Speechless brought a new household to ABC’s block of family sitcoms: the DiMeos, led by Minnie Driver as a fired-up, helicoptering mother named Maya to a special-needs child named J.J. Eighteen-year-old high-school senior Micah Fowler plays J.J., who like his character has cerebral palsy, but has a different disability level. Where J.J. is non-verbal, communicating with the use of a laser pointer and a chart of commonly used words and an alphabet, Fowler can speak given some time. I had a conversation with J.J. around the premiere of Speechless, which was picked up for a full season just a few episodes into their season. Since a conventional phone interview wouldn’t be logistically possible, we decided to email over the course of several weeks through his mother, Tammy Fowler, who wrote down his responses. Vulture talked with Fowler about juggling school with acting, the representation of disabled actors on screen, and how he found out he got the part on his 18th birthday.
First off, I’d just love for you to tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?
I’m 18, a high-school senior, and grew up in Barnegat, New Jersey. I have cerebral palsy and use both a walker and a wheelchair. I use the wheelchair for longer distances. Unlike J.J. in Speechless, I do communicate verbally but have to work very hard at it. I am an avid movie fan and especially enjoy the Marvel and DC franchises. Oh, and I am a resident expert in all things Star Wars. I love playing video games, acting, and playing sled hockey. I also collect vintage cell phones.
Who’s your favorite superhero?
My favorite superhero is Batman. I think he is my favorite because he was the first hero I was fascinated with as a child.
How did you get cast in Speechless? What was the audition process like?
I credit my love of acting to my sister Kelsey who is a veteran Broadway actress and currently a junior at Pace University in New York. We are very close, and I developed an interest in acting when I was younger through watching her many shows. My sister’s agent asked if I was interested in acting, and I eagerly jumped on board. I made my television debut on an episode of Blue’s Clues when I was 9, and later appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street. When I was 15, I played the role of Barry in Jason Reitman’s movie Labor Day, with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.
To answer your question of how I was cast in Speechless, I have to go back a year and a half when my agent was asked to have me send in a “personality tape” for an “untitled Scott Silveri project.” I put together a tape of me just talking about myself and joking around. Time went by, and I never heard anything else. A year later, my agent called and said they had requested another personality tape for the same project, now titled Speechless. So I again put together a personality tape just talking about my interests and joking around. A few days later the agent said the casting director was sending six scenes over. I spent an entire Saturday putting together the tape of the six scenes. My parents verbalized all of the other characters lines (off-camera) while I reacted to all of the dialogue on-camera. My sister was at school, so my mom sent her the audition footage to upload to the agent. She texted my mom, “This is hilarious, he is totally going to book this.” How crazy is that? She called it. The agent told us they loved the tape and would be in touch. About two months later, I found out I booked the role on the day of my 18th birthday, BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER!
What a birthday! That’s incredible. What’s it like working on a television show for the first time? I know that the hours must be long because you have to shoot so many episodes.
I love working on Speechless. It has been a blast and I am enjoying every minute of it. We do work really long hours, 10–14 hour days, five days a week, but we get a one-week hiatus off a month. I was not used to working full time, but to tell you the truth, it never feels like work to me, even on the really long days. I guess that’s because I am doing something that I love.
Everybody on-set is so invested in this show and loves that it is impacting so many people, so it is a great working environment. So everybody including the actors, the writing staff, the directors, the producers, and even the crew get along great, appreciate each other and are grateful to be part of such a great project. We laugh a lot while filming and in-between scenes we chat, share stories, and Kyla does magic tricks.
What does your schedule look like on a day-to-day basis?
My schedule greatly varies from day to day. I am usually at the Fox Lot or on location filming, and I have tutoring 10–12. [During our] one-week hiatus every month, we usually fly back to New Jersey. As far as my daily schedule, one day I might be in every scene and only able to tutor during lighting setups and in between takes; another day I might have a scene off and go to tutoring intermittently throughout the day. I get 15 hours of private tutoring in a week. Once in a while, I do get a day off during the week because I am not in any of the scenes scheduled to film that day. When I come home at night, I read through and prep for my scenes for the next day, watch a television show, and go to bed.
There’s an episode where Minnie Driver’s character, Maya DiMeo, gets the principal to cancel a bonfire party. It was a great way to think about accessibility and how the majority should handle minority concerns. What would you have wanted in that situation?
If I was in that situation, I definitely would not have wanted the event canceled. I would have wanted a solution for me to get to the beach, a zip-line to the beach or an all-terrain beach wheelchair.
The writing seems “lived in” to me. Would you agree with that? Do you have input with the writers regarding J.J.’s plotlines or character development?
Yes, I agree. Many of the writers have someone in their lives that they are close to who is dealing with a disability so they are able to draw from those personal experiences. The show also consults with The Cerebral Palsy Foundation regularly.
Yes, my parents and I have shared many of our personal experiences with the writers as well; some have already been used in episodes we have shot. I have also given input during filming certain scenes, input concerning J.J.’s disability level and the equipment he uses.
What are some of your personal experiences that have been incorporated into the show? What was some of the input that you gave regarding J.J.’s disability level?
There have been several of my personal experiences incorporated into the show. One is: My mom had a “Micah Manual” for when my grandparents watched me for extended amounts of time growing up. In one episode, Mia hands a book to Kenneth and he says, “This kid comes with instructions?” Another is: I like to watch The Bachelor, and it was incorporated into one of the episodes of J.J. watching The Bachelor.
As far as J.J.’s disability level, J.J. was written as having a more severe form of cerebral palsy than I do. So there are times, especially in the beginning when we had to work out J.J.’s abilities and struggles. My parents and I would think about the abilities and struggles of others we know with more severe cerebral palsy and say, “J.J. would probably not be able to do this or would adapt and do it this way.” An example is: I can brush my own teeth and pick up a knife and fork and feed myself. J.J., not having much dexterity in his hands, has difficulty with these tasks.
It’s rare to see a disabled actor on TV: A recent study showed that less than 2 percent of actors onscreen were themselves actually disabled, despite the fact that people with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. There have been a few notable exceptions like RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad and Daryl Mitchell, who is currently on NCIS: New Orleans. What do you think of the state of representation of disabled people on TV and film?
I have not seen NCIS: New Orleans, but I have seen Breaking Bad and I think RJ Mitte is great!
I think it is sad that less than 2 percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that Speechless, a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a “character” in the story line living with a disability.
I think there is a lack of auditioning opportunities and a lack of hiring of disabled actors due to misconceptions and generalizations of people with disabilities, a lack of breakdowns for roles of characters with disabilities, and a lack of handicap-accessible auditioning rooms.
Look at the last ten years of television — regular exposure on a regular basis causes viewers to change their perspectives and become comfortable with diversity in families. As they get to know J.J., it will bring understanding and relatability towards those with disabilities. This really is a groundbreaking experience, a person with a disability hired as an actor portraying a main character with cerebral palsy on prime-time television! I think Speechless will make people more comfortable around people with disabilities. I think Speechless will encourage viewers to look beyond the physical or other limitations of special-needs people who come into their own lives and discover their love, personality, and even their humor!
What has your favorite episode of Speechless been so far?
My favorite episode so far — wow, that is hard! I would have to say the Halloween episode is definitely my favorite that has aired so far. I loved all the amazing costumes our incredible crew created and had a blast trying out the R2D2 costume, and the Back to the Future’s DeLorean. I had a blast driving the DeLorean, crashing the DeLorean, and playing drunk! It was fun to watch, too. I love that episode!