Special thanks to Disney for the magical trip to Los Angeles to cover the World Premiere of Moana and its press events, including this set visit & meet & greet with the cast and producer of “Speechless”.
I don’t watch much TV at all. I know, people think I’m nuts when I say that, but I don’t know how people squeeze the time in. Maybe I should spend less time on Facebook reading about all the shows other people watch and just watch them? I don’t know. Honestly, though, there are so few shows that catch and hold my genuine interest. Let’s blame it on the ADHD. When I heard I was going to be visiting the set of Speechless on my trip to Los Angeles, I thought I would check it out and see if I could come up with some questions for the cast. Instead what happened is that I’m hooked and I don’t miss a show.
I fell in love with the characters of Speechless and I can’t wait to sit down with them every Wednesday at 8:30/7:30 Central on ABC. During the first episode, I could totally see myself in Maya (Minnie Driver). She doesn’t take no for an answer and will balk at injustice by boycotting the business that leaves her scorned, for just about any reason. Not that I’m so extreme, but I am a fighter for justice for my children. They deserve nothing less! The dad, Jimmy is played by John Ross Bowie, known in our house as Kripke from The Big Bang Theory. Hey, sometimes you have to make a connection for your teenager to get involved. This was our in with Styles.
Micah Fowler plays JJ, a high schooler with cerebral palsy who uses a laser, a word board, and his aid Kenneth, played by Cedric Yarbrough. JJ is a normal teenager with special needs that wind up lending a certain hilarity at home, in school and in social situations. His siblings, Dylan and Ray are perfectly cast and they add to the family dynamic in ways that strike a chord with me and my family. It’s ridiculously fun to watch and relatable, even though I don’t have a child with special needs.
The whole show is really amazing and the cast couldn’t be more perfectly cast, but I have to throw credit where credit is due and I want to talk about Micah Fowler for a second. Micah Fowler is an incredible actor who in real life has Cerebral Palsy. Micah is verbal, unlike his character JJ, and his personality is bigger than life. When Micah wheeled down the hall to meet us, I was simply overcome with emotion. He spoke to us and was so humble when we all expressed just how much we love Speechless and how amazing we genuinely think he is. He lights up a room and is so expressive on the show. Producer Scott Silveri said when they saw his video, they knew he was the one, no question. I am now even more in love with the show than I was before now that I’ve met this remarkable young man.
The series follows the DiMeo family, each with a unique personality: Maya, a take-charge mother with an no-holds-barred attitude; Jimmy, a husband who doesn’t care what others think; Dylan, their no-nonsense athletic daughter; Ray, their middle child who acts as the “brains” in the family; and their oldest son, JJ—a high schooler with cerebral palsy who has a biting wit and sense of humor. The DiMeos move frequently in an attempt to find a good educational environment for JJ and believe they have found an optimal choice when they discover a school that prides itself on being inclusive and where JJ will have an aide to speak for him. Though they quickly find that not everything is as good as it could be, JJ enjoys having Kenneth, a well-meaning groundskeeper at the school, work as his aide.
Visiting the set was SO much fun. We got to hang out in the school and then visit the DiMeo home, complete with the “Dead to Maya” wall in the dining room. I was surprised to find that rooms being unused were used for storage, like the kids’ bedroom that was, that day, being used for keeping directors chairs and other equipment.
Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy who play Ray and Dylan surprised us as we were hanging out in one of the classrooms. Kyla had a broken arm which she broke while running on set, I swear she could be my daughter, on screen and in real life.
We also met with John Ross Bowie and Minnie Driver. Minnie’s accent and the way she looked at us in awe was, I’m certain, a reflection of the way we were all looking at her in awe. She is beautiful and was so kind with stories of motherhood she wanted to share with us as she asked us about our own tales of this sisterhood called motherhood. John was fun to talk to and I loved that he shared a loathesome love for Kripke from The Big Bang Theory, especially since it’s his character. He plays the role of Jimmy DiMeo so perfectly. I can’t a more perfect actor for this role.
Cedric Yarbrough was fun to meet too. He was SO TALL with a deep, booming voice. The only reason I had to bend down to take the picture was so I didn’t block the people behind me. Had I stood up, I would have only come up to his chin. Cedric was the first person to sign on for the show, without any of the other cast placed around him. Scott Silveri said “God bless him” that he came on blind. Initially Scott wasn’t going to give JJ an aide, but when he met with a young woman who also has Cerebral Palsy and uses an aide, the vision was born and Cedric was cast.
What Producer, Scott Silveri who has a brother with Cerebral Palsy has to say about his show:
How did your family react knowing you were going to write a show that’s based on your experience?
They were really incredibly supportive about it. I made it clear from the beginning to them, as I try to make clear to anybody else, this is not their story. This is not my story or my brother’s story. What’s important to me is to capture a couple of elements about the time we had growing up. And they were very supportive about that.
One of the things that really stuck with me was that Scott Silveri said that the show was supposed to be a love letter to his mom and dad. There’s this scruffy, super successful guy who wants to pay homage to his parents for their hard work and support while he was growing up. Much of the show comes from experiences similar to his own growing up, and the love for his family comes through when you watch the show.
I hope that, that comes across. It’s not a documentary about my childhood, but it really is meant to be a loving depiction of the choices that I celebrate. The great thing that I got back from them when I first showed it to them was not flattery or vanity. It was just relief – it’s gonna be a family like ours on TV, and that’s fantastic.
Scott wanted this story to be told in a sitcom-type way because families like his often feel invisible. He wanted to put a little normalcy into special needs families and show typical families that while there are differences in disability, there is also a lot of same/same.
I don’t think it’s unique to disability, but it’s certainly the experience of a family with somebody with disability. It’s like people either stare or ignore and they found it refreshing to have a story like ours told.
Did you have to make any specific changes from real life to TV family life?
There’s a difference between Micah’s character JJ, and my brother in real life – my brother’s condition is more is significant. And, I wanted the character to have a lot more back and forth. I just thought in a world where you have six characters in a family, you want a lot more give and take between them.
I also love that Scott didn’t want JJ to seem like a prop. He wanted JJ to be able to stand alone as a character and have the ability to carry the story.
I wanted him to be active, and this made it easier to be active. When I was thinking about the JJ character, the criterion that I kept coming back to is, this a character that would exist on TV independent of a disability, independent of the wheelchair. That was the litmus test. If it was simply defined by a wheelchair, that’s telling a story I didn’t wanna tell.