An Interview With Adam Pearson
Adam Pearson is an actor, advocate, and journalist. He was born with neurofibromatosis: a condition that causes non-cancerous tumours to grow on nerve tissue, and only affects 1 in 2300 people. This week, I was incredibly fortunate in being able to interview him about his life on screen, disabled representation , the current political climate, and this unusual period of self-isolation.
We begin by discussing the 2011 Channel 4 documentary: Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice. I ask Pearson if, during the filming of the series, if he’d learnt much about why people are generally so judgemental. He replies, “I already had a rough idea, anyway, because I did a lot of work behind the scenes on that programme as well. I was the casting researcher for a lot of the other people who worked on that,” proceeding to explain that nothing he learnt was “particularly new or revelatory”, however did emphasise the crew’s determination not to create something that was very “finger-waggy, soap-boxy, and shouty”. Pearson explains, “once you start accusing people in, what could be interpreted as, a hostile manner, you instantly lose your audience”, so decided to “challenge people’s perceptions” in a “really cool, clever way, that makes them feel part of the story as well”. Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice did not leave Pearson particularly surprised, emphasising the benefit of knowing “the devil with whom you're dealing".
I then ask if the fact these expectations had been met was rather disappointing for Pearson; he explains that, in one way, it was, as it highlighted “how far behind we are”. On the other hand, he continues, “it could’ve been worse”, had it turned out “we were way more screwed than [he] thought we were”. Pearson believes that everyone gained something from the show, including the experts and crew behind the scenes, as “everyone makes assumptions (...) it’s just a base human reaction”; this, for Pearson, highlights the benefits of questioning your own bias.
Moving onto a fiction production, we begin to discuss Under the Skin, a sci-fi film, produced by the “amazing” Jonathan Glazer. It is “loosely” based on Michel Farber’s novel, written in 2000. Johansson plays the role of “an alien sent to earth to collect male human meat, to send back to her origin planet”. The alien drives around Glasgow in a van, trying to learn about the male characters she is targeting; “over the course of the film, she gradually becomes more human”, eventually beginning to develop “a human condition”. Pearson’s character gets “picked up” along the way, while doing his shopping at night, “because people wind [him] up”. However, he is the only person interested in Johannson for reasons other than sexual longing. The film presents the question of how this work would look if we hadn’t been bombarded with ideals of beauty and perfection. Adam describes the significance of having “a disabled actor playing a disabled character”, while this disability “wasn’t being used as a shorthand for pity or villainy; it wasn’t being used as a crutch. Normally when you see disability, especially disfigurement in cinema, it’s used as a coverup for what is lazy writing, and lazy characterisation”."
While Pearson acknowledges the progress made by the film industry, he criticises its “transience”, worrying that films with diverse casts can sometimes feel “tokenistic”. Looking at the discussions surrounding diversity at the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscars, Pearson describes the way in which “we’ve boiled it down to just race and gender. Disability doesn’t even have a seat at the table.” Regarding representation in film, Pearson explains how it is no longer acceptable to partake in blackface, or to even have an all-male case, regardless of whether or not Shakespearen casts may have done this. He highlights the “pandemic of cripping up”, as it is still “very much alive and well”.
Pearson has been part of the “I am not your villain movement”: a campaign that challenges the casting of characters with visible differences as malicious figures. Pearson criticises the “archaic stereotypes, lazy writing, and poor characterisation”, however emphasises that the villain of a movie “is a great role to play”. While the star would love to play an evil role such as that of a Bond villain, Pearson explains that the issue lies in the perception that disabled actors are limited to one role: the baddie. He clarifies that he is “not calling for a blanket ban on disfigured bad guys in cinema”, as this would be “unrealistic”, and would also be limiting his work opportunities. Pearson calls for a “balance”, and the introduction of disabled characters as “heroes, the good guys, the love interests”.
More recently, Pearson played the role of Rosenthal in the 2019 movie Chained for Life. In the trailer, Rosenthal is seen rehearsing for a film, while the director tells him to “step out of the shadows”, while he utters the words “don’t be frightened”; I ask about the personal significance of these words, outside of the acting industry. Pearson describes his “no-nonsense parents”, who “always encouraged [him] to go out, and be very socially affluent”, but never put him under the illusion that he wasn’t disabled, or was identical to everyone else. In his opinion, this has helped him to be very “adept” at what he does, and is now able to “neutralise the issue” of his disability in conversation. He recognises that, in many conversations, he has to do “90% of the leg work”, letting people take his disability in, however also explains that, once this “initial inertia” is overcome, everything becomes “plain sailing”. Pearson describes how, rather than being scared, those he interacts with are “often unsure”, as we all respond with a level of “trepidation”, when we experience something that is “unknown” to us. Jokingly, the activist explains that, once you show that “you’re not a psycho-killer, looking to burn Gotham City to the ground”, people become more aware, and more accepting.
Discussing the curiosity of some people, Pearson describes how he avoids becoming angry with them, as to prevent worsening already-harmful misconceptions. He describes how, in such situations, his “job is to be polite, to be courteous”, and to respond to any questions people may have, in order to “break down these stereotypes together”. Astounded at the amount of tolerance this must take, I ask Pearson about the patience he’s had to develop over time. Referring to the book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Pearson empathises with those who feel they shouldn’t have to repeatedly justify their views to the same demographic, however “respectfully disagrees” with this stance. He asks the question, “If I don’t explain disfigurement to people who don’t know about it, who else is going to?” Pearson explains that him refusing to discuss his disability would be the equivalent of a maths teacher not talking about maths, just “because they do it every year, and it’s the same stuff every year”. He parallels: if a maths teacher refuses to teach, the kids won’t learn maths; in the same way, those uninformed about disfigurement will remain uneducated, unless somebody talks to them about it.
I proceed to ask about the effects of social media, and whether or not it has increased acceptance. Pearson describes such platforms as a “double-edged sword”, as we are all given the opportunity to support one another, but also to tear each other down. He proceeds to describe how “the trolls have come out of the woodwork”, and criticises the “insane amount of anonymity online”. Before social media was created, and when Pearson was a child, bullies would have to physically find him if they were to hurl abuse at him. Once they had witnessed Pearson’s “soul leaving [his] body”, they would feel “what we used to call ‘guilt’, back in the 90s”. Now, he explains how easy it is to create nameless profiles, and to frankly “go nuts”. For him, social media has provided more advantages than disadvantages, as he cares very little about others’ judgemental attitudes. Additionally, he explains, the insults he hears are often extremely unoriginal; Pearson enjoys correcting their grammar, and retweeting the comment, before simply moving on with his life. Pearson’s rule of thumb is this: if he wouldn’t say it in real life, specifically “in front of [his] mum at dinner”, then he won’t post it online.
Pearson doesn’t believe that “[he] chose activism, but that activism chose [him]”. He describes himself “as quite a good communicator”, while recognising he is “quite funny”. These characteristics appear to have shaped the passionate advocate so many of us know. At the age of around 20, Pearson was initially approached by a few charities that asked if he would like to be an ambassador; he initially saw the opportunities as being useful for his CV. However, once he got “really good at it”, and more notable figures began listening to him, Pearson began to realise “he should probably begin taking it a bit more seriously”. He describes how this platform has turned into "an ever-increasing steer of influence”, which is “really important not to take lightly, as the thing with reputation is that it takes years to build, and seconds to lose”.
Pearson recounts how he became involved with activism before acting, which has eventually become a “by-product” of his first works. He finds the two industries “help each other out”, as he is reluctant to “compartmentalise” different areas of his life, due to the fact it “implies there are demarcations that actually don’t exist”. Pearson explains that all his work is a form of campaigning in some way, and is also of the opinion that it should be “breaking down a barrier”, or challenging the misconceptions of at least one person a day.
Pearson expresses his appreciation for his “supportive” network, who truly understand and value what he does. He explains that many of his friends now have children, who are “masters of disability and inclusion and diversity”, however emphasises that this is not because he “sits them down, and beats them over the head with it”, but rather because he simply acts himself. Sometimes, however, he does forget just how young they are, which “leads to some really awkward conversations”. Recently, he recalls having to explain what a Jägerbomb is to a child, however insists he “pulled it right off”, by comparing it to the sleeping potions drunk in fairytales.
Pearson goes on to describe the responsibility he feels towards other disabled actors, who haven’t had the same opportunities as him. The star is determined “to hold the industry to account”, as, while it is very good at talking about diversity, “it’s terrible when it comes to execution”. For example, Pearson describes how the BBC has a “doubling diversity” target in place, except “nobody has actually sat them down and told them that two times zero is still zero.” He suggests that, rather than relying on “nonsensical numerics”, the corporation should “just hire more disabled people”, rather than making excuses.
I proceed to ask whether disabled people don’t feel welcome enough to enter the acting industry, or if disabled actors exist, but are simply ignored. Pearson explains that it’s a combination of both these issues, as “the grassroots problem stems from the fact [disabled actors] are being ignored”. He furthers the point by criticising the fact there are no disabled people in executive positions of power, which means it is typically “non-disabled white men who are pontificating about what they think that disabled people want or need”. Whereas, if disabled leaders were making these decisions, “simple mistakes” regarding representation simply would not happen.
We shift our attention to the current situation regarding coronavirus. In the recent emergency coronavirus bill, the government decided to suspend the Care Act of 2003 and 2014. Unfortunately, Pearson was “not really” surprised by this, as “the past ten years have shown what a low priority disability is to the Tory government; the cuts in austerity disproportionately affected disabled people”.
The purpose of PIP (Personal Independence Payment) claims is to allow those with long-term health conditions or disability to seek financial aid, in order to cover the costs of living. Pearson recounts how he put in a Freedom of Information request, in order to see how many applications were denied; he learnt that 80% are initially declined, but, upon appeal, 70% are successful. He explains how the introduction of Universal Credit took away the premiums previously allocated to disabled claimants, as they were left up to £2000 worse off annually.
Remaining focused on the financial situation of disabled people in the UK, we begin discussing a statement made by Conservative MP Sally-Ann Hart. In December, the MP for Hastings and Rye suggested that disabled people should earn less at work, as “some people with learning difficulties don’t understand money.” Pearson expressed his dismay at the assumption, describing it as “ridiculous”, but proceeded to theorise what life would look like, if this was the case. He explained, if disabled people really did not understand money, we would be doing more damage than good by restricting that access. He, again, used the analogy of maths, explaining that, if you were to have a child who struggled with maths, you would simply teach them more about the subject, rather than completely depriving them of it.
"A lot of disabled people I know are bored of being told by non-disabled people how to self isolate, when it’s something that’s already been forced upon them by society pre-coronavirus outbreak.”
In terms of how everyday people can make the world more accessible to the disabled community, Pearson emphasises the need to empathise. He suggests imagining your daily commute, and then imagine yourself in crutches, or a wheelchair, for example. Pearson explains it is important to recognise how “frustrating” it can be for the 18% of the country, whose needs are rarely considered in enough depth. Regarding the current coronavirus situation, Pearson describes how a lot of disabled people he knows “are bored of being told by non-disabled people how to self isolate, when it’s something that’s already been forced upon them by society pre-coronavirus outbreak”, due to a lack of accessibility in their everyday lives. He expresses concern that, once the pandemic has ceased, “the world will move on really, really quickly, and the whole disability debate will just get lost”.
We move onto Pearson’s personal experience of self-isolation. For those who do not follow him on Twitter, the actor has been posting daily Disney karaoke singalongs, which I highly recommend watching if this situation is feeling somewhat overwhelming. Aside from singing, Pearson has been taking a similar approach to many of us: “a lot of video gaming”, and “eating loads”. However, he’s also in the process of writing a 20,000 word book proposal, which isn’t something many of us can say we’ve been doing! In order to prevent feelings of loneliness, Pearson has frequently been FaceTiming friends, even partaking in church services on Zoom.
For those who are feeling lonely due to self-isolation, Pearson advises, “don’t be afraid to just pick up the phone, and call your mate”, suggesting “they’d be just as happy to hear from you as you would be to talk to them”. He praises social media, in this particular situation, as a “safe haven”, explaining it’s become significantly easier to interact with those you would see on a regular basis, even if they’re not present physically.
Written by Elizabeth Bratton.