My name is Zack Weinstein. I'm going to be on the TV show Glee
(Photo of Zack by Brad Buckman.)
Ever since I was four years old, whenever anyone asked me the standard "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I would always answer definitively: "An actor!" I'm not sure what it was specifically at that age that made me want to be an actor. My favorite movies were The Wizard of Oz
, Star Wars
, and ET
. (It took me a few tries to get through ET
; as soon as he turned white I lost it.)
All I knew was that I believed it was something I could do and that I would love doing it. As time went on I discovered that not only did I love doing it, but I had some talent for it as well. I did all the musicals and plays in middle school and high school. I went to Skidmore College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York, as a theater major. I was cast in a number of productions my freshman year, I made some great friends, I was on my path. I worked as a counselor at a summer camp in Maine the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, and that was when I got wildly thrown off my path and my life took a sharp turn for the worse.
On a day off, a bunch of the counselors went on a canoe trip down a river. When a group of us pulled off to the side of the river for a break, a friend and I were playing around in the water. He flipped me up over his shoulders, and I hit the bottom. I broke my neck, shattering C4 through C6. Maybe there was a rock that I hit, maybe it just wasn't as deep as he thought, who knows. I was conscious the whole time. I was lucky that we were all camp counselors, because three of the people who saw it happen were lifeguards. They stabilized me and I was rushed to the hospital.
The tale of my physical recovery is a story for another time. The tale doesn't end with me getting my body back. I have function through C6. I only missed one year of school. When I returned, some of my professors suggested that I could be a very good director. It sounded like a nice enough idea, but I wouldn't go for it. I could still talk, I could still think, and I could still feel. Well, I could still feel emotions at least. I was going to stick with the acting thing. Besides, I would sometimes joke, being a successful actor is a completely unrealistic life goal anyways so what's the difference?
Flash forward three years. I graduate from Skidmore in May of ‘09 and decide to move out to Los Angeles. Around the same time a preview of a new television show called “Glee” premieres. I see the character in the wheelchair and think, "Awesome, there's a character in a wheelchair!" Then I think, "Damn it, if only I had moved to Los Angeles a year ago!" Then I think, "Don't get ahead of yourself, Zack. You probably wouldn't have gotten the role even if you did audition." Then I think, "How do you know? What ever happened to positive thinking?"
I move to Los Angeles. I research acting classes and start taking a scene study class once a week. I start playing pickup games of wheelchair rugby once a week. I audition for a lot of student films. I don't get cast. I get an agent, which is a story unto itself that bears no real relevance here either. I attended the first ever Hollywood Disabilities Forum, an industry forum on the accuracy, inclusion and access of people with disabilities in entertainment. The first season of "Glee" plays on Fox. It's my new favorite show.
The episode titled "Wheels" is aired. The episode focuses on Artie, the wheelchair using character. All of a sudden "Glee" is in trouble because Kevin McHale, who plays Artie, doesn't actually use a wheelchair. There are articles and blog posts discussing whether or not disabled actors should be the only ones playing disabled characters. Some say that "Glee" should have tried harder to find a wheelchair using actor to play the part. Some say that if Kevin McHale was best for the part, then it shouldn't matter whether or not he's able to walk in real life. That's the side I fall on.
I know for a fact that the producers did audition actors who use wheelchairs. I'm friends with one of those actors. Toby has a great voice but he looks too old for the part even by Hollywood standards. As long as actors with disabilities are given the opportunity to audition and are as seriously considered as able-bodied actors, I have no problem. The best actor should get the role. Then, about a month ago, my agent got me an audition for a guest starring role on the upcoming season of "Glee". Guest starring means a major role in one episode.
People with spinal cord injuries often struggle to find and define their identity after their injury. In fact most people, regardless of circumstance, struggle with the exact same thing. That struggle does get heightened after a catastrophic event. I want to be treated like a person and not like a type of person. I don't want pity and I don't want anyone to feel guilty around me. I just want empathy and understanding. Again, the same thing that most people want.
The part that I was auditioning for was a character who had suffered a spinal cord injury. I read the script and it's a great part. I wanted it bad. I set up a private coaching session with my acting teacher to work on the audition material. I tried to set up a private session with a vocal coach that my agent suggested because the part requires singing. I wasn't able to meet with the vocal coach, which stressed me out. I'm a pretty good singer, but I lost a lot of the power in my voice after my injury and if you've ever seen the show you know that everyone on it is a phenomenal singer.
I went to the audition as well prepared as I could've been. I had had two days to work on it, which is a lot of time for an audition. At the audition I saw Toby and about fifteen able-bodied actors. In total I think about forty people auditioned for the part. I went into the audition room with a very clear goal: to convince them that I'm the best actor for the role who also happens to have a spinal cord injury. I didn't want to get the part if they felt guilty or obligated. I didn't want to get the part just because I broke my neck four and a half years ago and happen to look young enough.
I came out of the audition feeling like I had done everything I possibly could do to land the part. Then I waited for a phone call. For a week and a half. The call could have come any day. It took a week and a half. An agonizing week and a half. Every actor knows that the odds are stacked heavily against them. We know that we are going to face constant rejection throughout our careers, even if we become successful.
We've heard the phrase about there being nothing more common than an unsuccessful person with talent. I didn't care. I didn't want to put this one out of my mind. I wanted it bad. A week and a half. I had never been more nervous. I was finally out in the real world, living my life, trying to do what I had been saying I was going to do for twenty years. I had broken my neck and still pursued it. If the answer was no, there would probably be another opportunity like that one, but there were no guarantees. It's a good thing my agent called to tell me the answer was yes.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think that I'm suddenly going to be some big star. After all, it is only two scenes in one episode of one TV show. My personal involvement in the episode isn't even the most important thing. The important thing is that people like me are being written into popular shows like "Glee". They didn't base the character on me, I ended up being a good representation of the character they created.
Because of confidentiality I won't say more about the episode than I already have. It's too bad because I would love to write about my day on set. One fun piece of information that I can give is that they gave me my own trailer for the day. It was a Winnebago with a wheelchair lift. It had a couch, two chairs, a microwave, a stove, a refrigerator, a bathroom, and a queen size bed. I got to say things like, "Call me when you're ready, I'll be in my trailer."
It was so much fun. The cast and crew were fantastic to work with and we spent twelve straight hours filming the scenes that I was in. I have never had an adrenaline high quite like it. Also, just to add to the ego boost that I didn't really need in the first place, one of the producers sought me out specifically to tell me that I had a great audition. There wasn't an ounce of pity in his voice.
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