The Vanished - Supporting Disabled Artists in Film and Media - by Lauren Humm Fakete
Rachel Handler is an actress and director from Jersey City, NJ. She played Kane Hodder’s love interest on “Smothered,” the Congressman’s aide on “NCIS: New Orleans,” and has and has also appeared on “Goliath” and “Law & Order: SVU.” Handler also lives with a disability: about six years ago, while driving to an audition, she lost her leg in a car accident. No longer getting the musical theaters roles she had trained for, she started auditioning for TV and film roles that were written specifically for disabilities. Now, she writes, produces and directs her own films so that she can cast actors with disabilities in a wider range of roles. Her latest project is an entry in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. I had the chance to chat with Rachel about her project, a short film entitled “The Vanished.”
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm a filmmaker with a disability. After I lost my leg in a car accident I wasn't getting the musical theatre auditions I had trained for, directors couldn't seem to look past my prosthetic leg. So I started auditioning for tv and film work and booked roles that are specifically written with disabilities. Now I write, produce and direct my own films so I can cast actors with disabilities in roles that aren't necessarily written with a disability.
You've appeared on Goliath, NCIS New Orleans - any other shows or films?
I was the jury foreperson on Law & Order: SVU and had a small role as Kevin Hart's boss in The Upside. My biggest role was playing the congressman's aide who gets kidnapped on NCIS: New Orleans and playing Kane Hodder's love interest in Smothered.
What is the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge?
It's a 55 hour film competition where you have to write, shoot and edit a film all in one weekend. And at least one crew or cast member has to have a disability.
What made you want to participate in the challenge?
The challenge is a great opportunity to collaborate with other filmmakers with disabilities, and I learn something new every year! This is my 4th year doing the challenge.
What were the prompts for this year's challenge?
The genre was sci fi, there were themes we could choose from and specific locations and props to use. disabilityfilmchallenge.com
This is a time that Hollywood is talking about inclusion more than ever. Do you feel like disabilities are enough of a part of that conversation?
We are starting to be part of the conversation, but still get left out of big moments. At the Oscars disability is rarely mentioned.
How do you think disabilities are typically portrayed in film and TV currently?
I think people with disabilities are usually seen as the inspiration. But that's not real or complex and does a disservice to our community. We're also seen as the villain (or monster), especially amputees or people with facial differences. And then there are many roles where we are just props, or there to be pitied. Why can't we be seen as the nurse? Or the teacher? Why must we always be put in a box to fit these stereotypes?
How do you think the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge can affect change in the way that disabilities are portrayed in popular media?
I think the Challenge is showing the world that people with disabilities exist in the entertainment industry and it is time to hear our voices and see our bodies. Stop fearing us and see us as people. We are your friends, colleagues, sisters and brothers. The different stories that each team comes up with for the challenge are new and exciting.
What's the plot of your short, "The Vanished?"
Inception meets Groundhog Day as Alice's friends begin to disappear and she must choose between constantly reliving the same nightmare or vanishing into the unknown.
Tell us about your cast and crew for "The Vanished."
We had a cast and crew of all women, except for one sound guy. All the cast members have disabilities and some of the crew also live with a disability.
Your story is pretty gender-neutral: I feel like the roles could have been swapped out with any other type of person and it wouldn't have changed the plot significantly. What was the choice behind that, and why did you choose to cast all females?
70% of roles with disabilities are played by men. But women also have very powerful stories to tell. We wanted a story that would pass the Bechdel Test.
Let's talk about your female protagonist. She's not necessarily perfect and likable, but she's also not unlikable. What inspired you to create a female role like this?
Since Hollywood is still dominated by male writers most female characters seem so one-note and boring. I wanted a role that was more complex, not a perfect person but someone you could root for.
How can we show our support for the film in the contest?
Please watch our film on YouTube and spread the word about the Disability Film Challenge. https://youtu.be/KD06h8yrJls
What other films or TV shows do you recommend that cast disabilities in an authentic fashion?
I love the new show Special on Netflix.
Tell us about your upcoming feature film, "Hope for the Holidays."
After a tragic accident takes her leg, her dance career and her new husband, Jessica struggles to find a reason to live. This Christmas Eve three spirits appear to show her what would've happened if she died instead of him. It's a modern version of "It's a Wonderful Life" meets "A Christmas Carol" with a female protagonist and an inclusive twist. All three spirits will be played by actors with disabilities.
To learn more about Rachel Alana Handler please follow her via the following platforms:
Cover photo by Billy Bustamante
Lauren Humm Fakete is a Philadelphia native who has called Downtown Jersey City home since 2008. She is a dancer, choreographer and writer, and also serves as the director for House of the Roses Volunteer Dance Company, a nonprofit organization committed to a free performing arts education for homeless and at-risk youth across NYC. She is passionate about the power of the arts for community-building, social change and conversation.
You can find her on Instagram at @lfakete.
Photo Credit: Peipei Zhou