Model and actor Jillian Mercado (Showtime's 'The L Word: Generation Q') and actor Lynne Marie Rosenberg (HBO's 'High Maintenance') discuss representation and inclusion in the entertainment business.
There's been situations where I've gone to places
and there's like a step or whatever
and people are like, "Oh, we'll just carry you."
And you're like,
"One, I never give you permission to carry me.
no." [ Laughs ]
Hi. I'm Lynne Marie Rosenberg.
Welcome to "Famous Cast Words: Quarantine Edition."
We're bringing you today's episode
from my home here in Brooklyn, New York,
and I am joined, by the magic of teleconferencing,
by actor, model, and activist Jillian Mercado.
You might know Jillian from her modeling campaigns
with Diesel, Nordstrom, Target,
Glamour, andCosmopolitan, to name just a few,
as well as for Beyoncé's Formation campaign.
Or you might know her from her recurring role
as Maribel on "The L Word: Generation Q."
You might not know her
as the National Dance Institute's
first graduate with a visible disability,
at the age of 13.
Hi! -[ Laughs ]
I'm so happy to have you here today.
Thank you for having me.
Such a great introduction there.
Oh! I'm so glad.
So welcome to quarantine.
How has your quarantine been?
How has this bizarre, strange year
that we're in been for you?
It's been a spectrum of emotions.
-Yes. -It's been amazing,
as well, horrifying.
I've had an opportunity to like reflect on myself
and others that I share my energy to,
which has been my growing.
It's like growing, the growth within me.
I'd love if you could tell us
a little bit about how you got started
in the entertainment industry, in general,
essentially, from, not behind the scenes,
but in the design world, and how you've now
wound up a very much public figure,
at this point.
My goal, what I thought my goal or career path was
becoming an editor for a magazine
because, essentially, my thought process was
to hire or to profile people who look like myself,
people who had disabilities, in magazines,
where I saw that representation with little to none.
So I loved fashion.
I loved fashion since the beginning of time,
or my existence, for that matter.
And so I knew that that was, at least, the umbrella
that I wanted to be under, so I did.
You know, I went to college, I studied marketing,
I went to a couple internships.
I was at an industry party
and had a great conversation with,
at the time, the fashion director of Diesel
and he was doing a campaign.
And I signed up for his casting call,
just for like, "Let's see what happens" kind of situation.
And I got it.
-[ Laughs ] -And I was like --
♪ A whole new world
And that's where it all began
and that was my first modeling gig
and the immense love that I got from the public
and, you know, the messages I got from various groups
of like young people to like older people,
saying, like, "I really never thought this was ever going
to happen in my lifetime, to see somebody just
who happens to have a disability on a campaign,
but the campaign has nothing to do
with this person's disability," was the first of its kind.
And I was like, "Whoa!
This is exactly the impact I wanted to do as an editor,
but, now, I'm like the person."
It's kinda dope.
Because I have nothing to do
with the modeling world, I am curious.
Do you go to go-sees or to auditions
that are specifically looking
for representation of disability
or do you go to a more general pool of auditions?
I think that there's a lot of people who hire me
because they know me
and either they want to check that box,
which, I hate saying that out loud.
If I'm able to be like that first, starter, token person,
then I'll be their first person.
Like that's fine with me,
as long as you know, now, to continue to do so.
But there's also like I have a really open communication
with my team and I'm like I like stirring the pot,
as you probably can tell, and just throw me auditions
so, then, I show up and be like, "Hey, what's up?"
[ Pop ] -Yeah.
Oh, I love that.
Oh! Oh, it's unaccessible? Oh!
[ Laughs ]
Look at that!
Look at that. Look at that.
Now you missed on an opportunity to have me here.
I think the periphery to being
an actor and a model is travel, right?
-Yes. -That you're traveling constantly
and so you're dealing with issues
of accessibility also,
but you're also dealing with the health
and well-being of your chair.
-Yeah. -Can you talk a little bit about that?
Every single time I board a plane, specifically,
I always have to worry for the amount of time
that I'm on this plane, "Am I going to get my legs back
when I get out of my plane?"
And it's a constant fear.
And, for many times already, I want to say, in my lifetime,
probably more than 10 times, that my chair has been
completely obliterated and broken.
There's been situations where I've like cried so hard
because I'm like, "I traveled for a job.
Now, I can't go to work
because of this situation that you did.
-Yeah. -I didn't choose this.
You chose my destiny right now."
I started following your career
in like 2017, 2018,
because I was mentoring
a young woman who has muscular dystrophy
and you have muscular dystrophy as well.
And she's this wonderful writer.
She's this hilarious performer
and she was doing such great work
and I wanted to find for her
people that she could see
doing work professionally in the industry
and, as you said, there was just no representation.
And then, I came across your Twitter feed
and your Instagram and I was like,
"Oh, my God, I found the jackpot"...
-Yay. -...because she's also Latina
and she's also Black and I was just like,
"I have this person for you!"
But it was, you know,
the fact that I'm excited
because I found one person
is the problem, right? -Yeah.
You know, when people ask me, "Oh, how does it feel like
to be one of the first" to get to where I am,
and I'm like, "It feels great, but it also doesn't feel great
because I'm 100% sure that people before me,
who have tried to get to the level
that I am at currently, at the moment,
didn't get here, not because they couldn't,
but becauseyou didn't want them to be," you know?
Celebrating me really is just saying that you weren't looking
when it was presented to you before.
Before, it wasn't cool.
And, now that it's cool, you're like on the train.
-Right, yeah. -You know?
And I think something to talk about, specifically,
in regards to television and film representation
with disability, in terms of this conversation,
is that you also have 95% of disabled roles
being played by nondisabled bodies.
I wonder if you have thoughts
about that. [ Laughs ]
I'm like internalizing screaming right now.
You know, back in the day,
white people used to do blackface in theater
and that was considered okay.
Try somebody do that now.
-Right. -Try someone do that now.
They would be extremely ridiculed.
They'll be canceled.
It's the same. It's how I view it
for a disability, where you're not
allowing somebody's narrative or story being told,
you're assuming somebody's narrative
that we don't even relate to, that we've never signed off on.
Even if there's like a consultant
or they like to say, "Oh, we had a focus group," or whatever,
that's -- no.
You're removing a job from someone who wanted
and should've been there, you know?
And, if you can't find someone, then don't do it.
I'm sorry. It's as easy as that.
Don't do it.
Because, if it's not done by us,
then it shouldn't be there at all.
You're taking what is already
a problematically small pool of roles
and taking it away from the actors trying
just to get work
and then giving them Oscars for doing it.
That's theworst part, is that every single movie
that's come out that has the focus on disability
or somebody who has a disability has always won --
and I quote -- the Inspiration Porn Award.
It really hurts our community.
It hurt me when I was younger,
seeing that on television and being like,
"But that's not how I see myself, at all.
I don't know why they're so sad.
I don't know why like we need to be saved or healed or cured."
So, now, we're going to look at some breakdowns.
As a reminder for anyone at home,
breakdowns are the brief character descriptions used
in the casting world.
Jillian, as you have now expanded
into the world of acting,
I'm here to prepare you for some of the things
you might start to see in all of these breakdowns.
So I'm going to send you some language in the chat
that has come from breakdowns.
If you would be so kind as to read it for us.
The actor prepares.
[ Laughter ] Okay.
Where you are a woman, Latina,
and a wheelchair user,
I thought we'd look at the colorful language
that is out there for each of those demographics.
As a Latina, content makers will talk about you
less like a human and more like the menu
at a 4th of July party.
You're a human being and you're a firecracker.
And, as a woman, you can expect to play
a major role in any story.
But, speaking of inspiration,
you'll be doing that a lot, as a wheelchair user.
[ Laughter ]
Because that is what disabled people are here to do,
is inspireyou over us.
It's just like being a woman!
[ Laughs ] -Wow.
In order to inspire,
you may need to be a superhuman overachiever.
All times, just joy nonstop,
that's what wheelchair users do.
[ Laughs ] Though, often,
the language used to describe your mobility device
seems a little immobile.
Because that is all that we are,
stuck and glued to our chairs.
Wheelchair-ridden, to me, sounds like
you're infested with small wheelchairs.
[ Laughs ] -Oh, yeah.
[ Laughter ]
It doesn't even make sense.
Content makers tend to be confused
about what wheelchairs have to do with personality.
But then, there are also confused
on who's even appropriate for the role.
They were so close.
[ Laughs ]
[ Laughs ]
Just period! Just put the period
after "apply." That's it.
I know. You would've solved the problem.
Or, say, "We are only interested in seeing actors
with physical disabilities." -100%.
Yeah. The "encourage" is weird, too.
Yeah, because it feels a little paternalistic...
Yeah. ...of like, "Go ahead, audition."
"I'm allowing you to."
Bitch, get out.
What do you mean, you're allowing me?
And, lastly, don't be surprised
if you find yourself indeterminately tokenized.
Nothing says, "inclusive advocacy"
To just throw in that "etc.,"
just is such a "Screw you."
I mean, it's just a like,
"Yeah, we just need someone to fill this box
and that's how we're going to cast" whatever this was.
That means that you -- what? -Right.
Right. -Help, Lord.
-[ Laughs ] -Oh, my God.
Wow! Wow, wow, wow.
We have a lot of work to do!
Oh, we have so much work to do.
It's interesting. You're one
of the first people I've had on the show
that doesn't read breakdowns on a regular basis,
that, you know, that breakdowns are not part
of the modeling world, necessarily,
in the same way that they're part of the acting world
and to see your visceral reaction to this language,
I think, is really important,
that people understand these words cause pain.
The way we talk about humans
can be actually painful to people
and that it's so important, as an industry,
that we change the harm that we're causing.
Because, honestly, looking at these and like
let's say I am like a young adult
who, you know, doesn't have a lot of life experience
or whatnot, or just entering that world of adulthood.
Looking at this, I mean, having, you know, studied
and done the classes and, you know,
whatever have you, to be an actor
and looking at this and I'm like, "This is depressing."
-Yeah. -This is not who --
Like I don't fit any of these.
-Yeah. -"She sits in a wheelchair."
I sit in a wheelchair.
"But is fearless and fierce"?
Like, what if I'm not?
What if I'm just like regular basic Jill,
just, you know, trying to survive out here?
And, you know, see --
So, it hurts and then, you know, that comes with like
your mental health and just being like, "Wow,"
if this is bad, behind the scenes,
I'm terrified to actually get a position
and be around people in front of the scenes, you know?
Like how am I going to be treated,
if I do get the part,
and will I feel good about getting this part?
I'd love to talk about the positive side
of representation, specifically, the character
that you play on "L Word: Generation Q," Maribel.
You know, Maribel is a sister, a daughter,
an immigration attorney
who just happens to have a disability.
-Yeah. -And that's it, you know?
Like that's my character, you know?
It wasn't part of the character,
so what was the point of talking about it, you know?
Interesting enough, my character,
although before getting onscreen,
they were specifically looking for someone
who had a visible disability and who was Latin...
-Interesting. -...which was nice.
Because, again, it just doesn't happen,
where I see somebody on a movie or a television show
that just happens to have a disability
and, throughout the whole thing,
like you never know why, you never know what happened,
which also gives the privacy of the person
not needing to talk about it, you know?
And, you know, unfortunately, there's a lot of ignorance,
when it comes to talking about disability
to somebody who has a disability,
just because, unfortunately, in the media,
it's always seen as it's okay
to just go up to someone and say, "Hey, what happened?"
-Yeah. -And I'm just like --
"What do you mean, 'What happened'?
What are you talking about, 'What happened'?
'What happened'? What did happen?
Like what happened?"
Was there like an accident? Like what did happen?"
Like, nowadays, I'm a little bit more sarcastic,
if I get the question -- but I do know what they're saying --
just to prove a point.
Yeah. Oh, 100%, yeah.
But I think, again, it's not the person's fault for asking.
I think it's because what they see,
that it's on the media, that is appropriate, apparently.
I know you. What's wrong?
I'm just scared --
Maribel: Of what?
I'm just scared that she's going to keep
making decisions without me.
Virginia: Let it go, mija.
Yeah. So what? You're going to have
a big, fun wedding,
like rich people.
Virginia: Yes! Oh, God.
You'll figure it out after the wedding.
Yes. Or, if things don't get better, tsk...
Both: You could always get divorced.
My assumption is that,
as far as the inclusion of their set goes,
that you were well taken care of
and that there was accessibility dealt with
and I just wonder if you could talk a little bit
about the accessibility on set.
I've been so blessed and privileged and grateful,
you know, all those words,
that I didn't have to do
any intense like sit-down with them and say,
"Hey, by the way, my chair is really heavy."
The one that I have, particularly, right now, weighs,
if I'm not mistaken, 420 pounds,
which is about a fridge-ish.
Like a good fridge, like the ones with the ice, you know?
-[ Laughs ] -Like that kind of fridge.
With like a filter in it.
Yeah, like it's fancy.
Like, you know, "Yes, honey," that kind of fridge.
-Yeah. -And there's been situations
where I've gone to places
and there's like a step or whatever
and people are like, "Oh, we'll just carry you."
And you're like,
"One, I never gave you permission to carry me.
no." [ Laughs ]
There's a location in the show --
without giving the magic of illusion --
that is not where it says it is.
It's actually a studio-built place.
So you have to go upstairs
to get into this particular place.
And I had a scene in this place and I was just like --
I'm looking at it and I'm like, "Okay. [ Pop ]
Okay, now, we're going to have this conversation.
We're going to have this conversation today."
This is my first day on set
and we're going to have -Oh, it was
your first day? -this conversation.
-Oh, God. -And I was like,
[ Staccato ] "How do we do this, Jillian?"
the mind-set of somebody has a physical disability,
for that matter, is one of being always a teacher,
but also feeling like, if you do speak up,
you'll be removed or disowned or feel like a burden,
just because you want to enjoy whatever you want to enjoy.
So I looked at it -- and I kid you not --
like for five minutes, I was just staring at this like
three-foot level and I'm just like,
"Okay, Jillian, you got this."
I'm like, "You got this, girl.
You got this."
I'm like propping myself up.
Kid you not, for five minutes, that was me.
And then, after those five minutes,
this guy who builds these like studios and stuff came up to me.
He's like, "Jillian, do you have a second?"
And I'm like, "Yeah, sure."
He's like, "Will you come with me?"
And I'm like, "Yeah, sure...
Where are we going?"
And he was like, "Oh, I just want to like
show you around this, you know, this little thing we have here."
And I was like, "Okay."
So I go with it.
I could cry.
They were building a ramp.
-Yeah. -They built a ramp.
They built a ramp and I was just like --
[ Hushed ] "This is amazing!"
And I was like, "Oh, oh, okay, thank you.
Thanks for letting me know where this is."
In my mind, I was like --
♪ Oh, my God, it's a fiesta
I was mariachi band.
We were having all of it.
We had the foods, everything, in my mind.
That was a party in my mind.
But, again, this should not happen.
-Right, right. -I should not be that excited.
I should not be that prepared and paranoid
that there isn't accessibility,
knowing, beforehand, that I was going to be there.
Jillian, thank you so much for joining me today.
It is such a pleasure to talk to you.
As you know, I have followed your career
for many, many years and to have you
on my computer screen is just a total joy.
Thank you so much for having me. This is so fun
and I hope that this is educational
for a few who are watching
and I hope this was funny and pure joy.
I'm just a jack of all trades and I had so --
like we're best friends, at this point.
-Clearly BFF forever. -Forever.
[ Laughter ]
Thank you at home so much for watching.
Take care of each other and be professional.