The first time we meet Louie King, a character in the new Apple TV Plus show Little Voice, he's on a mission to Broadway.
He has flouted curfew by sneaking out of his group home to get an autograph from a specific member of the Phantom of the Opera cast. But instead of the star, Louie excitedly waits for a lowly member of the ensemble.
"She just left Aladdin after being a standby for three years, two months and three days," Louie says breathlessly to his sister Bess, his eyes locked on the stage door. "If I'm lucky," he adds, "I may get her autograph."
That's the nature of Louie's Broadway obsession -- his head filled with endless stats and dizzyingly obscure details. The role is tailor made for Kevin Valdez. The 21-year-old actor isn't obsessed with Broadway, but he and Louie are both on the autism spectrum. In the case of Valdez, he was diagnosed at 22 months, which allowed him to get into applied behavior analysis therapy at a younger age than most. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the response to treatment.
"He's really similar to me," Valdez says. "It's almost like this role was made with me in mind."
Valdez -- and Louie, for that matter -- are rare. There aren't that many characters with autism on TV, especially ones played by neurodiverse actors like Valdez. (One notable actor with autism is comedy legend Dan Aykroyd. He has Asperger's Syndrome, which is at the high-functioning end of the spectrum.) In fact, about 81% of adults with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences don't have a paid job at all, according to the National Core Indicators study published in 2018.
This week, Valdez is making his own professional acting debut in one of Apple's first original productions, Little Voice. The show focuses on a 20-something musician in New York, trying to figure out where she belongs. There are complicated love interests, an alcoholic musician father and a friend coming to grips with her own identity. At the center is Bess, a singer-songwriter who's juggling her fledgling music career with odd jobs and taking care of her friends and family -- including her beloved brother, Louie. Though younger, it's often Bess (played by Star's Brittany O'Grady) swooping in to save the day.
The show became available Friday, and a new episode will debut every Friday thereafter until all nine are live. Little Voice features music by Grammy and Tony Award nominee Sara Bareilles and was co-created by Jessie Nelson, the writer and director behind films such as Corrina Corrina and I Am Sam. The two women previously collaborated on hit Broadway show Waitress. J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot company produced Little Voice.
The New York Times called Little Voice "a twee musical fairy tale," while Rolling Stone dubbed it "charming" and said it "feels like a love letter to a seemingly ancient New York where live music is everywhere." But it's not all sunshine and rainbows for Bess and the other characters in Little Voice.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Minnesotan George Floyd, issues of racial and gender diversity have been cast into the light. But people with disabilities are also battling for representation, rallying for corporations and the public to respect their needs. At the same time, the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges for people with disabilities, who are trying to ensure they're not left behind as society adapts to a new normal.
About one out of every 54 eight-year-olds in the US is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from March, and there are about 6.5 million people in the US with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences. Globally, autism affects about 74 million people, or 1% of the world's population, the CDC said. ASD is manifested in a variety of ways, but many people on the spectrum have trouble communicating with others and understanding emotions.
In the past, the portrayal of people with autism in film and TV often focused on people with severe communication problems or autistic savants like Dustin Hoffman's character in 1988's Rain Man. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Hoffman nabbed the Best Actor award. Other neurodiverse roles in film and TV have been played by non-autistic actors. I Am Sam, a 2001 movie written and directed by Little Voice co-creator Nelson, featured Sean Penn as the title character. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role as a man with an intellectual disability who is trying to regain custody of his daughter, played by Dakota Fanning.
"At the time I made that movie, I was not allowed to cast an actor with a disability in the lead," says Nelson, Little Voice's lead writer, director and executive producer. "I could barely get the movie made. It took me years and years and years to convince people that this was a story worth telling."
That's changing, albeit gradually. In the 2019 to 2020 broadcast TV season, the number of series regular characters with a disability increased slightly to 3.1% from 2.1% in the previous season, according to a study by GLAAD. The percentage "falls monumentally short of reality," the advocacy group said in November, but it's still an all-time high.
Cable and streaming services fared slightly better, and GLAAD specifically tallied characters on those platforms who are both disabled and LGBTQ. Its survey didn't include characters on Apple TV Plus, which launched the same month GLAAD published its results. Apple's service has a show, See, that features a large cast of actors who are blind or low vision.
"I was so pleased with how far we've come that Apple was so supportive of finding an autistic actor to play this role," Nelson says. "This is a very different moment in history."
Increasingly, autistic actors are playing characters on the autism spectrum. And those characters are moving beyond the male autistic savant stereotype, says Arianna Esposito, director of lifespan services at Autism Speaks. In a previous role as adjunct professor for Saint Joseph's University in the Autism Behavioral Studies program, one topic covered in Esposito's class was autism in the media. Autism on television is starting to better reflect reality: a spectrum of different abilities and characteristics.
Having a person with autism playing a role like Louie "really brings an authenticity to the character," Esposito says. "It feels true, and it feels accurate. ... There's that shared experience between the role and the person the autistic actor is playing."
Little Voice isn't the only show to feature autistic characters played by actors on the autism spectrum. Everything's Gonna Be Okay, a Freeform show that debuted in January, revolves around a gay Australian man in his 20s who becomes guardian of his two teenage half sisters. One of those sisters, Matilda, is on the autism spectrum and is played by Kayla Cromer, who is also on the spectrum. Other shows feature portrayals of autism but don't necessarily use autistic actors, like ABC's The Good Doctor or the BBC's The A Word. Disney's Pixar has released a couple of short films with autistic characters, and even Sesame Street has an autistic Muppet, named Julia.
Nanette, a Netflix special from autistic Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, became a sensation when it debuted in 2018. It ended up winning a Peabody Award, and Gadsby's followup from this spring, Douglas, delves into her experience with autism. "Gadsby's relatively recent autism diagnosis is the core of the show, and if Douglas has an agenda, it's to show that neurodiversity is part of the normal spectrum of life," CNET sister publication TV Guide wrote in May.
Louie's three roommates in the Little Voice are also neurodiverse, with some having autism both in real life and onscreen. They provide comic relief, something the New York Times criticized. But for Nelson and the other Little Voice showrunners, Louie's roommates play an important role in the cast. And there still are few actors on the autism spectrum who are playing non-autistic roles.
"I can't say enough about this community," Nelson says. "I would love to work with them in every project I do."
When Nelson was two years old, her mother died. Her father, trying to cope with life as a single parent, sought out a preschool that would take her at such a young age. Where they lived in Los Angeles, there were two. One, for so-called "normal" children, was full. The other, a preschool with children on the autism spectrum, had a place free. The plan was for Nelson to start at the second preschool and move to the "normal" one later.
"So I was in this preschool with all children on the spectrum or different disabilities," Nelson says. "And those became my people." When a spot opened up at the other preschool, she remained where she was.
"That was very early imprinting for me," Nelson says. "As an adult I returned to my love of that community and how grateful I was that they took me in in a challenging time in my life."
Early on in developing Little Voice, Nelson and Bareilles knew they wanted Louie to be on the autism spectrum. They just didn't know how it should manifest. "We were going, 'who's Louie? Who's Louie?'" Nelson remembers.
They found the answer during intermission at the Broadway production of Angels In America, when a young man in the row in front of them excitedly said he'd seen Rent 235 times. "It was like, there he was," says Nelson. "There was Louie."
In the show, Bess is trying to get over her insecurities and discover where she fits in the music world. At the same time, Louie is transitioning to adulthood -- living without his sister for the first time, dealing with roommates and finding a job.
"There are about half a million individuals in the US alone who are transitioning to adulthood who are on the spectrum right now," says Kristyn Roth, chief marketing officer at the Autism Society of America. "They're going through all of the challenges of navigating adulthood that anyone would go through with the added challenge of being autistic and having some perceived stereotypes held against them at the get-go."
A couple of those stereotypes are lack of a filter and outbursts. That has made some employers -- including production companies -- nervous about working with people who are on the autism spectrum.
"People sometimes hesitate to cast uniquely able actors or actors on the spectrum, thinking it will slow the process down," Nelson says. "It's actually the opposite. Their work is brilliant, and they bring out the best in everybody that encounters them."
But one thing was a challenge -- finding the right actor for the role of Louie, a character with a prominent position in the show.
From NASCAR to NYC
Valdez originally wanted to be a NASCAR driver but shifted his focus to acting after discovering how expensive race car driving can be. After appearing in local performances, he turned to the Futures Explored film and media workshop to hone his skills. The vocational program -- sponsored by John Travolta's brother Joey-- helps those with developmental disabilities learn film production, multimedia development and acting skills for potential jobs in the film and media industry.
Little Voice's production team contacted Futures Explored during its efforts to cast Louie. The showrunners were struggling. Apple pushed back the start date for Little Voice to give them more time. Then Futures Explored recommended Valdez audition.
"We'd seen hundreds of gentlemen before we met Kevin," Nelson says. "We saw his audition and were just floored by it."
After Valdez's initial Skype audition, he flew to New York for an in-person meeting in July 2019. He "nailed it," Nelson says. Production quickly started the following month and stretched into November.
On set were psychologists, social workers, a consultant who creates theater with the disabled community and another who specializes in adjustments to group homes. The aim was to make the set as calm and relaxed as possible.
"Everybody who worked with me did their homework," Valdez says. "Whenever changes came by, they knew to inform me first so I got all of the information."
A big concern for Valdez was how he'd handle dialogue-heavy scenes. But he didn't have problems and had "amazing" technique, Nelson says.
"Should we get a second season, I can't wait for Kevin's character to evolve," she says. "It's an easy character to continue to write stories for."
Some of those stories may not be fairy tales. But they will be real.
"Autism in the media has provided a big influence on ... spreading awareness and making it more mainstream to the public," Valdez says. "Those that aren't familiar with autism -- or those just getting started learning more -- will hopefully get a better understanding of what it's like and how a small face in a crowd can end up becoming a big talking point in a matter of moments. And those with autism can relate a lot of what Louie does because of how realistic they had me portray him."