Kiera Allen on upending disability stereotypes with Hulu's thriller Run, also starring Sarah Paulson

'There is so little media representation of people with disabilities that I feel like I’m representing an entire community because of this lack of visibility,' says Kiera Allen who makes her debut with the Hulu thriller Run.

The New York Times April 04, 2021 18:08:25 IST
Kiera Allen on upending disability stereotypes with Hulu's thriller Run, also starring Sarah Paulson

Kiera Allen (Joyce Kim/The New York Times)

Kiera Allen makes her feature debut this week, playing opposite Sarah Paulson in the Hulu (US platform) suspense film Run. It is a rare instance of a wheelchair user starring in a thriller.

In a recent Zoom interview, Allen, 22, discussed playing Chloe, a home-schooled teenager with an overprotective single mother, and how the movie upends typical narratives about people with disabilities. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

We don’t often see an actor who uses a wheelchair in real life in this type of role — in a major thriller.

It feels like it’s going to be the first time a lot of people in my generation ever see a real wheelchair user onscreen playing a wheelchair user. That’s a huge honour.

There is so little media representation of people with disabilities that I feel like I’m representing an entire community because of this lack of visibility. I’m really hoping that this movie brings down some barriers and that more disabled people are cast in major movies.

What did you think of the movie’s portrayal of disability?

This film is unusual in the way it portrays disability, not only in the authenticity of casting, but in the story: This is not a girl who’s made to be a victim or who’s only there to inform another character’s journey. She defines her own journey. Her disability is a part of that, but it doesn’t define who she is. It’s similar to the way I view myself.

What was it like to be on set? Was it different from past experiences?

Everyone listened. They wanted to know how best to accommodate me and how to make everything comfortable and accessible. There were things that they thought of that I hadn’t even thought of. So we had great communication throughout. They approached me about sending a memo to the crew, just being like, Here are a few things about working with a person with a disability to make everything go smoothly: For instance, don’t push my chair; don’t come behind me and push my chair without asking first. Just putting out one small page of information made a huge difference.

Kiera Allen on upending disability stereotypes with Hulus thriller Run also starring Sarah Paulson

Kiera Allen. (Joyce Kim/The New York Times)

How did your real-life experience or the nuances of your life get translated into or help shape the role?

The script was already written so beautifully in this way — as soon as I read it, I emailed the director [Aneesh Chaganty] and was like: This is one of the best representations of a disabled character I’ve ever seen. And regardless of if I’m right for the role or not, I cannot wait for people to see this.

And so even though it was already so compelling to me, when we got onto set, they made space for me to say things like, “This is how it would be most comfortable for me to do this” or “I would use this word and not this word,” like very small things, because the script was already so good, but things that did make a difference to me.

Have you discussed the film with anyone who is disabled?

I’ve had some really great conversations about accessibility, about Chloe, and how she flips the narrative of abuse of disabled people. She’s not a victim. She’s a hero. And the mother, the abuser, is not portrayed as someone who’s doing her best in trying to care for a disabled child and it’s just too much for her and she has no other choice. The film doesn’t sympathise with her in that way. That’s something that I’ve talked about with some disabled folks who’ve seen the film and find that perspective refreshing.

There is one scene where a broken escalator foils an escape. Did you have any input in that?

That was all the writers. They wrote this wonderful representation of disability. They did a lot of homework. One of the things I love so much about this film, and that’s so unique, is its representation of accessibility. It is in so many ways a scary story of accessibility and inaccessibility. Chloe gets trapped in a basement and can’t get out because her mother has weaponised inaccessibility against her.

It’s a terrifying thing, inaccessibility, being trapped somewhere, being unable to get out, having to rely on people who may or may not have your best interests at heart, people who you may not even know, when a space is inaccessible. That stuff is really scary. And I’ve never, ever seen any art in any form that represents that terror. And it is terrifying.

People often see it is as unfortunate or sad or something to be pitied. But it’s not that; it’s much more visceral. It’s a threat and it’s a terror.

What has it been like to see disabled characters portrayed by non-disabled actors?

There have been films that represent disability using able-bodied actors that have been important to me, and I felt seen and I felt like this was a representation of disability that was really true to my life. But that was also all I had. I didn’t have a lot of pieces of entertainment — films, TV, plays — where I could see a genuinely disabled person in that role. I’m just so excited for young people to see that now.

What would you like to do next? Where do you see your career going?

I’m in college, so I’m just thinking about the present moment of getting through the semester and this film release. I absolutely want to continue acting. I love to write as well. I would love to make that a part of my acting career. It’s exciting to be a part of this big moment for representation, but I do hope it’s a lasting change.

There is a bit of a history of disabled actors being celebrated for one role and then not having opportunities on that same level again. That scares me. But as long as I’m doing work that’s good, with good people, and that’s rewarding, that’s something I’m really happy to do.

Deborah Leiderman c.2020 The New York Times Company

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