Laura Innes — From Acting to Calling Action!

Circa 2008

For a dozen seasons, Laura Innes played ER’s 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 Magazine’s 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 working on?

Laura Innes: I’m 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 Wells—the show’s executive producer—but I heard it through the grapevine that when he was observing hospitals, he saw a doctor who had a cane and he thought, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.”

Johnson: You knew Weaver had a limp, but did they tell you the back story?

Innes: No. When I asked, “Well, what’s her malady or injury?” they said, “We haven’t 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 wouldn’t 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 that’s how that choice was made.

When I got the part and the character was described as having a limp, I didn’t really think about it in terms of the impact as a disability.

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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 hadn’t 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; she’s a part of PWD. One thing they fight for is to get actors with disabilities to portray people with disabilities.

Innes: Yes, it’s 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 character’s in a wheelchair, but the person’s actual disability is with a crutch? Should they not play the part in the wheelchair?

For me, the prospect of playing Dr. Weaver amounted to: “Wow, this is such a great character, she’s so acerbic, she’s so smart, she’s so powerful, she’s so good at what she does, she’s 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 toprated 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 I’m going to make the most of it, and I’m 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, I’ve come to believe strongly that it’s important to do casting sessions with people who are actually disabled.

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 he’s a gang member. They treat him a certain way because they assume he’s being belligerent, when actually he’s 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.

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Johnson: You flexed muscle that you wouldn’t 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; he’s concerned for his son who’s 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 cases—and then again recently on Brothers and Sisters—we picked an actor with a disability. On Brothers, there’s an actor named Alan Toy. We cast him as a Vietnam vet who uses a wheelchair. So now I’m very proactive about it.

Cooper: It’s great that you’ve chosen to use your power for advocacy.

Innes: On the other hand, I don’t 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 he’s a big star and it was a high-profile movie? I mean, is that where you draw the line? I don’t think it’s something that’s an absolute.

I think the bigger issue is that you seek out actors with disabilities for such a part first, and if you can’t 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. It’s difficult because there are more and more disabled performers who are available, but it depends on the part and the age; it’s extremely specific. That’s the point I’ve come to on that.

Cooper: What are other battles that you find yourself waging?

Innes: Well, one is that it’s 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.

That’s the harder sell for people, because they’re worried that it’s going to be a distraction, or they’ll ask, “What’s the audience going to think?” They’re going to think just what they thought about Kerry Weaver. Many people thought I was actually disabled.

Johnson: It’s like the’50s: What will they think if we put a black person on TV!

Innes: I’ve worked on a show that I won’t 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. It’s going to cost you X.”

Johnson: The cost wasn’t that expensive, right?

Innes: Right. It ended up being minimal. I think that’s 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 wasn’t that big an expense. It’s very doable, you know?

Cooper: How can performers with disabilities get in, when the door’s 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 don’t get called into very many auditions and you don’t work that often, when you do get called in, it’s such a big deal that you might not be primed to do your best. You’re 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 don’t come along that often, just as they don’t come along that often for, say, women who are over 40, you know?

The business is not receptive to people who don’t 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. I’m the only one who can play this part.”

Cooper: One of our health editors is a physician and she really likes ER. She wasn’t able to be here to ask you a question, but she wanted me to find out if the medical doctor who created the show, still has any involvement? She finds the accuracy of the show right on. Apparently, it’s one of the medical shows that physicians like.

Innes: Michael Crichton wrote the pilot and was around a little the first year, but he’s no longer involved in the production.

Cooper: Tell me about your other medical advisors.

Innes: One of the reasons that the show functions at such a high level is that John Wells has always had ER doctors as producers and on the writing staff. There’s a small group of guys who actually went to film school and medical school. On the ER writing staff now, I think there are two physicians who are also writers and producers, and then we have three different doctors, one of whom is always on the set when we’re shooting. There’s Joe and Lisa who go through the script and sort of make sure it’s correct, and then there’s an on-set doc who works with the director before the shoot.

During our prep time, we choreograph what the medicine is and what we need and how it’s going to play out and what the actors have to do, and then that expert is on the set with the director and working with the actors to teach them the medicine. They really pay a lot of attention to that.

Cooper: So if there’s ever an accident on the set, you’re all in good hands.

Innes: Yeah, that’s exactly right! I remember a story from the first season, I wasn’t there yet, but I’ve heard that Noah Wyle worked such long hours and was so exhausted that one of the doctors gave him an IV to hydrate him. He had the IV in while he was working. (laughs) That sounds like abuse to me, but—

Cooper: (laughs) I guess the motto is Keep working!

Johnson: Did you find continually leaning on the cuff crutch affected your body in anyway?

Innes: After about two years, I had a bone scan and my doctor goes, ‘Well, the bottom of your spine is curved to the left,’ which is exactly where I raised my hip up when I walked with the limp. So it definitely affected my alignment. That being said, I don’t have back pain or anything.

Johnson: That’s fortunate… When you left the show after 12 seasons, was it to go deeper into directing?

Innes: Pretty much. Doing the show for that long was fantastic, but the character had run its course. I had tried everything I could imagine her doing. I never expected to stay that long, and I was very grateful to have been kept on, but at a certain point it’s not stimulating enough, and it’s time to try different things. My husband and I decided that if we were lucky enough to get to a certain point, we would change it up. And the directing played a big part in that, because I did have that as another work option and that was going well. I happily go back and direct episodes of ER, so one or two times a year I see everybody and hang out. It’s the best of both worlds.

Johnson: Is ER where you got your first directing break?

Innes: That’s right.

Johnson: About how far into your tenure on the show?

Innes: I’m guessing it was maybe ‘99? It was a while ago. I did one ER, and it went well, and then Tommy Schlamme, who was the executive producer of West Wing, asked me to do a West Wing. And John Wells produces both shows. So John would use me on ER and West Wing.

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Johnson: They’re both kind of 12-ring-circus shows, you know?

Innes: They’re both very challenging to a director because so much is going on, but they’re a lot of fun and very interesting.

Cooper: Switching subjects a bit, do you do any volunteer work?

Innes: You know what? I do some. I have two kids and I work quite a bit, so I’m not that good about doing my volunteer work. But I help out at my son’s school and I do a fair amount of work with bone marrow donors, that’s the kind of thing I speak up about. I have a daughter who was adopted from China, and a couple of the girls that we’ve come to know in our community of Chinese adoptees have been affected by various cancers that have been cured by bone marrow transplants. So we have worked in the past few years to raise awareness of bone marrow donation, to make people look at it as they look at giving blood. We’re trying to get everyone on the registry.

It’s such a great thing, because when you give bone marrow and there’s a match, after two years you can meet the person who was your donor—if they’re open to meeting you. It’s pretty incredible to see these people meet, because one person’s bone marrow has literally saved the other person’s life. You can save a child’s life, a mother’s life… Getting on the registry is easy. It’s just a little cotton swab in your cheek, and then the actual giving of the marrow is uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s made out on TV to be this horrible, excruciating thing, and it’s not. I mean, definitely you wouldn’t choose to do it, but it’s not that bad, considering how much it could mean to someone else.

Johnson: Do they give you a cookie afterwards?

Innes: They give you a cookie!

Johnson: See? That makes it all worth it!

Innes: Exactly.

Cooper: What drew you to the Writer’s Guild picket line the same day Performers with Disabilities were there?

Innes: I’ve gone out there periodically to show my support, but it was a coincidence that I was out there the day the performers came out. It was kind of funny. At first I wondered: Should I go? Is it gonna look like—?”

Johnson: I’m playing a picketer who plays a person who has a disability?

Innes: (laughs) Then I thought: No, I’ll probably know half the people out there, and it’ll be cool.

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