How can a movie that stars an amputee and a paraplegic not be about disability? Simple, says veteran actor John Lawson: “It’s just about normal people trying to live their lives.”
Titled Daruma, this flick about a “dysfunctional family road trip” transcends the standard cliches to create authentic, complex characters—the type amputees rarely get to play, and the type for which Lawson has long advocated.
After the success of last year’s Oscar-winning CODA (starring two hearing-impaired actors), Daruma‘s producers are hoping their film will take disability representation to the next level. They’re gunning for a slot in the Sundance Film Festival, which is where CODA found its audience (and its distributor). Like most indie projects, this one was shot on a shoestring. For the rest of this month, the filmmakers are raising funds to wrap up post-production and put a professional gloss on the movie before submitting it to the Sundance committee. In addition to a tax deduction, your donation might buy you some of the items that appear in the film, including costumes, props, even the license plate on the protagonists’ car. If you’re a prosthetist, there are some cool small-business partnership opportunities, too. And if you live in Southern California (or are visiting for the Amputee Coalition conference), you can catch one of Daruma’s lead actors, Tobias Forrest, gigging at the Troubadour in downtown Los Angeles with his band, Cityzen.
Every dollar helps, so visit the donation page at darumamovie.wedid.it/campaigns/10340 to kick in what you can. Stay current by following the project on Instagram @darumamovie.
Daruma is one of two major projects nearing release for Lawson; the other, an as-yet untitled prequel of Stephen King’s horror classic Pet Sematary, is due to be released by Paramount+ in the fairly near soon. We caught up with Lawson earlier this year to learn more about Daruma. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
Tell me how you got involved with this project.
My manager saw this breakdown on one of the casting sites, looking for a double amputee—specifically, a man with both hands gone. That’s very, very rare. I’ve been to enough auditions that whenever they call for a guy missing an arm, I’ve meet everybody in Hollywood that wants to be a movie star that’s missing an arm. But I’m the only guy missing both.
So my agent submitted me, and I got called in to read for a video audition. So I called one of my best friends, Tobias Forrest, to help me prepare. We read for each other for roles—I’ll go to his house and read for him, or he’ll come to mine, or whatever it is. So I was reading the part of Robert, and he’s reading Patrick’s lines off-camera, and I told Toby: “You should really audition for this. It’d be kind of cool. We might do it together.” So we just turned the camera around on him, and he read as well.
So he called me one day and he goes, “Man, I’m so glad you made me audition for Daruma. I got a callback! Did you get one?” I say: “Uh, no, not yet.” He goes: “Oh . . . . . . sorry, bye!”
No good deed ever goes unpunished.
Fortunately, they called me later as well. This is a road-trip kind of movie, but it’s more of an emotional journey for both of the characters. And so us being good friends for 10 or 15 years, however long we’ve known each other—the camaraderie and the connection just came across. So we both got cast.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the first film in history where both lead actors have been authentically cast with a disability, yet the film has nothing to do with disability. CODA, which won all the awards, had actors with a disability in both of the supporting roles. But the story is about disability—it’s about dealing with hearing impairment and depending on the hearing child to overcome that. But the storyline in Daruma has nothing to do with my character not having hands or Toby’s character being in a wheelchair. It’s about this whole emotional journey where they find out that blood is not always family.
Am I imagining it, or are we starting to cross the bridge to where characters with disabilities are portrayed as part of the spectrum of normal human experience, as opposed to being compartmentalized within the “disability” genre?
Well, it might be a small bridge. It’s not the Golden Gate yet. But maybe it’s a rope bridge or something. We’re still wiggling back and forth. You might take a step forward, then two steps back. I’ve been an advocate for people with disabilities now for close to 30 years in the film and television industry. I’ve seen all the changes. And here we are, after 30 years, and people with disabilities are less than 2 percent of the characters on television and film. Yet 25 percent of the actual population has some form of visible disability. And of that little 2 percent, about 95 percent of the characters are played by able-bodied actors. And it’s not because they’re not out there and not trained. It’s just because a Hollywood has not opened its mind up.
But I do think we’re making some headway. I don’t think beating people over a head—”You must do this, you must do that”—is the answer. We’re finally starting to see the generation come up where we can see people with disabilities just living their life. And that’s what was so important to me about Daruma. This is just two guys who are living their lives, and they get thrust together because of circumstance, and that causes them to learn about each other and learn about themselves. It not only happens in a physical journey of miles, but in an emotional journey that they both take as well.
I don’t want to give a lot away, but there’s this one pivotal scene where my character, Robert, is telling Patrick to stop shitting on him. It’s a real emotional scene, and we shot it about 12 times. And every time, the crew was in tears. They’re watching it over and over again, and they see the microphone and the cameras and the lights and everything on set, but yet they’re so touched that they’re in tears. It’s my hope that those things will translate when it’s on the big screen, and the audience will not see a guy in a wheelchair or a guy with no hands—they’ll just see normal people trying to live their lives, going through the same emotions we all do. I hope people are gonna say, “I watched the performance, not the hooks.”
Did you and Toby get a chance to collaborate on the storytelling at all? Did you ever offer your two cents on “Let’s change this dialogue”or “Maybe we could play this scene a little different”?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Daruma is such a well-written script, but a lot of times Kelly (McNeill, the screenwriter) would do a sensitivity read with us and ask, “What do you think about this?” And Toby, very much so because of being in a chair, had some ideas for little changes—you know, “I don’t think he would do that” or “I don’t think he would say that.” It was a very collaborative atmosphere, and that just makes for a great workplace. And hopefully an exceptional finished product.
When might we get a chance to watch this movie at a festival or in theaters?
We hope to follow in the footsteps of CODA and get into Sundance. Having CODA blaze the path ahead of us may have been a case of perfect timing. We were originally going to make this film in 2019, and then we got shut down because of COVID. Now we’re lined up where we can follow CODA, and that has been good for us. In addition to the awards and the rave reviews, CODA reached a big audience. So I’m hoping we will follow in the same footsteps.
Ultimately, I hope Daruma will get enough attention that it opens doors for other actors with other disabilities and creates more work for more people. That’s all any of us want at the end of the day, is to be able to support ourselves in the profession we love.