In “A Different Man,” Sebastian Stan has had hours of prosthetics and make-up applied for his role as a man with neurofibromatosis — a genetic condition that causes tumours to develop along the nerves.
One news website exclaimed, “Sebastian Stan is unrecognisable in horrifying prosthetics.”
The blame lies with Sebastian Stan for his choices. But our culture also has a broader problem of accountability and ableism.
Who on earth greenlit this film? Who chose to “transform” him? To take on someone else’s identity. To, essentially, cosplay disability.
The film follows Edward, an outcast seeking a new life and a fresh start. However, after he undergoes facial reconstructive surgery, he becomes fixated on a man playing him in a stage production of his previous life. It’s a cynical money-grabbing exercise – and we’re the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.
It’s also a psychological thriller. What happens to the disabled person? We don’t know.
The film industry has again chosen to package and commercialise our trauma and perceived deficiencies, defects and shortcomings. Why else would they use an actual disabled person as a “before” image as a prop? Some warped, sickening notion of a makeover montage?
Imagine sitting in a chair for an extended period, watching your face slowly transform under layers and layers of make-up and prosthetics and not feeling a twinge of concern about the gravity of your choice. It’s prolonged and purposeful ableism masquerading as art.
After all, how is this helping anyone? What does it say about our culture that we’re still so unwilling to hold him to account?
He shouldn’t have accepted the role: the prosthetics, the hours of preparation, and his position as executive producer should have made him reconsider.
But can he or anyone around him claim the defence of privileged ignorance?
People with facial differences have had a long history of being misrepresented and dehumanised in film. From The Elephant Man to Bond villains, there’s a long line of non-disabled actors slipping on a costume to portray disabled people as evil.
Another important question is why didn’t the role gone to someone with neurofibromatosis or facial difference? This is another case, and history is littered with them, of disabled actors, artists and creatives being let down by an industry which doesn’t value them – doesn’t value the nuance, lived experience and skill they can bring to a role.
Allowing Stan to crip up to play a person with neurofibromatosis in A Different Man is a casting decision that’s undoubtedly steeped in ableism. Worse still, there has been a complete failure to acknowledge that Stan has even offended — from both his fans and many others online.
Instead, any notion of accountability is swiftly met with a torrent of ableist abuse largely aimed at disabled people by non-disabled people.
It’s also been repeatedly pointed out that Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, is in a prominent supporting role. Pearson has also been advising on the role and film, so its baffling how this was allowed to happen.
It’s unclear why Pearson couldn’t have been offered the central character and another disabled actor cast in his place. Pearson himself has defended the casting of Stan, which has meant his name has been thrown at those criticising the film.
Pearson should know better. We’re not tearing down a disabled person – or screwing him over. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the struggle – the blood, sweat and tears that have been shed for progress.
We’re told by non-disabled people that we should pity him, not contradict him. But why? He is a grown man—a disabled man who made a self-serving business decision and offered himself as a human shield.
He has packaged and commercialised his identity – and ours. How can he rationalise it?
He has condoned this project and a friendship with a non-disabled person, especially one with Sebastian Stan’s power. But it’s not a friendship when you can’t, or won’t, call out their wrong behavior — It’s a self-serving business arrangement. You cannot pass it off as a charitable act for the greater good when it leaves the work of generations of disabled people in tatters.
Ultimately, the question has to be to Pearson, what were you thinking?
It seems obvious that he has been used as a cynical human Get Out of Jail Free card against accusations of ableism. He, a disabled man, chose to appear in the film so why do you disabled people have a problem with it?
But as a justification, it’s irrelevant. A non-disabled actor should never play a disabled character.
Stan’s privilege is that he can add to our daily burdens and emerge unscathed. He might even be praised for his performance – his nobleness, sentiment, compassion, and humanity.
Is Stan even aware of his online fan cleansing? He has a responsibility to be. He is the figurehead, the reason for a concentrated hate campaign. So why hasn’t he intervened? “Don’t abuse people in my name” isn’t a radical statement or request.
Other disabled people have spoken privately about how they fear articulating their concerns publicly because they will face repercussions. They will be “piled on” by Stan’s fans willing to protect his reputation at all costs, unwilling to accept that he is fallible. The people who have spoken out on Twitter have experienced verbal abuse and acts of harassment.
Other celebrities have corrected ableism in their work in recent months – take for example the abuse Beyoncé and Lizzo received for including ableist lyrics in their songs. The difference here is they acknowledged their wrongdoing and made a change
And while many will argue that fixing a song is a quicker and easier process than recasting a film, the point again stands that the decision shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
But Stan, a male actor, isn’t held to the same standard.
Sebastian Stan isn’t the only one to blame for this, but it will be his name on the posters. These are the consequences of his actions. His name will be continuously typed out on Twitter and defended alongside words of vicious ableism.
He will be added to a list of actors who cosplayed and misrepresented disability in film and let others cope with the consequences.
Stan shouldn’t have accepted the role: but arguably, a film this ableist shouldn’t even be made.
This situation is more significant than Sebastian Stan. This isn’t a one-man issue, it’s an industry issue. Power over narratives like these comes from the writers’ room and structural change, such as writing workshops, diverse casting calls, and funding for educational spaces and it’s why we need disabled people in these rooms and taken seriously instead of used as a token to justify ableist choices.
But that structural change is only possible when disabled writers and actors alike are in the room – front and centre – for the right reasons. Let’s be clear: no one is involved in this project for the right reasons and it should never see the light of day.
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