“There is so much work to do”

Lauren Ridloff attends the UK Gala Screening of Eternals at the BFI IMAX in London on October 27, 2021. (Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

2021 may have been a banner year for the representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood, especially among deaf artists. Millicent Simmonds has further proven to be one of entertainment’s most exciting young actresses in A Quiet Place Part IILauren Ridloff became Marvel’s first deaf superhero in Eternals and especially, CODA triumphed at the Oscars, winning three Oscars, including Best Picture.

But the real work has only just begun, argued a diverse panel of creators with disabilities at Inevitable Foundation Thursday morning panel at San Diego Comic-Con hosted by The Hollywood Reporteris Abbey White. “There is so much work to do,” Ridloff proclaimed.

Ridloff, Jillian Mercado (The L-word: Generation actress and model, living with muscular dystrophy), Josh Feldman (writer for Marvel’s Echowho is deaf) and Greg Machlin and Aoife Baker (writing partners who identify as neurodiverse) came together to discuss the wide-ranging challenges that industry professionals with disabilities regularly face.

“I used to be the only deaf person in the room,” Feldman noted. According to Mercado, this means that people in their positions must often not only perform their roles as actors, writers, and producers, but also serve as unofficial (i.e., unpaid) consultants in concerns how productions work with and portray people with disabilities. And audiences blame them directly if they don’t feel portrayed accurately or respectfully, Mercado adds.

Nevertheless, the panelists welcome their role as representatives of the disability community in general.

“What we put on screen is important,” says Baker.

They also believe that Hollywood is slowly making productions more accessible. Feldman referenced flashing lights that were installed in his trailer when needed on set. Mercado, who uses a wheelchair, is grateful that there are productions that will pick her up and drop her off since ride-sharing services often have curfews for accessibility for people with disabilities. And Ridloff learned that she just had to ask for what she needed on set.

In a post-panel interview with Ridloff, we spoke to the Eternals and Walking Dead actress through an interpreter on the future of disabled creators in Hollywood.

Yahoo Entertainment: I really enjoyed today’s panel. I found it really insightful. What did it mean to you to get together with all of these great creators like this and discuss what it means to be disabled in Hollywood in 2022, and envision a collective path forward as a united front?

Lauren Ridloff: How to answer that? It’s funny because quite recently I saw somewhere that they called me an actor and an activist. It was so interesting to me because I really wouldn’t call myself an activist. I just talk about what I need and what I think I need to change. That’s it. And I guess that puts me in that category. But I think it really means a lot to have a platform here at Comic-Con, it’s such a huge event. People come to have fun, but also to learn… And the fact that people like us, people with disabilities, belong in this space and now we have a voice and we have a table. Wow. We make movement.

I know one of the main motivations behind the panel was to normalize the conversation about disabilities in Hollywood. Beyond panels like today, which I think are effective on their own, what are the next steps we need to see taken in the industry?

Follow to the end. This is the most important thing we have to do next. Just follow it. And I think about who is actually listening to these conversations, people who are in the same boat. We need people who have a completely different life experience and a completely different understanding, and for those people to listen to those experiences and make changes, because they are the ones who have the power. We were just talking about how the line producers are the ones making those decisions. They say “yes” to our requests. They are also the ones who must make changes. And first, they have to start listening.

You innovated with your role in Eternals — what kind of reactions did you get to this performance from fans in the disabled and deaf communities?

The deaf community has been so positive about my portrayal of Makkari. But the biggest impression I had was that we want more. It’s my favorite thing. This is our rallying and our cry. We need more Makkari.

Do you feel more momentum right now in Hollywood than in the past? You said there is still a lot of work to do, but do you have hope?

Yeah, I’m hopeful. And I think there’s momentum and I just hope it continues. But I mean when I was 8, Lesser Children of God came out of [in 1986] and Marlee Matlin won her Oscar. And now my son is 8 years old. That’s when the next deaf person won an Oscar, Troy Kotsur [in CODA]. Yeah. It’s a long time between the two. So yes, there is a dynamic. You just have to speed up a bit. I know that over the last two years there has been an increase in representation and deaf actors are much more visible and I’m glad for that. But what I notice now is [the need to see] more creatives involved offscreen, behind the camera. And I think that’s just as important. We have Josh Feldman. We have my husband Douglas Ridloff, who currently works as a consulting producer for Echo. We need more. And I see that’s where we’re going, and I think that’s wonderful.

What do you think CODA win top prizes on a stage as big as the Oscars for movement?

First of all, when I saw them win, the first thing I noticed was that there were so many actors, directors and other winners [in attendance], many of them clapped dully with their hands waving in the air. And it just gave me goosebumps. You know, seeing this visual validation that things are changing. And hopefully what happens next is we see more stories that involve this intersectionality of deaf people, deaf people who are black, Mexican, LGBTQIA, the whole spectrum. We need so many more stories that can be tapped into the deaf community. And also the disability community. I think what I’m seeing is that a lot of that on-screen representation is mostly white.

In effect. But yeah, especially when Troy won that Oscar and was walking up to the platform and you saw all the loud applause, I was in tears.

Let me tell you, I cried. I cried. I was sitting in my hotel room glamorizing and crying. I messed up my makeup. I had to apologize to my makeup artist. But I was so happy.

What’s next for you?

I’m an executive producer of a limited television series with Ava DuVernay and Joshua Jackson. It’s on Starz. So we’ll see. This is where I am at right now.

Will we see you again in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Will we have more Makkari?

It’s the question of the day, the week, the year… Who knows?

Learn more about the Inevitable Foundation here.