Can you start off by briefly summing up the premise of Speechless?
Fundamentally it’s about a family that don’t have any money, and who want to get their kids into a school where their son, JJ, who has cerebral palsy, can have an aide. They constantly move around, and everything is defined by them trying to ensure he has access to a good education. And they land in a posh neighbourhood, and they have the crappest house, and they somehow pull it together. It’s really about a family who have a particular set of circumstances. It’s a very personal story to Scott [Silveri], who wrote it, whose brother was non-verbal CP. I think he can approach it with all of the humour and largesse that he grew up with.
You play Maya, who is something of a force of nature, isn’t she?
That is a really nice way of putting it. She is. She’s difficult, because she’s had to fight very hard. She’s a parent, first and foremost, she advocates for her children, but she’s also a self-aware narcissist as a personality type, which is funny and awful, when you give that type of person a mission. She’s a very interesting, complex character. But first and foremost she’s a mother, and all of these special needs mothers that I’ve spoken to over the years, they all have to advocate in this way, which is to fight. It’s a fight, a constant battle.
So what did you do, and who did you speak to, in order to research the role?
Well, first of all, a lot of our writing staff have disabilities. A lot of our advisors. Ava, who basically was the person who came up with the laser on her glasses, which she figured out she could point to a board – so that was developed. [In the programme, JJ communicates by pointing a laser, on his glasses, at a message board]. I talked to her, and I talked to tonnes and tonnes of caregivers, often mothers and fathers, but mostly the mothers. We’d invite people to the set and sit in the conference room and chat, and talk about the nuts and bolts of physically what it means to transfer a person with a disability into the shower, to get them to bed, to get them dressed, what kind of accessibility you’re looking for. So there was nuts and bolts which I needed to understand. And then there were the things you come up against – insurance companies, schools, accessibility, getting an aide, who’s that person going to be? I love the fact that JJ chooses the guy with the cool voice, who turns out to be this amazing person. Of course we’d all want a cool voice to be our voice. I love that. Fundamentally, he’s just a normal teenager, with all of the proclivities and desires and ambitions and feelings that a teenager has. And he wants a cool voice.
And he’s a teenager, as well, in the sense that he’s excruciatingly embarrassed of his mother.
Incredibly embarrassed. And he does have a very embarrassing mother, there’s no doubt.
Did you draw on your own experience as a mother, and how protective you feel when you become a parent?
Absolutely. Whilst my child is able-bodied, it’s the same fierceness, you love and you want what’s best for them at all times, and that comes before everything else. You just have a different way of looking at things. We’re planning our summer holiday right now, and I realised all my friends without kids are going and doing these wonderful things that don’t involve kids, but you’re constantly looking at life from the point of view of “Well, I’ve got my son, is it going to be fun for him? What are we going to do and how will it work?” You book places on the basis of whether there’s enough for kids to do. I’d quite like to go walking in the Pyrenees. That’s not going to happen! Oh, a yoga retreat in Bali? Nope!
Was she written as a Brit, or did that come after you were cast? Was there ever discussion about you playing her as an American?
Yeah, there was. We actually read it through for the studio and network both ways. They liked the English accent, I think primarily because you have a cadence of your own humour in your own accent. I wanted her to be an American. I’d just done About a Boy, and I’d been British in that, and I wanted the challenge of being American. She was written as an American, and that’s what I wanted to do, but it just turned out to be funnier the other way around.
There are so many pitfalls to a show like this, from being overly sentimental to preachy to exploitative. The show treads that tightrope incredibly well, doesn’t it?
It really, really does. I got that from the pilot, and from talking to Scott Silveri, and to Chris Gernon, who’s one of my great friends, who is our executive producer and directed loads of the episodes. She directed every episode of Gavin and Stacey. We were all of us allergic to the notion of sentimentality and melodrama, primarily because that is the way that the media represents disability. You’re not only often looking at able-bodied actors playing disabled characters, but they’re trying to get away. They’re either trying to kill themselves or they’re trying to get out of this terrible situation. We all wanted to make a funny show, first and foremost, and because of our writing staff, because of Scott, and because of Micah [Fowler, who plays JJ] we’ve got an in as to where the humour lies within that. And if you’re approaching it from a comedic point of view, it’s really easy to avoid all of that other stuff. There are definitely heartfelt, emotional moments, because that happens in any family. But none of it is really around the idea that it’s all impossible and awful and hard.
Do you ever find yourself wondering what Maya would be like if she didn’t have a disabled child?
Yeah, I do, I really do. I think that she would be as big and pushy an advocate, but JJ is a raison d’etre for her, and as JJ grows up and goes off to college, what is she going to do? She won’t have that focus, so much of her identity is tied up with being the mother of a special needs child.
What’s it like working with the kids on the show?
They’re amazing. Genuinely, I have always felt that film and TV sets are no place for a child. You’re missing out on a childhood when you’re working that young. But these kids have unique parents, and they themselves are lovely people. They’re just lovely, and they’re deeply funny. They have funny bones, as opposed to being child actors who have that weird slightly Stepford thing that can happen, where they’re acting being a child because they’ve not actually experienced what that means. They’re all really, really good actors, and they’re all children too! Only they’re not children now, they’re all bloody huge and grown up. We just celebrated Micah’s 21st birthday. He got the part on his 18th birthday. But they are great, and they’re just getting better and better, which is lovely to see. You become weird de facto parents. I feel very maternal towards all of them.
Micah, who plays JJ, manages to bring huge charisma and humour to his role. That’s no mean feat for a non-verbal role, is it?
Absolutely. And I think it’s been a huge learning curve for him. He was very inexperienced when we began, and he’s had to learn on camera really. Plus it’s a very specific thing he’s being asked to do – to calibrate your reactions. It took a minute for all of us to figure out how it was going to work. Doing a scene with Micah is really interesting – when you’re reading ‘for him’ off his board, and then doing your responses as you. It’s not easy, but it’s really interesting. Watching him grow as an actor, and how much he enjoys it, is really lovely.
Have you had any feedback from the disabled community, in terms of what the show means to them?
Yes, a huge amount. Mostly on social media. Reading a tweet from a non-verbal person with Cerebral Palsy, saying “I sit and I watch my experience, and it makes me scream with laughter” is so gratifying. Or families who go “It’s extraordinary that we can all sit down and watch this together, my able-bodied kids and my kid with a disability, and we can all enjoy it and roar with laughter and feel that we are seen”. Without wanting to get too deep on it, the idea of representation for people who I don’t think they have been fairly represented, to be able to see themselves, and for it to be a laugh, I think that’s lovely. And I think it’s expanded the conversation here in America. The more you include, the more impossible it is to maintain your distance and your looking away which, let’s face it, most people do around disability. They don’t know how to interact with it, how to approach it. And I think the humour has broken down that barrier quite a lot.
You’ve talked in the past about the show being pretty exhausting to film, with 65-hour weeks for months on end. That must take a toll…
Definitely. The first two seasons, particularly season one, were the hardest I’ve ever worked in my career, to the point of real exhaustion. Scott’s whole idea was to have a show about someone who can’t really move, so he wanted a fast-paced show, and a show with lots of action in it. But also, when you’re working with someone who uses a wheelchair, that presents unique challenges, which can be really time-consuming. It’s just one of the fundamentals of doing it. So it took a long time for us to get into a swing that was easier. Definitely this season was a bit easier, but shooting nine months, five-days-a-week… now it’s 13-14-hour days, as opposed to 14-17 hours before. So it’s better. But I’m not going to complain, it’s a great job, and it’s meaningful and funny. If you can pull off those two things, you’re ahead.
What does it mean to you to have the show finally going out in the UK?
I cannot tell you how long both Chris Gernon and I have been waiting for this. It doesn’t really mean anything to anyone else, but we were both like “How can this not be on in the UK?” It speaks to social inclusivity, to a National Health Service that gives free health care – these things that we fight against in the US. I’m thrilled, because I just know that this show will land with British viewers, because it is funny, and because Britain has always seemed to me to not be scared of subject matters that other people find difficult. The UK is, Brexit aside, an extremely inclusive place. Always has been. That’s what I grew up in. And I really like it when you have American-British crossover, humour-wise, because when it works I think it is brilliant.