We thought John Lawson looked awfully familiar when we saw his mug in Variety the other day. Turns out we weren’t imagining it: He made a cameo appearance in this newsletter a few months ago, as the director and star of a satirical short in this year’s Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.
A bilateral below-elbow amputee for more than 30 years, Lawson is headed for a much bigger, scarier role now: He’s been cast as one of the leads in Paramount’s upcoming prequel to Pet Sematary, the classic 1983 Stephen King horror novel. Currently in production and slated for a 2022 release on Paramount’s streaming platform, the movie promises to break new ground in the representation of amputees on film. Lawson calls it “a real turning point, not only in casting but in the mindset of Hollywood.”
Lawson plays Stanny Bouchard, a character who’s only mentioned in flashback in King’s original novel. He never appears onscreen in either the original 1989 movie or the 2019 remake, but his name and spirit haunt the gloomy Maine town where the story is set. The prequel will bring Stanny’s disturbing backstory to life, while offering Lawson the chance to portray a complex character whose disability informs, but does not define, his personality.
That’s a big departure from the small, stereotypical parts in which Lawson has been pigeonholed for most of his acting career. His acting credits at IMDb bear labels such as “Amputee Veteran,” “Thug Missing Arms,” “Handless Soldier,” and simply “Handless.” In short, he’s appeared on screen more as a prop than as an actual person—a visual shorthand for trauma, a pair of myoelectric hooks with no heart, mind, or soul attached.
Heart and soul are the qualities that landed Lawson the Pet Sematary job. In fact, the producers were so wowed by his readings that they rewrote the script to accommodate his limb difference. “We had not originally envisioned a double amputee for Stanny’s character,” the film’s director, Lindsey Beer, told Variety. “[Lawson’s] unique circumstance led to some interesting changes in the backstory and actions of his character, and all for the better. John’s audition portrayed a layered range of both aggressiveness and vulnerability. His character is hiding a secret and has led a difficult life. But underneath the bluster, Stanny is someone in search of connection. [Lawson’s] performance really brought humanity and nuance to the role.”
Lawson has spent many years lobbying for actors with disabilities to get opportunities of this type. In a long Q&A with Ability Magazine that ran a couple of years ago, he explained: “It’s not only about casting actors with disabilities in disability roles, but it’s casting actors, casting characters who just might happen to have a disability. Why can’t the computer nerd be in a wheelchair? Why can’t the attorney be missing an arm? . . . . That’s what I preach in Hollywood and have been for pretty much 30 years: ‘Don’t try to write a wheelchair character. Just write a character and put in the description that this character could use a wheelchair, and then let the actor with the authenticity of living the life bring whatever the traits are that are needed for the disabled character.’”
That’s the license Pet Sematary‘s producers have granted Lawson: the freedom to portray disability with genuine humanity that’s universally relatable. It’s a chance to create a well-rounded person whose physical difference deepens rather than diminishes him. And it totally reverses the usual roles, wherein able-bodied actors get rave reviews (and often win awards) for their “brave portrayals” of disabled characters.
By hiring an actor with a disability for a role that was conceived as able-bodied, Pet Sematary offers a long-overdue rewrite to that old Hollywood script.
MORE ARTICLES ABOUT AMPUTEES IN THE MOVIES
Harold Russell: From Amputee Military Vet to Oscar-Winning Actor
Eric Graise Steps Up and Speaks Out
Dan Aid Is Finding New Amputee Stories to Tell
The Sexiest Amputee Movie You’ve Never Seen