Comedian and writer Spike Breakwell, who uses an electric wheelchair, talks to Disability Horizons about his chance to jet off from the comedy stages in Luton to appear in a Hollwood film named Bad Reception.
Sitting in the crew van as it battled the early morning traffic of West Hollywood, I tried to work out how this turn of events had come about. I was then a 38-year-old reasonably successful stand-up comedian (oh, okay, a ‘sit-down comedian’, I use an electric wheelchair) from Luton, in the UK. I’d met Mark Todd, the director, on a previous film project ages ago, which I’d written before it had gone belly up and we had had to return the £2.8 million budget.
That had hurt and we had despondently agreed that whichever one of us got the chance to make another movie next, the other would help with the financing. Mark had moved to LA in the intervening years and when he called with the news, I got my cheque book out immediately. As it transpired, Mark had forgotten the agreement. But no matter, I was in LA making a movie!
Turning off the road onto the set, I asked Theo Caeser, another producer, not to tell anyone I was anything other than another actor. I didn’t want any special treatment. He can’t have heard me as some minutes later he announced my arrival in between takes with the words: “People, this is Spike, the money.”
We were a couple of days from shooting my scenes still, but it wasn’t long before I found myself being sought out by cast members eager to get advice on how I thought certain things should be delivered on screen. I was nervous about treading on the toes of our director, this role being far more within his realm than mine. But after he assured me this was a good idea, I was soon holding court on all-things-performance in a little nook between the food tables, the make-up and costume van.
On the eve of my Hollywood acting debut, I was sitting in a bar opposite my Burbank hotel with the script learning my lines. Film acting is different to theatre acting in as far as the latter requires acting with the whole body whereas the former tends to favour acting from the neck up (unless you’re Bruce Willis in Die Hard, it’s Christmas Eve and it’s all starting to kick off big styleeee!).
The character I play in the film, Ziggy Fontaine, is disabled and, I suspect, based on me. He’s described in the script as the “Stephen Hawking of Hollywood!”. I couldn’t foresee any major problems with this, but I was still quite nervous. My brother Iain rang to wish me luck and remind me of some advice from Michael Caine: “Just hit your marks, say your lines and for God’s sake look convincing!”
At 6am the next morning (a time unheard of for a comic unless the duvet’s on fire) I, together with my Aussie helper Johnno Taylor, was waiting in the hotel car-park to be collected by the van to be taken to the set. This was it.
It turned out nobody on the production realised quite how heavy my electric wheelchair was as my scenes were to be filmed on the first floor of a recording studio. They realised its weight as they were carrying it up the stairs while I, ensconced on a sofa upstairs, offered words of support: “Don’t worry lads, it’ll be lighter when you put it down up here at the top,” I joked.
“Oh Jeez mate, don’t make me laugh! I’ll drop the bloody thing,” a grinning Johnno replied while appearing to have both a heart attack and a rectal prolapse at once. Who says men can’t multi-task?
Two hours later and my five minutes of screen time were ‘in the can’, or rather ‘on the computer’. You can judge how I did for yourself by watching the movie, but personally I’m rather proud of my small dip in the showbiz ocean of Hollywood. It’s a world far removed from Luton or stand-up comedy. It’s a world far removed from everywhere and everything, in fact.
But it is, as I hope I’ve proved, penetrable. I didn’t find being a wheelchair user a barrier. The only barrier in Hollywood is, possibly, some preconceptions of disability within the minds of certain casting agents which, hopefully, will be countered by my appearance in this movie.
As for the future, I have co-written, with fellow screenwriter Lucy Soper, another movie, The Pommie, which is due to enter production soon, in Melbourne, Australia. I still do the odd stand-up show in the UK and abroad and am writing a book of comedic supernatural short stories.
My advice for any aspiring performers is… have a go. You might find you’re rather good at it.
You can buy Bad Reception on DVD at Guvnor Films website.
By Spike Breakwell
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