The bilateral amputee actor is dying for a role that portrays disability realistically. He might have to write it himself.
“It’s very hard for me to say this as an actor who’s currently working,” Eric Graise tells us, “but I’m just gonna say it: I have yet to see the disability character that I want to see. Not one time.”
That’s an unexpected take from a performer who’s created several memorable disabled characters in recent years. A bilateral amputee since childhood, Graise made a name for himself on Step Up: High Water in a role that fits him to a tee: He plays King, a biracial triple-threat performer (dancing, singing, and acting) with loads of charisma and street smarts. This year he reached a broader audience as Logan Calloway, a recurring figure in the Netflix fantasy hit Locke & Key.
Graise was also a regular on a second Netflix series in 2020, Teenage Bounty Hunters (which didn’t get picked up for a second season), and he landed a bit part in The Tomorrow War, a star-studded movie due out next year.
He’s one of the busiest U.S. actors with a disability of any kind, so Graise is emphatically not complaining. “I love playing King,” he says. “I love Logan. It’s just that I still haven’t seen a good, well-rounded character with a disability—one that’s reflective of our lives.”
What would such a character look like? Graise shared his opinions with us last week from Toronto, where he’s in the midst of filming Season 2 of Locke & Key. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
You mentioned in your email that you’ve been spending some of your time writing. What are you working on?
I’m writing a pilot for a series that’s been kicking around for three years now, The pilot is basically finished, and I’m working on the story bible right now. It has a lot of backstory to it and tons of family heritage, and I need to know all of that heritage.
Did you do much writing in your college program? [Graise earned a degree in theater from the University of West Georgia.]
I did, actually. I wrote a few plays. I wrote a musical while I was in school. Didn’t finish it, but wrote a good bit of it. Growing up, I did a lot of writing. I wrote a lot of poems and songs, and this series will have a lot of original music. So I’m also doing a lot of songwriting as well.
How would you characterize the music? Like, what genre?
The show specifically centers around black nerds, so it’s supposed to be as eclectic as possible. I grew up listening to a lot of R&B, a lot of gospel, so that’s gonna be prevalent. But I also wanna include some ska. You never really hear about black kids listening to ska music, but ska comes from black roots—specifically from the islands. It’s been mostly appropriated by white musicians, so I kind of want to bring that back to black culture. You’re definitely gonna get a lot of rock influence, and a lot of indie. I grew up listening to a lot of music.
How are things going with production for season two of Locke & Key?
It’s going pretty well. This season’s gonna be crazier and way more intense than the first season was, so I’m really excited about that. But it’s been sort of weird, too, because I haven’t been able to kind of pop in when I’m not shooting, because of COVID. We don’t always get to see dailies, so I like to sneak in [on non-shooting days] and get an eyeful of how it’s being shot and the color of things.
I’ve always been on shows that it’s literally the first season, so it’s nice going into the second season because I already have an idea for the tone of the show. There’s a comfort level there, and maybe a rhythm.
The character you play, Logan Calloway, wasn’t part of the original Locke & Key comic books. He was created for the TV series. Did you get much of a say in defining this character?
It’s interesting you ask that, because something very specific did happen. Originally, the creators saw Logan as a [wheel]chair user, and they were prime to have me use the chair. A lot of times people assume that I’m a chair user because of my role in Step Up, because King uses a chair. And I’m comfortable doing that with King, because King is a dancer, and I dance using a chair. So it makes sense for me to be in the chair for that role.
But if the character doesn’t specifically need to use a chair, then I would rather just use my normal operating device, which is my prosthetics. They were totally on board with that, but their concern was: How would people know that I have a disability? So I told him, “I wear shorts all the time, so they [the audience] will see my prosthetics.” And they were like, “Well, the show is set in winter.” And I said, “It’s winter now, and I’m wearing shorts. Do my legs look cold to you?” They thought that was funny, so they actually included that line in the script.
When you’re look for projects, are there specific elements you hone in on? Like, are you looking for a certain type of story? A certain type of people to work with?
I mean, in hypothetical theory. But honestly, I’m a working Joe, just like everybody else. I haven’t reached that place in my career that I can be picky. I’m out there beating the pavement.
Well, when you get to that point in your career when you have the ability to exercise some discretion, what kinds of projects will you be looking for?
I have a dream of playing either a superhero or a supervillain. I think we in the disability community have yet to have any representation in Marvel or DC. I can’t think of a person with a disability having powers, except in the fantasy realm. I mean, you have Professor X who has a disability. You have Cyborg, a black man with multiple amputations. There’s tons of characters in the fantasy world with disabilities, but we’re not seeing any as far as actors go—and I know so many actors that can do it. I know so many very physical people with disabilities who have really cool movement, because I’ve been in association with a lot of dance stuff. But nobody’s had the imagination yet to cast or write it, you know? And that’s so disappointing to me. But that is my goal. I really wanna be a some kind of superhero or some kind of supervillain. I wouldn’t even have to be a main one.
Fighting for good or for evil? Either one?
Not choosing sides. I just want to be in the fight.
You’ve been pretty outspoken about cultural representation of people with disabilities. Who’s doing that well right now, in your opinion? Are there any shows or films out there that you would consider the gold standard?
I’m so glad you asked that question. I would definitely recommend Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. I haven’t seen all of it yet, but what I’ve seen is really, really good.
What do they do well?
Number one, I just appreciate good writing. At the end of the day, no matter what it is, it just needs to be good writing. If the writing isn’t good, I don’t care about your representation. I actually will hate it more, because then I’ll feel like people will blame it on our community. When you rarely have a chance, then if it’s not done well when you do have a chance, people hold it against you. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is very good writing. It’s very funny, and there’s more than one character on the autism spectrum. A lot of times they put a cap on how many people with disabilities they can have in one show, which I think is ridiculous.
Another really good one is Ramy. That show doesn’t have disability at the forefront, but there is a character with a disability. It’s a comedy, and they get really raw and very specific with the disability. They go there, you know? That’s something I appreciate in comedy. I like to make people uncomfortable. Sometimes people feel It’s hard to just laugh about disability, because we’ve been taught to treat people with disabilities like they’re fragile. Or sometimes the problem is that people will make a very ableist joke. And when you don’t laugh, it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a disability joke. It’s because it’s ableist.
Ramy pokes fun at ableist people. And then they get even deeper into disability, and they just make it really funny. So I would very highly recommend that show as far as representation.
I feel like that’s an important bridge to cross. There’s always this tension between making the audience feel uncomfortable and making them feel good about themselves. Because you’re gonna get much better ratings with feel-good material, right?
A hundred percent. I think able-bodied writers have really good intentions. I don’t come at it from a very angry perspective. Most people have really good intentions when it comes to disability. A friend of mine calls that being “helpful helpers.” When it comes to writing, there’s only certain places they wanna go. One is the disabled character who is sad about their disability and hate that they’re different, and their disability always gets in the way of them being happy until one able-bodied person comes along and tells them, “We see you just like we see everybody else.” And then the disabled character can be like, “Really? Thank you! I’m glad you love me, so now I can love myself.”
Right, thanks for giving me permission.
Yeah, as if I needed that. And nine times out of 10, they’re played by an able-bodied actor.
So there’s either that character, or it’s the character who’s really cool because they have a disability, but their disability doesn’t affect their life whatsoever. No one even brings their disability up. There are no ableist people in the world, and their disability never, ever causes any unhappiness. They’re just a badass. I’m like, “Well, of course, you’re a badass. You live in a world that’s completely not reflective of reality.”
I’m a complicated individual, you know? Sometimes I love being myself, and sometimes I hate myself. Sometimes I love being different, and sometimes I just wish I could blend in. And it’s that beautiful complication that makes a character fun and interesting. And I’m gonna be honest with you. It’s very hard for me to say this as an actor who’s currently working, but I’m just gonna say it: I have yet to see the disability character that I want to see. Not one time. I have not seen him.
What would that character look like?
When I’m writing, I’m writing a character with a disability. I’m not writing the disability, and I’m not writing a character. I’m writing a character with a disability. I think able-bodied writers and actors have a hard time putting the two together. Either they’ll create a character where their whole world is defined by their disability, or they’ll create a character that’s completely devoid of their disability. Neither one is really true to life.
Do you feel like we’re getting closer?
One hundred percent. We’re definitely getting closer. I’ve played some really great characters. I love playing King. I love Logan. It’s just that I still haven’t seen a good, well-rounded character with a disability. I think part of it is that writers are afraid to write really good characters with disabilities because they can’t even imagine the actor they would cast in [the role]. There may be one, maybe two people out there. We have to cultivate this community of people with disabilities who are actors, so writers feel more comfortable writing characters with disabilities. And at the same time, we have to cultivate writers who can write great characters with disabilities, so people in the disability community feel more comfortable becoming actors.
When I went to college, I started out majoring in music instead of theater because I was convinced I wouldn’t get work. I didn’t see people who had disabilities working in the industry, so I was like, “Why would I go into that field? They’re not gonna hire me, and I’m gonna end up homeless.” I did end up changing to theater, and I’m grateful, because I wouldn’t be here. But right before I graduated, I told one of my faculty members, “I don’t want to be in this industry if I’m only getting work because of my disability.”
What changed your calculation when you got to college? What convinced you to give it a shot?
It was a long, slow go. I was in college for about six years. Originally I went for opera. I was on a full-ride scholarship in one of the most prestigious programs in the Southeast, and I hated it. Hated it. I ended up switching to business; hated it. Became an art major because I wanted to do photography. Hated that. And all the time while I was doing all of these different majors, I was auditioning for theater stuff, appearing in shows, doing musicals. The professors were like, “What are you doing? You’re bouncing around from major to major. Why are you not getting a degree in theater?” And I told them I didn’t think anyone would ever hire me as an actor. And they were like, “We disagree. We’re not gonna tell you what to do, but we think that you should try it.” So I did. And tons of great things have come my way because of it.
Are there people with disabilities in Hollywood who are working as agents or casting directors, or people who are green-lighting productions? Are there any disabled writers?
There are—not just people with disabilities, but also able-bodied people as well. I think it comes down to able-bodied people, because they are the majority in the industry.
Holly Sorensen, who’s the show creator for Step Up, she has a sister with a disability who was a performer. So when she wrote King, she was coming from that place of understanding. She wrote this disabled, biracial character who dances, who can sing, and who can act, and then she just prayed to God that actor was out there. And here was my biracial singing, dancing, acting self, living in Atlanta. She was like, “I can’t believe you were out there,” and I was like, “I can’t believe you wrote this character.” If I could if I could make tons of Hollies, I would.
Will we ever get to the point where disabled actors are competing for roles that are written as able-bodied characters?
That’s what our community has been talking about. We don’t have that actor yet. We don’t have our Leo DiCaprio. We have never had that actor. The closest thing we’ve had to that actor is Marlee Matlin. I personally could not name five actors with disabilities who are currently working at this moment. People with disabilities make up 10 percent of the population, and yet less than 1 percent of working actors have a disability.
I know so many actors with disabilities who I think are even better than I am, even more attractive than me. And I feel like, man, I’ve gotten so lucky because I found my little niche. You know, I found my way through the cracks. But if there were more of these characters written, I think there would be more actors with disabilities getting paid.