The way top actors get jobs is through an agent. The way top actors with disabilities get jobs is through dedicated folks like Gail Williamson and Mark Measures of Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates (KMR). Williamson has placed talent on Glee, American Horror Story and Shameless, among others, while Measures is a 25-year industry veteran, whose clients include Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Perkins and Angela Kinsey. The two recently spoke with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper at KMR’s offices in Studio City, CA.
Gail Williamson: I started out at KMR by hanging out on Cindy (Kazarian’s) couch, working on my laptop. The very first year they paid me four times as much as I brought in, and yet they said: “Great, let’s have a second year.”
Chet Cooper: They started you off with a trial period just to see what would happen?
Williamson: Yeah, and even after it cost them the first year, they still believed in me. I think we made a profit the second year. The other day Cindy said to me, “I had no idea it would move this fast.” But you know how many years we’ve been doing the work with actors who have disabilities. And now I’ve had five clients on Broadway, four of whom are deaf and the first woman to work on stage in a wheelchair in Spring Awakening. That was a big deal.
I recently booked JLouis Mills as a series regular on NBC’s show Heartbeat. He’s a big black guy who’s blind in one eye; he had cataract surgery that went wrong and it blew out his cornea, so now one of his eyes is milky colored. The show wanted a character who could obviously have been injured in the war. They were originally looking for someone who was an arm amputee, but I said, “Let me show you everybody I’ve got!” (laughter) And now we have casting directors who call us directly. They’ll say, “We’ve put out something for somebody in a wheelchair,” and they’ll get, like, 2,000 submissions, and they know those people aren’t all in wheelchairs. So they’ll call me directly.
Lia Martirosyan: You’ve done a lot of work with actors who have Down syndrome—
Williamson: I put a whole classroom together with kids who have Down syndrome on Switched at Birth. I get calls for actors with Down syndrome because my son has it. Switched never put a thing in the breakdown. They just called me, and I put it together for them, so my clients had the opportunity to be in it that other people didn’t. But ultimately, I want this department to go away because there won’t be a need for it. I want every agency to include talent of all abilities.
For now, though, there’s still a need for the work we do, and also for the advocacy that this department does. I’m also real clear with my clients that, if along the way they find somebody who wants to invest in them, they have to consider leaving to try that opportunity. And if that agency can’t do what we do here, they’re welcome to come back. But they have to test the waters constantly.
Cooper: We were recently in New York at the ReelAbilities Film Festival. Did you hear what happened with the movie, Margarita, With a Straw, which they screened the first night?
Cooper: There are three characters with disabilities in the film: one has cerebral palsy (CP), one uses a wheelchair and one is a woman who’s blind. We watched the movie, and everybody seemed to like it. But Lia and I had just come from a long day at the United Nations (UN), so we left and missed the discussion where somebody asked, “Does the lead woman really have CP?” The writer-director said, “No.” And there was some kind of uproar. She tried to defend that choice. If the director had come to your agency, looking to cast that part, would you have been able to find a female actor with CP?
Williamson: It would depend on the age, ethnicity and involvement.
Martirosyan: The actor would have needed to be 20- to 30-years old, and somewhat attractive. Definitely had to have some appeal.
Cooper: Appealing enough that she had at least three sexual encounters in the movie, so that other people would find her attractive. There was one character that I thought was a little bit too good looking; that was overkill.
Matirosyan: That was a favor.
Cooper: You think that’s what that was?
Martirosyan: That’s what it played out to be.
Williamson (shows a picture): This is who I have in New York with CP.
Cooper: Yeah, that could have worked. A little old, but that could have worked. Doesn’t have to be in New York. Matter of fact, they filmed some parts in India and New York.
Williamson: Did they audition for the part?
Cooper: That was the big question: Had they really looked for an actor with CP?
Williamson: And if they had, they would have found my agency, so if I haven’t heard from them, they haven’t looked around. That’s how I feel nowadays. If anyone starts looking online for disability and hiring actors, they end up here eventually.
Ali Stroker could have been amazing. She’s a paraplegic from an accident when she was two, but she can do anything. But if you offer it to Ali, is it union? What does it pay? She’s at a different level.
Martirosyan: It probably wasn’t union.
Cooper: The whole thing was probably low budget. But it was a lead in a film.
Martirosyan: But once you’re union, you don’t take those kinds of roles, right?
Williamson: Union actors can do ultra low-budget projects where they’re just paid $100 a day. But they still have to do the paperwork, and they have to pay some fees. So it’s not impossible. Back when she and I were working together in the beginning, it was impossible to do a union job unless you wanted to pay big bucks for everything. They’ve got all these new moderate/low-budget/ultra-low-budget projects that you can do now. But do you want to put in 15 days at $100 a day? It’s creative, and it’s a business; it’s always both. But did they try? The one scenario that always comes back is Glee with “Artie” in the wheelchair. They tried; they auditioned people. In fact, I’ve seen an interview with casting director Robert Ulrich saying he would look harder in the future.
Martirosyan: What were you saying about Nina Genatossio?
Williamson: Our equity agent found her. I first met her in a department store where she was working at the time. Nina came and interned for a while for no pay, and then started assisting different people and when my department got ready, they said, “Do you want to hire Nina?” I said, “Yes!” I had been impressed with her since she was an intern. Back then I had her type up reviews from movies I screened at the film festival for the National Down Syndrome Congress. She’d say, “Can I see this movie?” And she’d take it home. “Can I see this one now?” And I thought: “She’s invited herself into my world!” (laughs)
Cooper: We just met two people like that in New York; they’re millennials, aren’t they? They’ve an “I want to help the world” attitude, which is so nice!
Williamson: Yes. Every now and then, I’ll look at one of Nina’s e-mails and she’s like, “Hi, hope you’re having a nice day,” and I think, “I’ve got to be nicer in my e-mails.” Nina also does musical theater; she was in New York auditioning for The Phantom of the Opera.
Martirosyan: Does she sing?
Williamson: Beautifully. In fact, the Lyric Theater of Oklahoma is doing Fiddler on the Roof, and they decided that two characters, Hodel and Perchik, would be deaf. Nina sang the song that Hodel sings. I recorded her, and we sent it to Sandra Frank to practice. Now we’re doing a Skype audition in our office with Oklahoma, and Nina is reading with Sandra as the father, and here she’s telling her father goodbye, and then goes into this song. It goes from them having this touching moment to Nina and Sandra singing. It was this amazing moment, where the two women were so connected as one voice, and we were all just weeping.
Martirosyan: That’s lovely.
Williamson: And, of course, Sandra has a lot of experience because someone has been her voice in Spring Awakening for the last five or six months on Broadway. She just clicked right in with Nina, and there was an amazing moment.
Martirosyan: So Sandra’s mouthing the words and somebody else is singing?
Williamson: She’s signing, not even mouthing. She’s signing while someone else is singing. They’re not quite sure how they’re going to do it. Spring Awakening is going to tour next year. Do see it. It’s pretty amazing. At times Sandra is looking in a “mirror,” and the person who’s voicing her is on the other side as she signs. And sometimes when she’s signing, the person is clear off-stage talking, saying what Sandra is signing. Sometimes it’s done as a part of the staging in the scene when they’re in school, where the words suddenly appear on a chalkboard. It’s very cool.
So they’re going to work on how to do this in Oklahoma. And they picked Hodel because here’s a woman who’s leaving her family, and wouldn’t she be even more interested in leaving her family if she could find a soul mate who shared her deafness, someone she could communicate with? That would make her more interested in going to Siberia to be with this man. I thought it was an interesting way of seeing it. They’re going to try it. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. Things are getting interesting.
Martirosyan: I played Hodel in junior high.
Williamson: That’s a great role.
Martirosyan: And a good story.
Williamson: Do you act now?
Martirosyan: Not as often as I’d like. I’m focused on my music. If I had good representation, I’d do more acting.
Williamson: Send me your headshot, résumé, and links to you singing, acting—whatever you’ve done! It’ll show me what I have to work with, where I’m starting.
Martirosyan: I don’t have too much on tape to show you. I could do something in person.
Williamson: That’s fine, but I need tools that I can show somebody else. You’re welcome to put something on tape for me. How I work is this: I’ll take on pretty much anybody within the disability realm, like those who use scooters, wheelchairs… If I feel you’ve got some skills I can sell, I will take you on. If there’s an audition for women with mobility issues, they’re all going to show up on the same audition anyway. It’s no big deal that I’ve sent half of them.
But after that, when we’re looking at nontraditional roles, when I’m saying, “You could play the schoolteacher, how about you see so-and-so because the schoolteacher would be on a mobility scooter,” that kind of thing. And I do that when I have a union member with a well-produced tape. Out of my 100-some clients, I’m really working like that for only about 15 of them. Because it’s useless for me to pitch them until they’ve got that tape.
Martirosyan: How many people are seen for a role?
Williamson: Every role in a breakdown gets 3,000 to 5,000 submissions. So if I’m going to pitch something outside the box, I’ve got to have enough stuff to pitch them with before I can consider taking them on. We did that with the MTV show Faking It. Two girls are in high school and not very popular, until a rumor gets out that they’re lesbians. They don’t stop the rumor because they like being popular. The show needed another girl to be the campaign manager for one of the fake lesbians who’s running for school office, so we submitted Ali Stroker, using her tape from Glee. Casting sent it to the producers, who sent it to the network, and they called me and hired her within about four hours. She didn’t even have to audition. They liked her uniqueness.
Martirosyan: Don’t people need representation to get points to get into the unions?
Williamson: Yes, and that’s why we look for the disability roles. We look for the specific roles that you would be right for.
Cooper: How many points do you need in SAG?
Williamson: You need a SAG job.
Martirosyan: I’ve had a couple. I might already be in Taft-Hartley.
Williamson: Let me put in your information… Okay, I found it: “Congratulations! Your recent employment as a principal background performer qualifies you for membership in SAG-AFTRA, the most distinguished performers’ union in the world… yada yada.”
All you have to do, Lia, is go down and pay your $3,099 initiation fee, and they’ll make you a SAG-AFTRA member.
Martirosyan: Congratulations to me! All I need is $3,099! Where do I sign up?
Williamson: It’s on Wilshire (in Los Angeles).
Cooper: Can’t she just send a check?
Williamson: A $3,000 check from an actor? (laughs) They’re not stupid! Call them and make an appointment, and go in and pay your dues. The nice thing is, once you’re in as a member, there are a lot of things available to you. You can take voiceover classes. You can join the conservatory. There are movies and workshops weekly. For $100 a year, they give you two tickets to see 90 movies that year. Sometimes you can see them before they come out.
Martirosyan: That’s pretty cool. I want to start working.
Williamson: Call them, talk to them, and ask what types of payment programs they have available. In the meantime, if you want to get into my files, we can look at non-union work until you become union.
Martirosyan: Excellent. Thanks for the information. I’m glad to be working together!
Williamson: One of my clients just had an audition, and he was the only guy there in a wheelchair, but he’s a SAG member and had a good tape, so I could submit him, and he happened to have met this casting director before. And that’s the other thing, when people tell me they’ve gone to workshops, they’ve met this casting director or they know this person, I try to look for opportunities for them to get in with people they already know. That makes it easier.
Cooper: So joining SAG is also a networking opportunity?
Williamson: It is.
(As Gail dashes off to an appointment, Mark Measures joins the conversation.)
Cooper: Tell me how your commitment to diversity grew?
Mark Measures: I guess, technically, I started in ‘89 or ‘90 with actor Otto Felix. Do you remember him? He did a thing called HAPPI at the time. It was an organization for performers with disabilities, for want of a better term. I was at another agency at the time, and we started something very similar to what Gail is doing by funneling people to this agency. Otto was finding work for actors with disabilities and calling us as the agency of record, because they didn’t have an agency to represent them.
And then, over the years, I knew Cindy had the department here, which was always a part of the business, but it did not have the kind of focus and push we gave it once we were able to get Gail here.
At one point, though, Cindy tried to close the division. This was seven or eight years ago. They were saying, “You’re discriminating against people with disabilities if you close the division.” She wasn’t going to not represent performers with disabilities; she was going to funnel them into other departments. The problem we find very often, and Gail can tell you this: there are a lot of people who say they want to do this work, but they don’t want to really make the commitment to it. They don’t want to get their pictures, they don’t want to get their stuff online, they don’t want to be coached, and they don’t want to put their tapes together; they don’t want to do what anybody else has to do to make it in this business. It’s no different whether you’re differently abled or not. You have to do what you have to do to work, just like any actor does. So anyway, she reopened the division to avoid being sued by the union, and it limped along until we were able to—
Cooper: Limped along?
Measures: No pun intended!
Cooper: I’m surprised that somebody balked at them for trying to close it.
Measures: And it’s sad, because Cindy was always an advocate. So Gail kept sending people our way, and when the state let Gail go, we tried to find a place for her, because she’s unbelievable.
Cooper: Yeah, I don’t know anyone who has a more solid background than she does in that area. You’ve got exactly the right person.
Measures: The right person 100 percent. And ultimately, our goal is to eliminate her.
Cooper: I’d get rid of her tomorrow.
Measures: It’s just that we don’t want there to be a separate division. We’ve shamed much of the New York community with Ali Stroker who said, “It’s been 200 years of Broadway, and you’re just now getting a performer in a wheelchair?” And the response we got from casting in New York was, “Well, if more people represented these actors, we would—” We were like, “You’re so full of it. You have to make the decision to bring in actors who are differently abled.”
Cooper: When ABILITY Magazine started 25 years ago, we said we would like for the reasons that we need to publish a magazine about disabilities to ultimately go away. Now that you’ve proven, with Gail’s help, that this aspect of the business has grown, why don’t other agencies say, “Why don’t we do it, too?”
Measures: Because agents, for the most part, are lazy. And it takes work to get appointments for differently-abled actors.
Cooper: It might make money, but it takes work to make that money?
Measures: Yes. It’s work just to sell the talent. Everything we do takes work. It takes work to convince a casting director that there’s no reason you can’t use someone who’s an amputee or whatever—unless it’s part of the story. We go to producers and say, “Hey, we have actors who’ve had two legs amputated, and you wouldn’t know it unless you saw the prosthetics. Write it into Chicago Fire. Write it into a show where you’ve got an able-bodied fireman who gets his leg crushed, and show how he makes that transition afterwards.” You have to educate producers. The main character in House was supposed to be in a wheelchair, but the network said, “No.”
Cooper: I didn’t know that.
Measures: So they gave him a limp. Last year, ABC gave us all their pilots and said, “Where can we use differently-abled actors?” Gail was able to show them where. We look at every breakdown and think: is there any reason this character can’t be an actor in a wheelchair? Is there any reason this can’t be an actor with a missing appendage? Is there any reason this can’t be a blind actor? So, for us, it’s educating the community.
Cooper: That’s really good.
Measures: That’s what we have to do every day. A lot of agencies don’t want to educate. They just want to have somebody say, “Well, you see so-and-so.” “Oh, sure.” And not, “You see so-and-so. They’re in a wheelchair. Maybe it’s a good idea.” Gail tells the story of being at some event where there was a producer talking about a McDonald’s commercial and how he wanted to cast everybody. Gail said, “Okay, so if you were doing a McDonald’s commercial and you need a brown-haired, brown-eyed boy of 12, would you cast my son, who has Down syndrome?” And he went, “No, I wouldn’t do that.” She was like, “Why?” He said, “Well, because people would wonder why he was there.” And Gail went, “He’s there because he’s hungry!”
We run into that all the time. There were two incidents last year, one was Justified and the other was the Clint Eastwood movie, American Sniper. In Justified, they used an actor who jumped out of a chair, climbed out a window and down a pole, but they used an able-bodied actor and computer-generated imagery to eliminate his leg. That makes us crazy. We have actors who can do that. We have Paralympians. And why did Clint Eastwood use actor Jonathan Groff as a leg amputee instead of an actor who is a real amputee?
Cooper: Do you ask them?
Measures: We try. In that instance, though, he used two other actors later in the piece who were vets who had been injured in the war. We tell them, just call us. At least bring in our talent. If they can’t do the job, we don’t want you to hire them just because they can climb out of a chair and climb down a pole. We want you to hire them because they’re the best actor for the job. Cindy and I both feel this is one of the most important things we do on a daily basis. The rest of it is selling soap.
Cooper: You’re always cleaning up when you sell soap.
Measures: You’re cleaning up if you sell enough soap.
Cooper: Similarly, there’s this whole Catch-22 about how you get a new magazine onto the newsstand… So I go to Safeway and talk to them about selling the magazine. The manager says, “It’s an interesting magazine, but do you really think a magazine dealing with disabilities belongs in a food store?”
Measures: As if people with disabilities don’t eat?
Cooper: Exactly, and that’s what I thought of when you told the McDonald’s story.