Though navigating a wheelchair may be second nature to people who use one every day, for actors playing a character in a wheelchair, it’s a skill that requires practice. As you know, actors often go to great lengths to learn about their subjects, from shadowing people in real life to undertaking the same hardships so they can have a better understanding of what their characters are going through.
In the upcoming HBO adaptation of the Larry Kramer play The Normal Heart, Julia Roberts stars as a doctor with polio who’s confined to a wheelchair, and she describes the experience as “the most actor-y I have ever been.” The Academy Award-winning actress has developed a new appreciation for the difficulties of being in a wheelchair and, in a recent interview, describes an intense series of rehearsals she underwent on her own to learn what it was like.
Of being in a wheelchair, she says, “You don’t want to be bumping into walls and door jambs and scraping your knuckles on things. I thought being in a wheelchair would be so easy and quiet, but it was actually quite tiring.”
Roberts also wore lifts in her shoes for the purpose of imitating a common polio symptom, even though it wouldn’t necessarily show on screen. “It was just for me,” she says. She also spent time studying the way a polio victim with a paralyzed lung would breathe.
The film, which was filmed around Roberts’ schedule with her children, features the actress in a somewhat small part—her character, who has polio, has become an AIDS doctor during the early battles against the disease in the 1980’s. The character is based on real-life Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who is a major campaigner for AIDS research and was one of the first campaigners for abstinence among AIDS victims to control the disease.
While it’s not the typical kind of film one expects from Roberts, director Ryan Murphy says that she brings an emotional grit similar to her role as the title character in Erin Brockovich. Roberts took a while to come around to the role, actually turning it down several times. Finally, it was after watching a documentary about polio that she came to understand the character’s inner turmoil.
Roberts says, “I suddenly understood who she was in terms of this scary, inexplicable plague—what originally seemed to be anger was actually her determined pursuit to be part of a solution that she wasn’t part of with the first plague that she experienced. Everything fell into place for me after that. I could see these are just really scared people who won’t give up on finding the answers.”
“I’ve never seen her work harder,” says Murphy. You’ll see a glimpse of Roberts’ work in the film’s trailer. What’s the most helpful tip you can give her to appear comfortable with a wheelchair?