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"I think we've done beauty a great disservice by quantifying it."
April 14, 2014 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Adam Pearson suffers from neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to grow on his face. They are sizable. You wouldn't fail to notice them, even from a distance. Nonetheless, he appears in a small but absolutely pivotal role in Under the Skin, opposite Scarlett Johansson, playing a sexy alien serial killer, in one of the most remarked-upon scenes in the film. "[Facial scars and other disfigurements are] always used very lazily" by filmmakers, he tells The Guardian. "In an ideal world actors with conditions would play the characters with these same conditions.... If they'd got Adam Sandler and blacked him up to play Nelson Mandela, there would have been an uproar ... but with scars and stuff, it seems like people are cool with that."

Under the Skin (trailer; Pearson appears briefly at about 1:18) is directed by Jonathan Glazer (he directed Sexy Beast [trailer] and Birth [trailer], but many will remember him best for the distinctive music video for "Rabbit in Your Headlights" starring Denis Levant [previously]). Glazer (Wikipedia) does not seem to have made an appearance on Metafilter independent of his early music-video work.

Viewers of English television may recognize Pearson from his involvement with and appearances on the Channel 4 documentary program Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice. He works in television as a casting and development researcher, specializing in "sensitive or difficult subject material."
posted by Mothlight (29 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Excerpt:
"One of the main reasons for taking the role was because it was so moving and honest," says Pearson over a lunch of fish and chips in a south London cafe. "For me, the film is about what the world looks like without knowledge and without prejudice. It's about seeing the world through alien eyes, I guess."
My handicaps tend to be invisible, which has both good points and bad points. I tend to be interested in topics like this because of my own handicaps and how they impact my life. His difference is very much visible. Still, there remain commonalities of experience. Those intrigue and enlighten me.
posted by Michele in California at 5:55 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


From the interview, Adam sounds like a hell of a cool guy. I'm glad I read it before seeing the film.

Viewers of English television may recognize Pearson from his involvement with and appearances on the Channel 4 documentary program Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice

Wow, has anyone seen this? It seems like it could be amazing or REALLY horrible.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:59 PM on April 14


This guy has a fantastic attitude. Booyah!
posted by arcticseal at 6:04 PM on April 14


The first episode (of six) of Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice is on Vimeo and YouTube, by way of Reggie Bibbs and his Just Ask foundation. Here's the Channel 4 episode guide, and here's the sixth and final episode, which features Adam. The Guardian was cautiously optimistic about the series in the review of the first episode, and it seems all reviews are for the first episode only.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:21 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]




Timely; I just caught the movie this past weekend, knowing just about nothing of it exccept that I'd had it vaguely in my head as something to see since a positive mention on the Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff podcast.

The theater I saw it in had on the marquee:
UNDER THE SKIN
NOT SPECIES 4!

(Which inspired the horrified realization that, good lord, they made a Species 2 and 3? Also, it made me start kicking myself for not getting out to that theater before, because it was very nice. Plus the staff cheerfully announced before the lights dimmed that the dialogue was sometimes mixed at low volume, and that was deliberate, and that a lot of it was in rather thick accents, so if anyone had a problem with that...well, you were on your own!)

It's a really good film, and I'm sort of glad I didn't see this before seeing it; that scene is indeed pivotal and powerful. It would have been all too easy for something like it to be played for exploitative cheap shock value--the hood comes away and overbearing music hit of some kind--but the movie doesn't go that way, it simply slots quietly, of a piece with the overall laconic confident pace, into recurring themes of the contrast between surfaces and depths but not tritely so.
posted by Drastic at 6:36 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


Judging by Glazer's video for "Karmacoma," the comparison to Kubrick made in the trailer is one he's been deliberately working at for nearly twenty years.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.
posted by fifthrider at 7:17 PM on April 14


It's an interesting premise that actors shouldn't drastically transform themselves physically for a role. Often that's the very thing that actors are lauded for.
posted by the jam at 7:19 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


I knew next to nothing about this film before seeing it, either, and some of the imagery really stuck with me. I also had no idea that most of it was filmed with real people on the streets of Glasgow using hidden cameras, so there are almost no 'actors' in the entire film to speak of. Adam must be one of the few people they actually sought out; his scenes are very powerful indeed.
posted by mykescipark at 7:20 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting premise that actors shouldn't drastically transform themselves physically for a role. Often that's the very thing that actors are lauded for.

Yeah. The (blackface) example is anything but supportive - there used to be no problems with doing that either, but it was widely abused for racist comedy, discrimination, revisionism, etc, to the point where Adam Sandler blacked up to play Nelson Mandela would be tarnished by association with that past. So I don't think his premise stands. There is not the outrage if Eddie Murphy gets all whited up, and my cultural knowledge is limited but I don't think there was a genre of using unscarred actors to make fun of people for being scarred or sick.
posted by anonymisc at 9:22 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Bill Foxley, who likewise appeared in one movie because of his scarred face.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:34 PM on April 14


There is not the outrage if Eddie Murphy gets all whited up, and my cultural knowledge is limited but I don't think there was a genre of using unscarred actors to make fun of people for being scarred or sick.

There is, however, a tradition of portraying villains as scarred or disfigured. The semiotics of this are old and insidious. Beautiful and fresh faced = good, ugly and scarred = bad.

TV Tropes has several comprehensive pages on this. Good scars, evil scars. Red right hand. Beauty = goodness. Evil makes you ugly.

People with facial disfigurements are faced with close to uniformly negative cultural portrayals. That can't be fun.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:58 PM on April 14 [6 favorites]


This dude is amazing. When I saw the film, I wasn't sure if they'd used some sort of seemless CGI or not because I couldn't believe that a non-actor would deliver such a pitch perfect performance. His morose acceptance that he's not going to get to Tesco provides the only laugh in an otherwise bleak but brilliant film.
posted by steganographia at 11:20 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


If they'd got Adam Sandler and blacked him up to play Nelson Mandela, there would have been an uproar ...

And it would have had nothing to do with blacking him up.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:21 PM on April 14


Yes to this a thousand times. I don't care if it's filming people with tumors on their face or people who are short or ugly or transgender or a minority, but good god do mainstream movies and television still have a long ways to go when it comes to diversity in its on-screen talent.

And while I'm loath to admit it, movies and TV are still a fantastic way to get a lot of people to shift their perspectives on what they consider "normal." Of course Mefi discussions do a better job, but I think the crowd here is a bit self-selective. :)

"...the more people see it in wider society, the less stigma there is. If I just sit at home and mope, hugging the dog and crying, nothing's going to change."

And a double million zillion more points for this viewpoint as well.
posted by comradechu at 12:17 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I watched Beauty and the Beast. I thought Adam was great in it. They had a few episodes and I tried watching one or two more, but they were very formulaic, so I got bored of it. It was an interesting concept, though, and I liked the way Adam was the protagonist of his own story rather than it being some interviewer observing and dissecting his life.
posted by lollusc at 1:44 AM on April 15


I absolutely agree. I wonder why more zombie/horror films don't make use of people with actual gait abnormalities. They don't need the training that able bodied people need to shamble and lurch. Hollywood could then pat itself on the back for hiring special needs people.
posted by Renoroc at 8:02 AM on April 15


> I wonder why more zombie/horror films don't make use of people with actual gait abnormalities.

Perhaps because that could backfire on them in about 0.02 seconds. "MGM's new film makes monsters out of people with disabilities."
posted by IAmBroom at 9:04 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I saw the movie this past weekend also...I was concerned when Pearson first showed up, because some strange and frightening things had happened in the movie prior to him entering the story and I was worried that he was going to be there just to exploit his appearance...I was pleased to see that Pearson's role was sympathetic, and that he served a purpose in the narrative other than just to appear strange-looking for exploitative "shock value."

"MGM's new film makes monsters out of people with disabilities."

It wouldn't be the first time, and it's always controversial. Freaks was relatively sympathetic, in that at least the actors were portraying human beings with multiple dimensions who were presented as protagonists (to a certain extent; I realize it becomes pretty problematic in these respects as it reaches the conclusion)...Unlike The Sentinel, where people with recognizable human deformities were presented as demons from hell.
posted by doctornecessiter at 9:23 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


anonymisc: "Yeah. The (blackface) example is anything but supportive - there used to be no problems with doing that either, but it was widely abused for racist comedy, discrimination, revisionism, etc, to the point where Adam Sandler blacked up to play Nelson Mandela would be tarnished by association with that past. So I don't think his premise stands. There is not the outrage if Eddie Murphy gets all whited up, and my cultural knowledge is limited but I don't think there was a genre of using unscarred actors to make fun of people for being scarred or sick."

He's not talking about blackface and minstrelry so much as he's talking about the sloooowww progress toward recognizing that instead of having, say, Laurence Olivier play Othello in makeup, why not just cast...uh....a very good black actor. Because there are actually plenty of them.

He's saying that if you're going to write a real character who has some sort of disability or disfiguring condition, consider that there are actual actors who could play that role rather than just putting an actor in prosthetic makeup. Meanwhile, he's criticizing the commonplace practice of tacking on a disability/disfigurement to a character merely as an easy (and objectifying) way to induce fear and loathing, or pity.
posted by desuetude at 10:53 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


Exactly, desuetude.

One example of doing this right would be Walt Jr. from Breaking Bad, played by RJ Mitte. Both the actor and the character he plays in the show have cerebral palsy.
posted by misha at 11:02 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


He points out that facial imperfections are often used as shorthand for evil in films, whether it be Blofeld's eye scar in James Bond or the villain in Disney's recent adaptation of The Lone Ranger, whose face was severely scarred and who was given what appeared to be a cleft palate in makeup.

I feel like an idiot, I never noticed that before.

Pearson is keen to do more acting. He'd like to get a girlfriend ("I'm currently single") and, although there's a 50% chance he could pass his condition on to any children, this doesn't worry him unduly: "My kids will be genetically awesome anyway.

Indeed!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:24 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Viewers of English television may recognize Pearson from his involvement with and appearances...

I recognize him from walking down the street in Brighton, actually.
posted by K.P. at 2:13 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Plus the staff cheerfully announced before the lights dimmed that the dialogue was sometimes mixed at low volume, and that was deliberate, and that a lot of it was in rather thick accents, so if anyone had a problem with that...well, you were on your own!

This attitude makes me sad. Especially in a film that's about shifting perceptions! Why would you make the deliberate choice to make the film *less* accessible?
posted by stoneweaver at 2:56 PM on April 15


The movie's accessible just fine by way of paying attention and listening. The sound mix was part of the design every bit as much as the imagery was.
posted by Drastic at 8:14 AM on April 16


I meant accessible for people who are hard of hearing. Like me. Dialog deliberately mixed to be hard to hear? That means I can't watch this movie in the theater.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:15 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Like stoneweaver, I wait for the captioned version (DVD/streaming) so I can understand it, since no amount of "paying attention and listening" will permit me to decode quiet mumbled dialog given my hearing impairments. (Yes there are technologies for closed captioning movies in the theaters, but they're basically available only in the largest cities and one screening/weekend.)

As far as "crip drag," imagine this: male actors get Oscars for believably imitating women (inc., most recently, transwomen). White actors headline popular serials while believably playing Chinese detectives. Typical-body actors get Oscars for playing someone with cerebral palsy. Arguably the most well-known disabled person in US history is played by sighted/hearing actors. One of the weirdest "crip drag" casting stunts was in No Way Out, a Cold War spy thriller. George Dzundza is a wheelchair user who's a sys admin; the movie never bothers to explain why the chair and the viewer has more than enough to keep track of. So why didn't they hire an actor who uses a wheelchair?

Because actors with disabilities exist. As you'll learn from Teal Sherer's web series shows, the most significant barriers are the producers' attitudes of "OMG we'd have to make the set accessible!" or "Who would want to see that on the big screen."

It's been a hot issue among people with disabilities for at least the thirty years I've been in the club. The pleasure of seeing one's life reflected in visual media is difficult to describe, and may be harder to understand if you've never wanted for it.
posted by Jesse the K at 9:24 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


since no amount of "paying attention and listening" will permit me to decode quiet mumbled dialog given my hearing impairments.

Firstly, I apologize for the tone of earlier comment. (I comment too early in the morning at my peril!) I had a grumpy reaction short-circuiting to grumping about folks who might complain about foreign films not being in English or whatnot, which was unfair here.

Sloppy and unintentional sound mixes drowning out important and informational dialogue is maddening enough if one's not hearing impaired, so yep, I can only imagine how much worse it is otherwise.

But in this particular film's case, I'd say it honestly doesn't matter. The dialog is minimal, and that it's hard to get the specific details of is sort of the point--the alien character is dissociated from what she's doing. She's literally not in conversation in the way that conversations exist for humans, she's just using it the way a hunter might use a game animal call. And indeed, what sparse dialog there is takes an even steeper dive after the pivotal scene with Pearson. The information is almost purely visual; the audio component I'd say is more the score than any words spoken.
posted by Drastic at 10:18 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Glad you had a better later morning. Dialog as score sounds intriguing!
posted by Jesse the K at 3:59 PM on April 16


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