By Aaron Waddingham and Sue Robins
My son Aaron, age 16, stumbled into an acting career a year ago. After being discovered when we were on holidays, he signed with a local Vancouver talent agent. Aaron then auditioned for a number of roles and secured his first acting gig last fall. In November he appeared in a Nintendo Switch commercial that has been shown worldwide.
I’ve been asked by other families how to get their kids into acting. The first step is to listen to your child and let him or her take the lead. It is important that your child has a natural love of performing and that they are not pushed into a career.
Our whole family is learning as we go. Here is my advice about helping your child build a career in the dramatic arts. I also interviewed Aaron about his experience as an actor, and his comments are included in italics.
I felt super-incredible when my commercial came out. And I like getting paid. -AW
Being cast in the Nintendo commercial was a big deal for Aaron and our family. It started with Aaron auditioning for the part just like everybody else. The casting director was specifically looking for an actor with a visible disability and Aaron is clearly recognizable in the 30-second spot. What is awesome about the scene is that Aaron was playing Nintendo Switch with three typically developing teenage boys. He was just hanging out with them and it wasn’t a commercial specifically about kids with disabilities. This is what I’d call inclusive writing and casting – Aaron was just one of the guys, playing video games.
All the actors on the shoot were under 18 and needed to have their guardians on set with them, so I was there along with the other parents. The director took me aside at one point and asked a question about Aaron and what he could understand. “Everything,” I said. He understands everything if directions are explained to him in short pieces.
The modifications for Aaron at the shoot for the commercial were simply for the production crew to be patient and to repeat instructions a couple of times. It did not take more effort to have Aaron there. It is important to note that all actors need support to give their best performance.
Aaron explains what it was like to shoot a commercial:
I drank some iced tea. I got my hair done and got dressed in a big trailer. They also covered up my zits! For the commercial I had to play video games with three other boys. The director told us what to do. There was tons of food at lunch.
Importantly, Aaron was paid for his time at the wardrobe fitting, rehearsal and shoot and he received a residual cheque after the commercial was aired. He received the same rate as everybody else. And while opportunities for actors with disabilities are rare, he will get paid well when he works. If all goes well, he will be able to make a living being a film and TV actor (supplemented with a day job as so many other actors have).
Acting has opened up a whole new world. This is the first time I’ve thought about my son’s future without feeling fear. Working and being paid a decent wage also leads to a sense of meaning and value in Aaron’s life. Plus, he has expensive taste and can save up to buy that Lamborghini he keeps talking about!
I bought a Nike Apple Watch with my own money that I made from the commercial. -AW
I’ve learned that it is hard work to be an actor. We are lucky to live in Vancouver, where there is a happening entertainment industry. But Aaron himself has to put in the work to be ready to go to auditions. This means attending high school drama class, summer acting camps, acting school classes and working with an acting coach. His Grade 11 IEP changed this year to focus on what he needs to learn to be a successful actor, which includes leadership courses, public speaking opportunities and English class to work on his literacy skills so he can read lines.
At auditions I have fun. I have to keep the words in my brain and say them out loud. -AW
Having fun remains a crucial factor for Aaron to live a good life. He does get nervous before auditions (just like all the other actors) and his acting coach is working with him to practice breathing exercises to calm his nerves. As long as Aaron continues to have fun, we will do whatever we can to support his acting career.
Acting is now part of my life. I work on my acting. I took TheatreSports Improv camp and acting classes. I am still in drama and I work with an acting coach twice a month. It is work but it is fun. -AW
We need more roles written specifically for people with disabilities, and to cast real actors with disabilities. Inclusion means that differently-abled actors have the opportunity to try out for ‘regular’ roles too. Aaron’s agent has put him forward for both types of parts.
There are other actors with Down syndrome, like in Stumptown and the movie The Peanut Butter Falcon. I wish I was in a film with Dwayne Johnson. That is my dream. I want to be the guy with Down syndrome on the big screen! -AW
Representation does matter. Non-disabled actors have won many Oscars over the years playing disabled roles – think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles. Organizations like the Ruderman Family Foundation advocate for auditioning actors with disabilities.
The media, whether it is film, TV, commercials or print, should be a snapshot of the real world. That means writing roles and casting people who have disabilities. Cole Sibus (Stumptown) and Zachary Gottsagen (The Peanut Butter Falcon) are two actors with Down syndrome who were cast in high profile roles last year.
The world is slowly changing as more opportunities become available for actors with Down syndrome. When roles come up, Aaron will be ready.
Drama keeps me happy. In acting you have to work with people. And I like people. -AW
If you’d like to follow along with Aaron’s career, he’s on Instagram @aaron.waddingham.
Ten Tips to Start an Acting Career
1. Go to lots of movies! Aaron loves going to the movie theatre and we actively encourage his love of film.
2. For motivation, watch the performances of actors who have disabilities. Speechless, Stumptown and Atypical are examples of television shows featuring actors with disabilities. Aaron also is inspired by watching the A&E show Born This Way.
3. Watch for theatre companies that feature actors and writers with disabilities and attend performances if you can.
4. Sign up for drama classes or clubs in school settings. (Bonus – this is a free way to see if your child has the performing bug).
If the acting bug bites:
5. Contact acting schools and camps to ask if they have inclusive programs. The majority of schools we have approached have said yes to Aaron (with only one saying no, which was discouraging – but we did not give up!)
6. Find a Facebook group for families of child actors.
7. Invest in professional photography to get head shots done.
8. The way to find out about auditions is to sign with a talent agent. Contact your local agencies through their websites to find one that is a good fit for you. It is important to work with an agency that believes in your child and aligns with your own values.
9. Invest in a small audition wardrobe, which includes plain clothes with no patterns or logos on them.
10. Be available and willing to respond to audition calls at short notice, practice lines and do a lot of driving and waiting around.
Please support organizations who cast actors with disabilities by buying their products, watching their shows, sharing their work on social media and writing letters of encouragement. If we all cheer and advocate for actors who have disabilities, it will mean our kids will turn on the television and see someone who looks like them. That is validating and allows our children to dream big dreams, just like every other kid. Don’t settle for anything less.