JAKE Yuzna’s short film Young Adult tells the story of a teenage girl (played by Allison Cameron Gray) with Cerebral Palsy who fights to connect with the boy (MacGregor Arney) she is attracted to.
Ahead of Young Adult’s screenings at the BFI London Film Festival (13 & 17 October), Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up Allison for an honest chat about the film and her experiences in the film industry so far.
Q: What attracted you to the story in ‘Young Adult’ and to the character of Annie?
A: THE most obvious point of the story that intrigued me was the main characters and their different abilities.
I like that Jake Yuzna and Susannah Grace Williams (the writers) created the story with Annie chasing Greg instead of the guy pursuing the girl. This gave Annie more power as a character. I admire Annie’s drive. She allows herself to be vulnerable, following her heart and risking heartbreak.
Young Adult explores the common theme of everyone, the desire for love. People with different abilities also want love and are sexual beings. Few films or T.V. shows explore this. People with different abilities are often infantilised in the media. This is completely a false stereotype. I am not as sweet and innocent person as people assume. I can be a troublemaker if I want.
My Cerebral Palsy is not my defining quality. I wish the media would portray us in a truthful light.
Q: How did you find the shoot and performing with other talented young actors like MacGregor Arney (who plays Greg) and Skyler Davenport (Beth)?
A: THE production crew was professional and fun. We were all treated equally regardless of our different abilities. This was unusual since all too often people with different abilities are patronised. Hair, makeup (Christina Yu) and costume designer (Juliet Charnas) listened to our ideas and reflected it in their styling. The reassurance that physical accommodations were taken care of allowed me to focus on my acting.
MacGregor is excellent at conveying his emotions through his eyes. He was able to find his character and be Greg. Working with him was a pleasure.
Skyler is very sincere and compassionate both on and off camera. You see that in Beth. This made it easy to capture the relationship between Beth and Annie on camera. Jamie Jung (Kyle) and Maelina Gibson (Nakeisha) did a wonderful job reacting to teenagers who kept throwing challenges their way.
Q: Director Jake Yuzna is a fiercely intelligent person and knows film better than most. What was he like to work with?
A: JAKE is the type of director an actor dreams of working with. He listens to us, trusts us and isn’t afraid to let us try different things. The process was a true collaboration.
Working with him doesn’t feel like work. It feels like playing. Jake’s openness was felt throughout the set. There were small changes needed to be made to the script to accommodate me. He did it with ease. Jake also recognised I need some help behind the scenes and made sure there was someone on set to assist me. I would enjoy working with Jake again, anytime, anywhere.
Q: As an actor with a different ability, what are the challenges facing you?
A: THE biggest challenge for me is that I don’t sound like everyone when I talk. My words are slurred all the time. It’s one of my biggest insecurities. I have accepted not everyone wants to take the extra time to understand me but luckily most people do. When doing stand-up, I usually thank the audience for drinking so much so they can speak like me.
I’m used to hearing “You’re a great actor but we don’t know what to do with you because you have a speech disorder.” Obviously, there is nothing I can do about that. This was never brought to my attention during the filming of Young Adult. It gave me the confidence I needed to just focus on my performance and not worry about how I said the lines.
I think if an actor can convey the emotions strongly, people will understand what is going on even if they don’t understand every word that is spoken. There are so few parts for actors with different abilities. I think that casting forgets we are members of society. We witness crimes. We go on dates. We fall in love. We have sex. We hang out with friends. Heck, I could easily shoplift with my wheelchair.
I think that we are viewed as a bigger problem to work with than we are. Unless you know someone with a different ability, there is the fear of the unknown and assumptions that have nothing to do with reality. For years we were educated separately thus feeding into the notion of different.
Q: What do you feel needs to be done to improve the treatment and attitude toward people of different ability in the entertainment industry?
A: ABLEISM remains strong in our culture. Different is still not acceptable. If you look at the breakdowns, unless it specifies an actor with a different ability, we are not given an audition. If people with different abilities were more visible in every aspect of the industry there would be more opportunities for us.
Writers and producers need to think outside the box. I could play a college student or someone’s best friend. My Cerebral Palsy doesn’t need to be part of the storyline. On the other hand, able bodied actors often portray a person who is differently abled and receive accolades.
Q: You have an impressive resume for your age with experience in stand up comedy, theatre and public speaking. Why have you been drawn to performing? What do you love about it?
A: I have always wanted to act even as a child. It’s my first love. I genuinely enjoy being in front of a crowd and entertaining people. Now that I’m older, I realise I can use different types of performances to educate others about people with different abilities.
Stand-up comedy and theatre are ways of demonstrating to people that we are more alike than not, without explicitly saying it. They say laughter is the best medicine. Doing stand-up provides a connection with others. I can address the elephant in the room and move on to the similarities and humour in everyday life. Public speaking is different. The audience is there to learn.
Q: I hear you have British roots. How excited are you for your performance to be seen at the prestigious BFI London Film Festival?
A: I am thrilled! My dad is from Scotland and received his Ph. D. from the University of Nottingham. Most of my dad’s side of the family still resides in Scotland. It’s an honor to represent my heritage by being part of the BFI London Film Festival. I love U.K., the people and the pubs. Admittedly, California weather is better.
Q: I believe you are currently studying at University. How is that going and what can we expect from you in the future?
A: WITH acting jobs few and far between, I need a backup plan. I’m majoring in Social Welfare and Social Justice. My goal is to work with parents and children with different abilities. Two more years to go!
I have some theatrical projects in the works. I am co-writing a play with my friend Daniel Garcia. My uncle is encouraging me to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We’ll see what happens.
You can see Allison in ‘Young Adult’ as part of the BFI London Film Festival (13 & 17 October)