From Rain Man to Forrest Gump, it's always stars who play characters with disabilities. But director Alison
Peebles has found a huge new talent in Paula Sage, who has Down's syndrome
Sunday October 26, 2003
Why do disabled actors rarely get to play themselves on screen? Are we so shallow that we want to leave the
cinema comforted not challenged? Films where Hollywood actors play a character with a disability can so easily
become a vehicle for us to feel good about ourselves. 'Didn't he play that well?' we gush. 'He was so real.'
Even the best independent films - Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Daniel Craig in Some Voices - can feel
like an actor's masterclass.
Which is why Scottish director Alison Peebles's new film, AfterLife, is so groundbreaking. The antithesis of
films that hijack disability as a clever plot mechanism or a bid for pathos, it puts a young woman with Down's
syndrome centre stage. More radical still, the character is played by an actress with Down's.
AfterLife, which has its London Film Festival premiere on Friday, was shot in five weeks on a budget of
£200,000. Everyone, including the leads Kevin McKidd, Lindsay Duncan and Shirley Henderson, worked on reduced
fees. Peebles says: 'The cast and crew all had a personal association with Down's or special needs, or some
sort of sensitivity towards it. I think it touched a lot of people.'
The film follows an ambitious journalist (McKidd) who learns that his mother (Duncan) is dying, leaving him to
assume responsibility for his disabled sister Roberta (newcomer Paula Sage). A touching relationship develops
between the siblings, forcing McKidd to re-evaluate his priorities.
In a week that has seen controversy over mass NHS testing for Down's syndrome, it is heartening to find a
movie that celebrates being 'differently abled'. According to Peebles: 'The script is about the journey of the
character of Roberta who has Down's syndrome. She has been brought up in a protected, dependent way - and that
can happen to a lot of children, whether they have Down's or not. Because of that, she isn't realising her
full potential. But through her relationship with her brother, she discovers that she's feisty and she has a
AfterLife feels authentic, no doubt because Andrea Gibb's script was inspired by her own sister, Sharon, who
has Down's. 'It's quite a personal story,' Gibb says. 'Although my family situation is different from the
film, I wanted to celebrate my sister and my mum's relationship with her. Sharon is 34 now and I wanted to
write something that shows she's a creative individual and not just defined by her disability.' Sharon
contributed to the project by creating Roberta's paintings for the film.
The director was adamant an actress with Down's should play the part of Roberta. 'Her character is central to
the plot; she is not just a cipher or a cute little person who enables the hero to shine. She has a voice of
her own; she drives the story.'
Peebles is a former actress (best known for her TV role in Psychos) and an acclaimed theatre director. She set
up V.amp Productions and this year Shining Souls for Tron Theatre earned her a Scottish Critics Award. Little
wonder she coaxes great performances from her actors. The bond between siblings McKidd and Sage is believable,
while Duncan is a revelation as a gritty working-class mother.
But the most remarkable thing about the film is the purity of Sage's performance. 'Paula was fantastic,' says
Gibb. 'I had to rewrite lines only twice, and that was because I'd chosen words that actually she wouldn't
have said. She was making choices all the time. There are great moments when Alison's camera is on her face,
and someone says something offscreen, and she just smiles, because she's completely taking in what it means
for her character. Once I was doing her lines with her and I said: "You won't really need to know that,
that's someone else", and she said: "No, I will need to know that, that's my cue." And she was
Kevin McKidd had a personal reason for joining the project. His mother is administrator of a theatre company
for people with Down's syndrome and other disabilities in his home town of Elgin (McKidd is patron of the
company, Out of The Darkness). But suddenly he was offered the lead in Zeffirelli's Absolutely! (perhaps) in
the West End. Faced with a real dilemma, McKidd went out to drown his sorrows with Peebles and Gibb. 'But when
I woke up the next morning, there was absolutely no doubt. I knew I had to do AfterLife.
'I learnt a lot about real acting from Paula. She's not thinking ahead to the next scene, she takes each beat
of the film on its own. She didn't confuse herself with all that rubbish that actors can get caught up in. She
plays a sensitive, quiet girl who goes out into the big bad world with her brother. And Paula mapped out that
journey brilliantly, even though the film wasn't shot chronologically. Her gift meant that she often kept
little things back for the next take.'
AfterLife has been compared to Rain Man, but Gibb dismisses this as 'sloppy'. She says: 'The only comparison
is our film features a disabled character and they go on a journey. The difference is we are physically
presenting a person with that "disability" on the screen. It's not cosy. The actor can't come out of
role at the end of it and go off to the Baftas in a dinner suit and be completely independent. We're doing
something very different.' In fact, when the film was initially shortlisted for funding, one executive asked:
'Don't you think it would be better to make Roberta autistic?' The implication was this would be more
camera-friendly, or Peebles would then have to bring in an established actor to play the part.
There are significant differences between Paula Sage and her character. While Roberta is often confused by her
dealings with the outside world, Paula has achieved an impressive degree of independence and attends college.
Nobody knew how she would handle the nine-to-five demands of filming, but she proved a natural.
According to Gibb: 'She was completely acting and adopting a character; she wasn't just "being".'
Neither was Sage overawed by her co-stars. 'We were driving through the countryside,' recalls Duncan. 'It was
a lovely spring day, all the lambs were bouncing around, and I was doing that irritating thing of going,
"Oooh, look at the lambs, aren't they gorgeous?" And Paula just glanced at me and said, "Pull
yourself together!", which I thought was brilliant.'
To cast Roberta, Peebles and her producer, Catherine Aitken, visited special-needs groups throughout Scotland.
'Paula just shone out,' Aitken says. 'She had never acted before, although she belonged to a group that did
drama and music in a very loose way. But she was so good with her lines and interacting with the other actors.
Nothing fazed her.' Once on set, Peebles worked on motivation. 'There was one scene in which we needed her to
be upset. I asked her to think of something that would make her cry. She said, "I'll just think about
Maurice then" because Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees had died and she just adored him. And the great thing
is that process is no different from any other actor.'
Sage, 23, has won rave reviews for her performance. Sean Connery welcomed her to the Edinburgh Festival (where
the film won the Audience Award in August). And soon she will be whisked off to promote the film in LA. 'She
is an instinctive, natural actress who can really go for it,' Peebles says. 'Paula is a real talent and very
bright. I can see her doing a lot of different roles on television, and they don't have to be someone with
Down's syndrome. I mean, she could be in EastEnders as a character. I'm having lots of meetings with
producers, and I've told all of them that she's a real actress.'
McKidd is also convinced Sage can make it, but says: 'She hasn't got an agent yet, and my concern is that
there are few scripts around that are like this one. In casting terms, she will play someone with Down's all
her life, and my worry is that she's not just playing someone with a disability at the back of the shot to
pull all the heartstrings. I've told her parents that they should send any scripts to us to vet. Jesus, it
would be great if a soap like EastEnders or Coronation Street really wanted to go for it, but soap plotlines
can be unreliable - sometimes the character disappears or something ridiculous happens. And the next thing
Paula does should be chosen very carefully.'
Although AfterLife celebrates being 'differently abled', Gibb is aware of the challenges that having a Down's
child can place on a family (she finally decided to write the script when she read about a couple in their
seventies who killed their son because they were terrified he would be abandoned after they died). Gibb was 12
when her own sister was diagnosed. 'My brother and I watched my parents walk out of the hospital as completely
different people. There was something about their body language that had completely altered. In the 1970s,
when my sister was born, there was a coded, veiled thing - "You don't have to... we can make
arrangements". Times have changed so radically that I don't think that would be an an issue now. But
certainly, as a woman of her generation, my mum threw herself into 24-hour care. And there wasn't necessarily
the opportunity for my sister to go to clubs and workshops at that time, whereas now it's very different.'
I meet Sage at her parents' home in Cumbernauld in central Scotland. Like any twentysomething, she is
fascinated by men, music and clothes - just occasionally there is a delay in the conversation while she takes
in my questions. I ask her about playing Roberta. 'She's a bit different from me. She takes tea, not coffee.
I'm more independent than her, although she's a lot better at art than I am.' Was she intimidated by
auditioning for the film? 'It was like Pop Idol. It came down to two of us in the end, but I won. I was Will
Young!' In fact, Sage appears to take everything in her stride, even the trip to America, which is being
sponsored by the Glasgow Herald. 'No problem there,' laughs Duncan. 'She will have a ball. She'll be queen of
the chat show.'
One of the best things about AfterLife is that Roberta is portrayed as an individual: sometimes the camera
makes her look beautiful, at other times she looks angry, plain - just like everyone else. In the most moving
scene of the film, she sees photographs of herself for the first time and declares: 'I don't like my face.' I
suspect every woman can relate to that moment, but did Gibb feel uneasy having a Down's actress say the words?
'That's a very interesting one,' the writer acknowledges. 'I feel that, providing you are coming from an
honest place about material, and you have a knowledge that perhaps other people don't have, then you are in
the best place to explore it in a much more complex way than being purely PC. I think there are things that
should be said about disability that aren't a shocking thing to say, providing they're coming from an informed
place, because then you can always redress the balance. I think it's interesting to have a character that
speaks the unspeakable, so another character can offer the counter view.'
Gibb is tipped as a screenwriter to watch - her next film, Dear Frankie, stars Emily Mortimer. Meanwhile, she
is adapting Louise Welch's cult thriller The Cutting Room, with Robert Carlyle in the lead. But AfterLife
holds a special place in her heart. I ask if her sister has seen the film. 'Not yet. I kind of wanted to
introduce it to my family gently. I didn't know how my sister was going to take it, seeing a presentation of
Down's on the screen. So I sat with my mum and my sister and we fast-forwarded through the rough-cuts. They
were really funny. My mum kept reassuring my sister, "That's not you." But my sister was really
sorted. "It's just a film," she kept saying. "I know it's just a film."'
AfterLife is screened on 31 October, 6.30pm, Odeon, Leicester Square, and 2 November, 6.30pm, Ritzy, Brixton.
Tickets: 0207 928 3232 or from Lff.org.uk