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His Dark Materials’ Screenwriter Jack Thorne Fights to Give Disabled Talent Opportunities

Indie Wire

His Dark Materials’ Screenwriter Jack Thorne Fights to Give Disabled Talent Opportunities

"Look at Marlee Matlin," he said. "One of the best actors I've seen onscreen and an Oscar winner. Has she had the career she deserves? I don't think so. She should be one of these bankable, elite stars."

Screenwriter Jack Thorne calls the discussion on disability representation in media “the great ignored question,” and it’s a sentiment echoed by many of us with disabilities. As Thorne lays out, critics often speak out of both sides of their mouth — acknowledging the lack of disabled voices in the various phases of film and television production, but never questioning it beyond that. Now, the screenwriter of HBO’s “His Dark Materials” hopes that he can use his privilege to not only further the conversation, but do more towards promoting disabled inclusion.

Thorne himself inhabits a unique position when it comes to the topic of disability. When he was a university student at Cambridge, he was diagnosed with Cholinergic Urticaria, an allergy to physical, natural and self-generated heat. It was a diagnosis that brought on a wealth of different emotions, mainly confusion. “I still don’t know what caused it,” Thorne told IndieWire.

“It’s certainly a theory I’ve got that it was an emotional breakdown that I failed to deal with, and so became a physical breakdown [and] my body just stopped working,” he said. Thorne struggled to deal with his body’s rebellion, as well as doctors’ theories that this illness could go on forever. It would become a part of his life for the next 15 years, necessitating his dropping out of Cambridge.

Thorne said in the early days of his illness he didn’t do much thinking or have any set goals. He kept a diary during that time — presented in the form of film reviews — but he admitted much of it was self-absorbed. “It’s all bullshit, basically, because there was so much self-pity all the way,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was refusing the identity [of being disabled]. I was just confused as to what the hell I was going to do.” The pain was such a predominant factor in his mind that, he now admits, he didn’t process what was happening very well.

As Thorne acclimated to his way of life he found himself drawn to the Graeae Theatre Company, a British troupe comprised of deaf and disabled students and creators. “I sort of knew what I should be doing, who I should be looking for, what I should be trying to find. But I felt like I didn’t belong there,” he said. “I felt like I was trying on shoes that didn’t belong to me.” It was blind playwright Alex Palmer, a regular at Graeae, who told Thorne that he was disabled and certainly belonged there.

“That was one of the most important moments of my life because I’d been in pain and dealing with pain for so long at that point,” Thorne said. He maintains that what he dealt with is small in comparison to other disabled persons, but finding acceptance at Graeae changed everything for him. Thorne would go to write the first Graeae Theatre production to go on to the National Theatre.

Invisible disabilities lead to much discussion in the disabled community that tends to boil down into “who is more disabled.” It’s a situation Thorne himself felt dealing with his diagnosis, and, in turn, feeling out of place. “One of the difficulties within the disabled community is the compare and contrasting where you kind of go ‘How legitimate [is the disability?],'” he said.

“As my condition got better I was no longer a disabled person. I would never tick a box on a form saying I was [disabled] because I think doing so would be an illegitimate act. [But] I hope that I still am and have remained a member of the disabled community,” he said. Living with a chronic illness for over a decade helped him see the issues the disabled community endures every day, and he’s hoping to turn that knowledge into action.

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