As part of Including You’s celebration of Disability Pride Month, I interviewed preeminent talent agent Gail Williamson, Diversity Department Head and Agent at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates (KMR). Gail is one of the most notable talent agents in the United States to specialize in actors and models with diverse disabilities for film, television, commercials, theatre, print and live appearances.
Gail’s journey began when she was seeking roles for her son, Blair, who has Down Syndrome, and found that there were few opportunities when he started out over 30 years ago. Since then, she has helped open doors for Blair and so many other people with disabilities – many of them who are now stars! And through it all, she learned lessons that she passed on in our interview. Read on to learn more about Gail and Blair’s professional journeys, how seeing people with disabilities onscreen has promoted inclusivity offscreen, and Gail’s tips for following your creative passions!
Daisy: So can you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming head of the Diversity Department at KMR?
Gail: Well, as you know, Daisy, from your research, our Diversity Department specializes in actors and performers with disabilities and differences. And that became a passion for me because I have a son, Blair, with Down Syndrome. He’s 42 now, but when he was a little boy, people kept asking me why he wasn’t an actor. This was in the early eighties, and you didn’t see actors with Down Syndrome on television. Well, you saw Chris Burke on the television show “Life Goes On,” and Blair was about 10 when that came out.
Through Special Olympics, Blair got a commercial with Proctor & Gamble. And he loved it! Oh my God. He loved what he was doing. He wanted to do it again. And as a mom, as your mom knows, you support your child and what they want to do.
And so I went out looking to try to find a way for him to do it again. And no agent was interested in him. So I was kind of at a loss. I sent Blair’s picture to every child agent in Hollywood. But they didn’t see anybody looking for a child like Blair. So I finally found the California Governor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities had a media access office. And this office was responsible for sort of being a casting liaison. [When I reached out to them} they said, “Oh, no, no, no. We’re part of the Employment Development Department. We work with people 18 and older.” And of course I had an 11-year-old at that point.
So, uh, there was a nonprofit division of this thing… And I said, can I volunteer and start a children’s division? They said, “Sure. You know, more power to you. Go ahead.” So I went around and preached to parents, the importance of introducing their child with a disability, to the arts and specifically to acting. Acting teaches a child, so many wonderful skills that they take into their life, whether they become actors or not. Um, it’s kind of like you put a kid in the Little League, you don’t necessarily expect them to become a professional ballplayer, but there are skills you expect them to learn in the Little League program. And I feel like the dramatic arts are the same for people with disabilities. I think it they can role play and work out scripts and things, and they kind of discover who they are.
So, I was able to put together a nice little group of kids with disabilities who are now all in their forties and fifties. It’s kinda crazy. So I started by volunteering and then I wrote a grant and ended up a contract employee in the state, but eventually that job ended. The funding ended. I then became the Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association. All the time my son was with KMR as a client. I helped them start a division for disability in the early nineties, but it didn’t really catch on. It was a good idea, but it was the wrong time. There were little jobs here and there and many people got work, but not at the level it is today.
So jump to 2013, I was looking for a job and went to KMR and sat on the couch of Cindy Kazarian, the owner, and did what I could with the clients she had with disabilities. At that time, that first year the clients I worked with collectively made $50,000. In 2019 the clients with disabilities at KMR collectively made $3 million! So there’s been a huge jump in use of people with disabilities in television and film. I think partially because of the times we live in.
I think in 1975, we gave the children with disabilities the right to have an inclusive education.
So now our executives in several offices are part of the inclusion generation… they know people with disabilities understand them. Daisy, your mom I and grew up being told the way to interact with people with disabilities was, “Don’t look, don’t stare, don’t ask questions.” So, people with disabilities were an anomaly to us, and we didn’t know anything about them, even if they happened to be in a class at school, we didn’t know anything about them.
And what we do with TV and film is we teach people about that in a passive way. We’re not having to hold a picket sign. We’re not having to offer a class. People invite the media into their home by creating these images or just teaching them. So that is a long answer to your question as to how I got to where I am today.
But I can also tell you that when Chris Burke would come on Life Goes On, I told my son, Blair, that he’d grow up to be like Corky, and he said, “Oh no, Daddy’s Down Syndrome went away. My brother Tim’s Down Syndrome went away.” I didn’t realize I had not given my son adult role models with Down Syndrome. And he had just assumed it was something men started out with and outgrew. And that is the fire behind me. It was to allow every child to turn on TV or watch a movie and see themselves–see themselves because they don’t. I mean, we had the joy of Ali Stroker who got a Tony last year and her acceptance speech was, this is for all those kids. And here’s this woman in a wheelchair taking Broadway by storm.
Daisy: I’m glad people with disabilities see themselves represented more in the media now. So what did Blair’s friends think about him acting?
Gail: They’re all acting. That’s what they thought about it. Back about 27 years ago I was taking Blair to go be in a film in Nebraska called My Antonia. Jason Robards was in it and Neil Patrick Harris. Lovely film. And as I was leaving his best friend who we just had play dates with, his mom said, “You know, I’m an actor. Maybe when you get back, I should start acting class for our boys.” And I said “Sure. You know, if you want to start a class, I’ll find you some kids.” So we came back and Mary Rings founded the Born to Act Players, which she started with her son, Casey and my son Blair, and a few other friends and her class is still going today. She also has a class online because of COVID. And all these kids became actors.
Jamie Brewer. Photo Courtesy of IMDB.
Jamie Brewer on American Horror Story, she is, she’s a very close friend of Blair’s. I met her in Sacramento at a Down Syndrome convention and she said, “Hey, I live in Texas, but I’m moving to LA and I want to be an actress and I’ve taken all these acting classes”. So I said “Great come on down. You know, her first head shot, I just grabbed a picture of her at Valley College at Born to Act Players. During class we went outside, took a picture that was her head shot. Her first professional audition was for Adelaide in American Horror Story. And she booked it. She’s excellent. She’s, she’s a joy to work with and she’s a nice person. Blair very much enjoys her friendship.
Daisy: So why did you think it was important for Blair to continue to pursue acting?
Gail: I think it gave him the important life skills as we’ve talked about. I think it includes speech. I think their speech is better. I think their understanding of reading someone else’s body language is better. They learn that they have choices in how to react to things. Some things that are hard for them, they can script. For example, they can just script getting a cup of coffee. I think it teaches them life skills.
Daisy: So how have roles opened up for people with Down Syndrome or other disabilities since Blair first started acting?
Gail: So much! I feel so bad that Blair wasn’t young in this time and had this opportunity, because he had so many great skills. The big change from when Blair started and now is that when Blair started, everybody pretty much with a disability who you saw on TV or film, the story was about the disability, their disability moved the plot forward. Today, they are just people and we’re getting more and more of that. It’s got a ways to go still. You know, it’s not all roses at this point.
At this point, [the Diversity Department] will get calls from casting directors saying, “Of these three roles, I have the school counselor, the barista and, the attorney. Do you want to look at them [for clients with a disability}?” And we’ll submit people. And the attorney may end up being in a wheelchair or a barista may end up, you know, having Down Syndrome or being on the Autism Spectrum. The counselor might end up even as an amputee or someone who’s deaf.
We did casting for the Netflix show, The Politician. This was about a young man who started out at a school running for school president and then growing into politics. Well, the principal of the school is portrayed by Natasha Ofili, who is deaf, but she’s also oral. And she worked with a voice coach and used her voice to fill the role of the principal. The role was not written at all for a person with a hearing loss. So we submitted this great actor and the Casting Director went, “Oh my gosh. You know, we want Natasha.”
Gail’s client Natasha Ofili, who is deaf, starred in The Politician on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Daisy: That’s wonderful! So, do you think that by seeing other people, without disabilities interacting people with disabilities on screen, that they learned to be more inclusive?
Gail: Absolutely. That’s why I’m so excited about what you do and that’s why I’m here today for you because you’re creating these opportunities. You know, everybody wants to see themselves represented onscreen. That’s acceptance. The screen teaches us and we teach the screen. It goes both ways. But what you’re doing, Daisy is teaching the screen. Think of the [Including You mentees] who may go on to be decision-makers, who may go on to be filmmakers, you know, they’re going to have a whole different experience and they’re going to portray their experience. And likewise, when we put it onscreen, other people go, “I know that guy in my apartment building in a wheelchair, maybe I should go chat with him… maybe I should ask him out for a cup of coffee.”
Daisy: I like that: The screen teaches acceptance. So, I heard a little of a podcast where you talked about a girl in your school who had a limb difference and you would lead a dance class and make sure you were next to her to hold her hand. I think that’s a really amazing story and it represents what Including You is all about. Can you share with our readers how they can be more inclusive of their classmates?
Gail: You know, I think one of the ways is to ask questions, such as “Do you need help with that? Or would you rather I back off?”
The first time I had a client who was blind, I remember sitting and talking to him and going, “I don’t know what to do with you. I have no experience with people who are blind.” I didn’t know to offer a shoulder or an elbow. I didn’t know I could describe what we were seeing, I didn’t know which way to turn if they had a guide dog so I didn’t mess up the guide dog if we were getting in an elevator, and I had to learn these things.
And I think it goes back to the generations that were taught not to ask. And I think we’re in a different world now where we need to ask questions now, “How can I help you?” You know, people with a wheelchair do not want you to touch their wheelchair because that is a part of them. But if we see someone’s struggling up a hill, I would certainly walk up and ask, “Would you like any help?” And they may say no, so you just say, “Okay, have a good day” and turn around and walk away. But it’s just, I think it’s just being, being human beings and, reaching out to others and helping That’s going to make it a more inclusive world.
And don’t be afraid of what we don’t know. I mean, this little girl from my school, her residual limb scared people, nobody wanted to touch it. And I was like “Jeez, you know, it’s the same as a finger, the same as a hand, you just have to grab on and dance.
Daisy: I love that. Just grab on and dance. Yeah. So did Blair have experiences in school where he felt left out?
Gail: Blair is the end of a generation where schools were not inclusive. The route we chose at that time was to send Blair to a school for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities due to the fact that the typical school in our area was a bit dangerous. And the kids that were higher functioning were often welcomed into gangs as runners because they, they were disposable to the gangs. So we felt Blair would not discern what was friendship and what was abuse basically.
So we put him in a school that was just people with developmental disabilities. It was interesting that it gave him some skills that surprised us. Because within those walls he was given full independence. When I go to the store with Blair, he’ll go do his shopping and we’ll meet up front afterwards because he learned to be hat independent in a controlled and protected environment. His friend who went to the school that I didn’t want him to go to, if we go to a store, the friend stays with me because he had a personal aide to make it through the school. And he wants someone there to aid him still, at this point in time. So Blair didn’t experience a lot of discrimination because of that, because he was in a protective environment. And at church, he was fully included there. And that’s not a place where you’re going to experience much isolation or lack of inclusion.
And when Blair was 15, my six nieces came to live with us. And so our house grew. And the girls raised the bar for, him, having these women around him who were nine to 21 at the time. He learned the “girl code”. He dated the same woman for 17 years since she passed away. I think the reason he did that was because he understood women. They would take him out places. So he went on a lot of activities and didn’t experience much isolation because of that. But again, this is why I’m so excited about Including You. With what you’re doing there’s a support system. And that’s amazing. So applaud you for what you do.
Daisy: Thank you. So I read that 37% of people with disabilities have jobs compared to 77%, without disabilities. What would you say to employers in general about this?
Gail: Well, I have to jump back and say one of the things I feel that we do by putting people on TV and film because it encourages employers to hire people because they see them employed. And I think that makes a difference. I think the HR person at a company who sees a technician with disability fixing a computer on a TV show, may say, “Well, I’m going to hire an IT Technician who uses a wheelchair.” So I think that’s really important.
To employers, I would say you’re going to get a dedicated employee if you hire someone with a disability, because they have to fight harder. I think they’re more dedicated to their work. Um, there’s some work that they’re just right for. You know, I, I looked people on the Autism Spectrum. There’s so many great jobs that that they can do because of the way that their minds work, and we haven’t seen that as an asset yet. And people with Down Syndrome are so freaking creative and do amazing things. They do so well in those environments. And I also do the due diligence of trying to make those images appear on film to help teach what people with disabilities.
Daisy: I have friends I’ve met through Including You who are amazingly talented and I’m trying to help them pursue their talents. Do you have any advice for how I can help, or any words of wisdom for them and all kids with disabilities on how to pursue their dreams?
Gail: I think first of all, and maybe they’ve already done this, but they should create a brand online, set up a website or a YouTube channel that can be shared. For actors, I want to see your headshot and resume and your links to your work online. You can create your own content. You can make your own short film…. Just follow your passion, whatever it is.
I hope that they have team around them will rally. There’s nothing sadder for me than to have someone with a developmental disability who comes to me and wants to be an, actor and doesn’t have a support system to help them do it. So hopefully they’ll be able to find the people that will help support their passions.
Daisy: Thank you so much, Gail! I’ve learned so much from you, and I hope our readers do, too.
Gail: Daisy, keep doing what you’re doing!
Follow Gail on Twitter at @KMRGail or learn more about her work as a Talent Agent for people with disabilities at https://www.kmrtalent.com/diversity.