where you say he hops out of his wheelchair and hops in a car and start driving, it doesn’t exactly happen like that.” Whatever the example might be. The wheelchair actor, after living a life of authenticity of being in a wheelchair, brings that to the script.

I tell writers, “Just write your characters. Think about, sure, we think about diversity as being race or gender or LGBTQ status. But we also need to think about that diversity includes disability. And you do not have to write a wheelchair character. Your character that is the computer nerd could just happen to be in a wheelchair.” That’s my story. That’s what I preach in Hollywood and have been for pretty much 30 years. “Don’t try to write a wheelchair character. Just write a character and put in the description that this character could use a wheelchair, and then let the actor with the authenticity of living the life bring whatever the traits are that are needed for the disabled character.” Does that make any sense? (laughs)

Chet: Sure

John: That’s just one part of it. We still have television roles where, for instance Bryan Cranston, did the quadriplegic role. And I’m OK with that. I’m OK that the best actor with the best box office draw gets the role. There’s no way that another quadriplegic who’s never been heard of could have sold that film and made money. But to me, where the education lies now is with inclusion in other roles. Why were there not five of the day player roles or two or three of the recurring roles, why couldn’t one of those have been a person in a wheelchair or an amputee or some other disability? OK, you cast the lead actor to sell the film, I get that. But put five or 10 actors, whatever the number is, with disabilities in your film. Give them a speaking role and give them a chance to start building up the credits that Bryan Cranston has.

Chet: We understand the concept that you couldn’t have found the funding for a movie. When that occurs increase casting of actors with disabilities.

John: Right. And this movie was in the making for 10 years. Bryan Cranston signed onto it, like, seven years ago. That’s one of my big things. If you’d had seven roles, or whatever the number, with disabilities, nobody would have said anything bad about it.

One thing I was going to tell you is that I’m listed with Central Casting background and then a couple of other background casting directors here because if the director says, “OK, I want to put somebody with no arms in this film,” whatever they’re shooting, they call me. Because I do not want there ever to be a director who says, “I tried to find a guy with no arms, but nobody came in, so we have the green screen.”

I go up and show up for background roles. Work is work to me. I will work background just to make sure that if the director wants an amputee, he’s going to get an amputee, somebody’s going to show up, so I’m there. I don’t normally seek it out, but when they call me, I do it.

Another thing that’s interesting to know— it might be a little bit less now, but since 1989, almost 50% of all the Oscar statues given have been given for the portrayal of a character with a disability, done by an able-bodied actor. And since the Academy first started giving awards in 1927, 16% of all best actor and best actress award winners have won by portraying a person with a disability. So, it’s very obvious that disability and disability story lines win hearts and awards. But yet we are denying almost 20% of the population that right to self-representation.

John Lawson and Toby-Forrest in 'Daruma'
John Lawson and Toby-Forrest in ‘Daruma’

Chet: Nice statistic. That brings us back to this film, Daruma, with you and Toby. You’ve shot the trailer?

John: Yeah, that was specific scenes from the movie to shoot a proof-of-concept trailer. Kelly, the writer, and the producers shopped it around Hollywood. Nobody was interested in doing it with Toby and myself having real disabilities. They stuck to their guns and said that that’s what they wanted to do, that they were going to cast it that way. They decided to go ahead and crowd-fund through Seed and Spark to make the film and make it with actors with disabilities in the roles. That’s the only way they would do it.

Chet: I’m aware of the struggles that they’ve been having. They’ve got three other parts, apparently, that they’re trying to find higher-profile actors if possible, to take those parts. It might help with the funding. It’s so frustrating that you have to do that.

John: And that’s what you have to do these days. You’ve got to sell the film. We understand that. And a lot of independently produced films do that. I’ve got a feature that I’ve been working on for a long time trying to get produced. R.J. Mitte, I’ve known him since he was 14 years old, we’ve become very good friends. I wrote the lead role for him and I’ve rewritten the script because I’ve been trying to get it produced for so long that he’s grown up. I’ve had to rewrite the whole script. But I’ve got him, William H. Macey was interested and some other people with disabilities I know, because I wrote some roles with disabilities in there. But hopefully we’ll get that done in the next year, before R.J. ages out. It’s about a man with cerebral palsy. It’s a faith-based film that I wrote 10 years ago. I’ve run into the same thing with them. And I’ve been sticking to my guns wanting to keep someone with a real disability in there. And then I’ve got some names, William H. Macey just plays a priest.

I understand what they’re doing, and I’m glad that they’re looking to do it. The wider the distribution we get, the more normalcy we will bring to the public about disability. I’m stared at and I get approached all the time. The other day I was pumping gas. This gentleman gets out of his car, I see in my peripheral vision, and I know he’s going to come up and talk to me. He goes, “I just want to tell you you are such an inspiration!”

I said, “Well, thank you.” I try to be nice. It depends on my mood of the day, though. He goes, “Can I help you do anything?” And I thought to myself, “How the hell can I be an inspiration if I need help?”

Chet: (laughs)

John: I go, “No, dude, I got it.” I’ve had guys come up and say, “Can I help you pump gas?” And I say, “Why, am I doing it wrong?” That’s sort of my favorite line. I was in Costco buying a box of the little coffee things. I pulled my card up and just out of fun I reached over and just let it fall into the cart. Well, two boxes fell in, so I picked one back up and put it back there. I didn’t want two of them. The man behind me who had been watching me when I turned down the aisle came over and said, “Oh, can I help you? Do you need help?” And I said, “Why, am I doing it wrong?” I just put it back on the shelf. “No, no, you’re an inspiration, you’re doing so well. I’m glad to see you out here.” I’m thinking, “Why, do you have stock in Costco? Why are you glad to see me here?”

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That’s because of lack of education of the general public that people with disabilities get out in the world and actually live a life and we aren’t sitting on the couch watching TV all day. I think the more it’s in the public eye, especially in the medium we invite into our homes and our most intimate settings, the more we are able to normalize disability. Yes, there are little people who do things, go to shows, walk down the street. And there are people who are amputees who fly airplanes and drive cars and pump gas. And there are people use wheelchairs who do all of those same things, whether it’s a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief, they all can be done by someone with a disability. And the more we normalize that in society, the more society will demand that in the medium and the entertainment that they invite into their home.

The LGBT stigma has been somewhat erased. They’re more accepted in society. That was the original episodes of Will & Grace. That show ran for seven, eight, nine years, where there were two gay characters. It normalized it because people are afraid of what they don’t know, whether it’s disability, homosexuality, racism. And if you think back, all the way back to the 1940s, an entertainer, was it Lerner and Lowe? Who did South Pacific? Was that Rodgers and Hammerstein?

Chet: I think so. [Note: It was.]

John: South Pacific was about the war, but it was a show about racism. In the show, I’ve done Lt. Cable and I play the old guy roles now, but there was a time when I played the young, handsome-looking leads. In the show, the song that Cable sings is, “You’ve got to be carefully taught to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade.” And this whole play is about racism and how he couldn’t be accepted with a girlfriend who was Tonkin. So medium, entertainment, whether it was onstage in the ’40s or now in television, is what has changed society and their perception of things that they don’t know about. As sad as it is to say, we get our biggest education from television or movies.

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