Zack Weinstein is a young wheelchair user who will soon be appearing on the TV show Glee. I blogged about Zack and invited him for an interview and he was kind enought to accept. This interview with Zack Weinstein took place by email over a few weeks in April 2010.
Interview With Zack Weinstein
Gene: I believe your accident was about four years ago, is that correct? Do you feel fortunate to have come so far so quickly? Or does it feel like an eternity?
Zack: It will be five years on July 12. I definitely feel fortunate to have had the successes that I've had since my accident. I was out of college for one year, but I did return and I graduated magna cum laude last May. I'm extremely fortunate to have had a little success in Hollywood so quickly. I've had a series of right place, right time situations that have worked in my favor, the most recent being the part on Glee. In terms of how the passage of time has felt, I never really get the feeling that time has passed so quickly or taken forever. I never feel like using the phrase, "Oh my God, I can't believe it's been a year already! It seems like only yesterday... " I do recognize that I've come a long way relatively quickly, and that is due in equal portions to hard work on my part and the incredible support that I've had from friends, family, and even a couple strangers.
Gene: What helped you most in your recovery: your dream to become a successful actor, or your friends and your relationship?
Zack: Without a doubt, my friends, family, and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, helped me the most in my recovery. I'm lucky. I have extremely supportive parents, a really cool younger sister, amazingly loyal friends, and an incredible wife who I'm deeply in love with. It was kind of something I already knew, but having my accident really put it into clear focus: the most important thing in a person’s life is the relationships that they have with their friends and family. Sure, the dream of becoming a successful actor was and is a powerful driving force for me, but in terms of my recovery there is no contest between the two.
Gene: The wait between the Glee audition and hearing that you got the part must have been agonizing. How did that feel?
Zack: Oh god. Agonizing is certainly the word. I auditioned on a Monday and I could have heard at any given time on any subsequent day. I didn't hear until the following Wednesday. The thing that was driving me more nuts was not knowing when I was going to hear. I had done everything that I could do for the audition, and the answer was going to be whatever it was going to be, I just wanted to know so that I could get on with my life. Usually, after an audition, you accept the fact that the odds are heavily stacked against you and try to put it out of your mind. But I wanted this one so badly. It was a great part on my favorite show on TV that I felt I was perfect for. I allowed myself to get my hopes up, so I gave myself a week and a half of agony. Good thing it turned out alright...
Gene: Did you think after your audition that you might have gotten the part?
Zack: I thought after my audition that I had given the best audition I was capable of giving. That's really all that any actor can expect of themselves. I had worked with my acting coach on the scene. I had tried to set up a singing lesson with a vocal coach to work on the song that they wanted everyone to sing but I actually wasn't able to get anything scheduled. My wife is a singer and she helped me prepare. I'm a singer, I have a pretty good voice, and I knew how to prepare but I still needed all the help I could get. I worked my ass off to be as prepared as possible going into the audition. I knew that I had given myself the best chance that I could.
Gene: How did you feel when you learned that you did get the part?
Zack: It felt really fucking good. Am I allowed to swear? I didn't scream, or pump my fist in the air, have streaming tears of joy, or anything like that. I guess it was like breathing a huge sigh of relief. It was validation that this thing that I'm trying to do can be done and I'm talented enough to be the one doing it. Don't get me wrong. It's not like I landed the lead role in the next Spielberg blockbuster. It's five minutes on one episode of a TV show that happens to be popular at the moment. But I think it's going to be a good five minutes. And for only being in the professional world for about eight months, it's a good start.
Gene: Are you working on anything else at the moment? How does the future look?
Zack: Who knows what the future holds. I don't have any other acting gigs lined up. I've had some auditions for things that I didn't get. A commercial. A pilot (which is the first episode of a TV series). Maybe the Glee part will lead to more opportunities. Maybe not. I've heard that this is what the life of an actor is like. Apparently the people who told me that weren't wrong.
Gene: What are the odds that an actor who is a wheelchair user can make a decent living as an actor today? Do you know any wheelchair user who is earning a good income as an actor?
Zack: The odds that anyone can make a decent living as an actor are slim at best. I would definitely say that they are slimmer as a wheelchair user because it does place limitations. I'm not going to be an action movie star. If it's absolutely essential that the character jumps, it’s a no go. I don't know any wheelchair user who is earning a good income as an actor exclusively. I'm hoping I can be the first, but not the last, wheelchair using actor who makes it.
Gene: Do you think we will see an Oscar or an Emmy winning paraplegic in this decade? In your lifetime?
Zack: Well, if it's a paraplegic it wouldn't be me. I'm a quadriplegic. Do I think it will happen? I don't know. Probably not because what are the odds? It would be great if it did, obviously. But it would be great if it happened and it wasn't just a fluke performance that caught on and whoever that actor or actress is never works a day again in their life and only has the one performance to show for themself. If it's between that and somebody having a visible career with no awards, I would rather see somebody having a career.
Gene: Considering the fact that there are 6 million Americans living with paralysis, approximately 30 million people with disabilities in the USA and people with disabilities are the 3rd largest minority group in the US, do you think that people with disabilities are fairly represented in the film/TV industry today?
Zack: The answer is in the question: Of course not. People with disabilities are definitely under represented in the film/TV industry. But it does look as though this is starting to change. I say starting, but it has to start at some point somewhere. Change starts with the problem actually being discussed. A Tri-Union (SAG, AFTRA, Actor’s Equity) committee called I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities) was recently established and a forum was held in October to discuss equal representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood. Robert David Hall is the chair of the committee. He's the actor who plays the medical examiner on CSI, and he's also a double amputee. At the forum he gave a staggering statistic. Approximately one half of 1% of everything said on television is said by a person with a disability. That needs to change.
Gene: Zack, do you think that disablism (discrimination against people with disabilities) is a major issue in society?
Zack: I saw something during the town hall meetings that were held over the course of the health care debate last year that made my blood boil. In one meeting there was a woman who uses a wheelchair holding a microphone telling her personal horror story about dealing with health issues and insurance companies in this country. She was pleading her case for health care reform and pretty much the entire room started shouting her down. There was one moment where one of the men who was leading the heckling turned to the news cameras that were in the room and said, "Great, now some woman in a wheelchair has more rights than I do." I wish I remembered exactly where this was taking place, but I don't. It doesn't matter. I was so enraged at the group’s arrogant, disrespectful, selfish, and uncaring behavior that I was past the point of screaming and yelling and just sat silently with my jaw hanging open.
Gene: Have you personally been affected by disablism? What was the worst incident?
Zack: For the most part, people are kind to me, accommodating without making a big deal of the fact that they are putting a little extra effort in on my behalf, and treat me like a normal person. The only thing that I've dealt with, and it's only happened a couple times, is when somebody asks somebody that I'm with a question about me that I could answer for myself. Like if the waiter asks someone I'm having dinner with what I would like to order.
Gene: What about in the film/TV industry? Is disablism an issue there?
Zack: Sure. Remember, I personally have only had positive experiences with the industry. I've heard from other people about producers who think that hiring somebody with a disability will greatly slow down production, or that people won't want to watch somebody with a disability on TV.
Gene: Are you familiar with Sean Marckos? Sean was not allowed to appear on the red carpet at Cannes due to the fact that he is in a wheelchair. While the Cannes festival organizers say that they can not make their palace entrance wheelchair accessible, Sean believes that the organizers do not want to damage the image of the red carpet glamour with a wheelchair user. What are your thoughts about that?
Zack: I hadn't heard about that, so I just looked it up. I'm still not quite clear on all the details about what happened. It's difficult to say whether or not the organizers didn't want Sean on the red carpet because they thought he would tarnish its image. If it's actually not possible for them to make the entrance wheelchair accessible, that's one thing. Chances are, the people at Cannes could find a way to make it happen.
Gene: You wrote something in your blog post on the Christopher Reeve Foundation website post that was quite controversial about whether an actor with a disability should be selected when the character has a disability. Can you expand on that?
Zack: What I wrote is that I don't mind if an able-bodied actor gets the part of the wheelchair user if people who actually use wheelchairs were given the chance to audition and the casting people genuinely felt that the able-bodied actor was a better actor for the role. In addition, I would like to see wheelchair users given the chance to audition and be seriously considered for roles that aren't specifically written for someone with a disability. It doesn't seem like that is happening as often as it could be.
Gene: Don't you think that many Hollywood producers have a phobia about showing real people with real disabilities on TV?
Zack: Like I wrote above, I've heard other people say that. I don't know enough and I don't have enough experience to be able to give an opinion one way or the other.
Gene: Fifteen years ago we would rarely see gays on TV. Then a few people like Ellen Degeneres broke through and pushed Hollywood to open up to gays. Now I read that the number of gays in TV roles has doubled since 2005. Don't you see a parallel? Shouldn't Hollywood be pushed to offer at least the few roles for people with disabilities to real people with disabilities?
Zack: I agree with you that it would be great if that happened and I also agree that Hollywood should be pushed to do their best to give those roles to real people with disabilities. I just don't think that it should be some sort of requirement. I think the way that Hollywood can do its best to give people with disabilities a place in this industry, at least as far as acting is concerned, is to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to audition and prove that not only do we fit the role, but we are the perfect person to play the role. One thing that I think would be a real change would be to see a character who has a disability but whose storyline has nothing to do with the disability. When we see characters with disabilities they almost always have storylines having to do with them "dealing with" or "overcoming" their disability. They rarely have any other challenges to face. I would love to get a role where the fact that I have a disability and use a wheelchair has nothing to do whatsoever with what's going on with my character.
Gene: Coming back to your career, what are your plans?
Zack: I just want to keep auditioning and continue acting. I'm going to continue training and networking and hopefully the chips will continue to fall in my favor.
Gene: I know you moved to LA for your career. How do you like living there? Any regrets about it?
Zack: I love Los Angeles. I have a bunch of friends who have all moved out here as well, so I'm not struggling to meet people. I always thought that I would live in New York City when I got to be my age, but LA is where I had to go to do film and television. I still really love New York, but I'm happy where I am. The weather doesn't suck either. The only thing that I miss weather-wise is Fall. I love the colors of Fall and the feel in the air at that time of year in the Northeast. I miss snow also, but I don't miss the cold that accompanies snow.
Gene: What is the most difficult thing about being in LA?
Zack: Traffic. Everything that can be said about LA traffic has already been said. It's bad.
Gene: What did it mean to you personally to get your role on Glee?
Zack: I think I already kind of said it before, but it validated for me that this is what I want to do more than anything and that I'm able to do it.
Gene: From the point of view of a producer, how is working with you different than working with an able-bodied actor?
Zack: No difference. I'm just like any other actor. I learn my lines, I show up on time, I do my work.
Gene: Did the Glee production staff have to do much to accommodate your needs? For example, were they required to build a special ramp or buy special equipment for you?
Zack: The only special equipment that they got was the type of trailer that I had. It was a Winnebago with a wheelchair lift. I don't know if they already had one or rented it from somewhere, but aside from that they didn't have to do anything differently for me. I got the impression, though, that if I required more to be done they would have handled it without issue.
Gene: Do you think that your career could open doors for other wheelchair users in film and TV?
Zack: I don't want us to get ahead of ourselves. It's not like I have much of a career at the moment. It's a few minutes on one episode of one TV show. I hope I can have a career doing this.
Gene: When can we watch your episode:
Zack: May 11 after American Idol on Fox.
Gene: I am in Europe. Is there anyway people outside of the USA can watch?
Zack: I know that the show is at least in England and Australia. I don't know about other countries.
Gene: I enjoyed the video that you posted on YouTube. What can you tell us about that?
Zack: When I was injured my good friend Silas who is a documentary filmmaker made a video for me. He found two quadriplegics who had achieved some amazing things after having injuries very similar to mine. Their names are Travis Roy and Jim Maclaren. Silas interviewed them about life after a spinal cord injury and made a short documentary with the two of them giving advice directly to me. It was one of the most powerful motivating forces in my initial recovery. About a year and a half later, after I returned to school, Silas and I decided to make another video about me that people who had been in my situation could watch. I wanted to pay it forward. The intent behind the fourteen minute video is so that people who have had spinal cord injuries can watch it and believe that their lives will still be livable down the road. Not just livable, but fulfilling. Silas and I didn't want to paint a cheesy "you can do it!" picture, we just wanted to be real. I think we did a pretty good job of that. There are a number of rehab hospitals that show the video and it's gotten a lot of positive response online, which I think is really great. Here is how to watch Silas’ amazing documentaries.
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