Actor and producer Diana Elizabeth Jordan stops by on Close-up Culture for an in-depth chat about working with Cory Reeder, the landscape for actors with disabilities, starring in a horror movie and much more.
Q: ‘Ain’t Woke’ looks like a fun comedy that feeds into the conversation about #TimesUp. What attracted you to this role?
A: Ain’t Woke was a film created for the Easterseals Film Challenge – a yearly 55-hour film competition founded by actor, comedian, producer and all around fantastic guy Nic Novicki. It promotes opportunities for artists with disabilities in front of and behind the camera.
Cory Reeder (writer, director, and executive producer) said he wanted the #TimesUp Movement to be a central theme in whatever he wrote. As a producer on the film, I thought that was a great idea!
As far as playing Notorious Nellie, I loved taking on a role that showed me in a different light. It was fun to play a baddie and show myself in a different light to my previous roles.
Q: How did you find the opportunity to produce on the film? Do you have ambitions to work behind the camera more in the future?
A: It has always been important for me to diversify my skills because I work in the entertainment industry. I love acting and I have wanted to be an actor ever since I can remember.
Developing my producing skills gives me a larger platform to develop my own projects or partner with other producers (as I have with Cory Reeder). Producing also gives me a chance to create opportunities for others. On Ain’t Woke and Best Friend, I had one of our clients from the Performing Arts Studio West (a performing arts training centre for adults with developmental disabilities where I work as an acting coach) working on each set as a production assistant.
I also love directing and have been directing theatre productions for several years. Last year, I directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Performing Arts Studio West. Next year, I have plans to go behind the camera and direct my first film for the 2019 Easterseals Film Challenge.
Q: As you say, ‘Ain’t Woke’ gave you another opportunity to work with director Cory Reeder – who you worked with on acclaimed shorts ‘Boxed Out’ and ‘Best Friend’. What makes you and Cory such a good team?
A: I love Cory. Over the past few years he and his lovely wife, Allison, have become good friends of mine. Cory has also become a mentor in terms of helping me develop my producing and directing skills. He also gave me another opportunity to work with him when he cast me in a Jonathan Davies music video he was producing.
I think what makes us a good team is that we have a similar vision – to tell a good story and to be nice. Cory has been incredibly supportive of both my producing and directing ambitions. Having worked with him as an actor, I see how he creates a set that is comfortable and fun to work on, yet he also exhibits grace under pressure. I want to do the same when I direct next year for The Easterseals Film Challenge.
Q: How important for you is it to find directors like Cory who are cast you in roles that are not just disability specific?
A: Incredibly important, it has always been a career goal of mine to be cast roles and be a part of storylines that aren’t disability specific. I have been very fortunate since the beginning of my career to be cast in roles that aren’t disability specific in theater, film and television.
My disability (cerebral palsy which mildly affects my speech and gait) is a part of who I am but does not singularly define who I am. Disability is intersectional and a lived experience. I have many identities: daughter, bank customer, friend, aunt to the two most adorable boys in the universe (that might be slightly biased), and an activist. They are all identities that make me who I am.
Earlier this year, I lost my dear friend D.C. to suicide. The pain and heartache I felt – and still feel – has nothing to do with my disability. It has to do with the heartache of losing a beautiful person who I loved and not knowing how much he was hurting when he took his life. Grief, the joy of falling in love, the anger of being betrayed or the bitter sweetness of watching a child you love growing up, are all universal feelings, and I want to show the rich emotional tapestry of the human experience through the characters I play and the stories I tell.
I often say I chose to be an actor in my real life so I could portray many roles (friend, banker, patient, public defender, homeless woman, senator, space alien) in my reel lives.
Q: How do you see the current landscape for actors with disabilities? Is the industry improving its attitude and behaviour?
A: That is always an interesting question for me. I have seen progress since I began my career. There are definitely more casting directors who are calling in actors to audition for non-disability specific roles and I have had some of those opportunities.
More of my fellow actors with disabilities are working in film, theatre and television. They are also creating their own content which is fantastic. However, for what feels like every two steps forward there also seems to be a step back. That can feel frustrating, but I always choose to focus on the positive and what is working.
The Casting Society of America has a very active diversity committee (chaired by Russell Boast) and last January CSA held a nationwide open call audition for actors with disabilities. Auditions were held in several cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and a nationwide database of actors with disabilities was created.
The Easterseals Film Challenge continues to garner more national and international recognition. Films from the challenge have gone on to win awards in other festivals – both in the U.S.A. and abroad. Recently Variety Magazine did both an in-depth digital feature and print article (sponsored by Easterseals) called ‘Abilities Unlimited, How People with Disabilities Are Helping Hollywood Win’. I got to be a part of the digital feature as a former Easterseals Film Challenge Best Actor winner for my work in Boxed Out.
These are just a few of the positive changes I am seeing and there are others too like my friends and fellow actors Eileen Gruba and Paul Ford – who recently started the monthly meet up Time To Start Booking PWD’s (Performers With Disabilities). The progress may be a little slower than I’d like it to be sometimes, but it is most definitely there – and that is very exciting.
Q: You also have a role in Jeff Houkal’s horror ‘Edge Of Isolaton’. How did you find the experience of working on a Feature horror?
A: Working with Jeff was awesome and I had a blast. We shot Edge of Isolation in Big Bear so it was the first time I got to go away on location. Jeff, the cast and crew were great to work with. It honestly didn’t feel like work but much more like being away at camp for a week.
What was really special about getting cast in the film was the breakdown read, an African-American woman who had a traumatic brain injury. My representation submitted me but I also reached out to Jeff and introduced myself via e-mail. He asked me to submit a tape and the rest as they say is history.
I think what is so much fun about working on a horror film is you get to see all the special effects and the artistry that goes in to making everything. I think the supernatural and science-fiction genres are good for me in terms of casting possibilities. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit squeamish when it actually comes to watching the film. I still need to cover my face, even when I know the actors and what is about to happen!
Q: I really admire the way you have always been looking to branch out, particularly in your work with The Rainbow Butterfly Café. What led you to start R.B.C in 2015?
A: Thank you. I can’t say it was one thing. In fact, if you had told me even ten years ago that I’d be starting a business I would have looked at you at you sideways.
The feeling of wanting to start my own business just got stronger and stronger over the past few years until I knew it was something I had to do. I have always been multi-passionate and this was a way for me to combine all of my skills as an actor, speaker, artist educator-facilitator and artivist (art activist). I can offer performances, performance lectures and expressive arts based workshops on what I am most passionate about celebrating – the disability experience, history and culture, eradicating disability and mental health stigmas and teaching resiliency, visioning and goal setting skills.
Q: How have you found the experience and what are you working on at the moment?
A: Launching The R.B.C. has been one of the scariest, most joyfully challenging things I have ever done. I call it an EduTainment Production Company. It hard been hard but that doesn’t mean the hard work isn’t worth it. I have had to learn a lot about patience, developing business skills, marketing and finding joy in the baby steps that I take.
This year I got to go to Houston Texas and do my Overcoming Stigmas Workshop (which teaches about ADA regulations) for BP Houston. I recently did my Nothing About Us Without Us (about The Disability Civil Rights Movement) for a class at California State University Los Angeles and got to speak at The Bent Not Broken Conference in March.
I already have a couple things lined up for the beginning of the year and that is progress for me. Running my business is very similar to my acting career in that there are elements I can’t control, so I focus on what I can control and maintain my faith.
Q: Can you single out an actor or director you’d love to work with and tell us why?
A: Oh gosh, that is kind of like asking me which of my nephews is my favourite – James Wesley or Jordan! There are just so many actors and directors I’d like to work with and for so many different reasons. I guess if I have to choose one, I’d say Cicely Tyson. Why? Because she is Cicely Tyson! There are no words to describe how amazing that would be for me.
Q: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects or ambitions to share with us?
A: I am getting ready to launch an online 25 Days Of Holiday Giving: A Time To Spread Love, Kindness and Joy, through The Rainbow Butterfly Café on December 1st.
I am performing at the LAFPI (Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative) Holiday Micro Reads on December 1st at Samuel French on Sunset) and on December 2nd, I will be performing for the opening of the art exhibit Opulent Mobility, curated by artist A. Laura Brody on December 2nd at Thymele Arts.
Last June I co-stared with award-winning actor Tatiana Lee in the short film Stand Up (directed by Kitty Hu & Dasha Masalitina) and I am looking forward to that coming out. I have some other projects in various stages of development, but I am mostly looking forward to the holidays and spending time with the people I love the most.