When casting See, Apple and showrunners Steven Knight, Dan Shotz, Jon Steinberg, and Francis Lawrence aimed to involve individuals who are blind and low vision as much as possible. Accordingly, the first two actors cast on the series, a sci-fi epic set in a world in which all of humanity is blind, were Marilee Talkington and Bree Klauser — both of whom are blind and have ample credits to their names.
However, besides Klauser and Talkington, there aren’t many other blind or low vision actors who have adequate experience on large-scale projects like See. So, to further cast the series as authentically as possible, its casting process took on an unprecedented form.
First, creators of the series utilized community outreach to recruit background and stunt actors who were blind or low vision. Once auditions began, See’s casting team coached and provided feedback to less-experienced actors who are blind and low vision to help them land a role on the series or on another program in the future.
Apple’s legacy in accessible tech
Such inclusive behavior isn’t a big surprise coming from Apple, which has a longstanding reputation for leading the charge in digital accessibility for individuals with disabilities, and specifically users who are blind and low vision.
In fact, Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s director of Global Accessibility & Policy Initiatives, sits on the board of the American Foundation for the Blind. In a 2016 interview with Mashable, Herrlinger discussed Apple’s “never-ending” approach to make sure that its products are universally accessible “to everyone.”
When engineering specialized accessible features and content, Apple’s efforts have centered on consulting and working with individuals with disabilities. For instance, executive director Eric Bridges of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) told Mashable in a recent call that Apple worked with the organization to create the blind person holding a cane and guide dog emoji.
In June 2019, Apple released iOS 13, a software update that features Voice Control and VoiceOver — comprehensive accessibility features that revolutionized the ways in which individuals with disabilities can use their iPhones and other Apple products.
Journalist Steve Aquino, who “uses assistive technology to access their Apple devices,” praised the update in TechCrunch, writing, “Apple continues to lead the industry at making accessibility a first-class citizen.” More recently, Sina Barham, who is blind and serves as the president of an accessibility consulting firm, affirmed that “Apple’s efforts on iOS far exceed Android’s progress on accessibility,” according to Slate.
Apple is also unmatched with regard to the audio descriptions included on Apple TV+ content and original programming: Viewers can watch shows with audio descriptions in multiple languages regardless of their location.
Applying Apple’s ethos to See
Similarly, when launching See, Knight, Shotz, and Lawrence made sure to heavily consult with individuals who are blind and low vision throughout the entire production process to ensure respectful portrayals of blindness and disability.
“Every actor we brought on who was blind or low vision… provided comments on aspects of the world (of See),” Joe Strechay, the series’ official blindness consultant, told Mashable over the phone. Strechay’s has been in the entertainment press, and the consultant also on Netflix’s Daredevil.
Strechay also shared that Knight and Lawrence began getting input from folks who are blind and low vision on See’s concept and initial scripts in March 2018. Between those first consultations and the start of filming in September of that year, Strechay, who is blind, reviewed scripts and provided countless suggestions on the series’ portrayal of blindness. Apple “set a standard around respect,” he said.
Hollywood’s history of discrimination
Tasked to train See’s sighted cast members playing characters who are blind, Strechay began the blindness training on set with lessons on education and awareness to address misconceptions about blindness. In particular, Strechay stressed that “there are a lot of comical portrayals of blindness” onscreen. See, he reaffirmed, “is not one of them.”
The casting of sighted actors to play blind characters is a discriminatory trend that the blind and low vision community is all too familiar with.
Despite the current discourse surrounding authentic and , portrayals of blindness in which the punchline is that a blind person cannot see have persisted. In 2016, Adam Scott played a blind lead alongside Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in the comedy My Blind Brother, wherein the love triangle between Kroll, Slate, and Scott’s character relies on the fact that Kroll and Slate’s characters can have sex without Scott’s character ever catching them in the act. Similarly, in Deadpool (2016) and Deadpool 2 (2018), Leslie Uggams played Blind Al alongside Ryan Reynolds. Neither Scott nor Uggams are blind or low vision.
The casting of sighted actors to play blind characters is a discriminatory trend that the blind and low vision community is all too familiar with. An of See’s pilot from Chris Danielsen, public relations director of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), contextualizes See as coming “at a time when blind people are always wary of how (they) are portrayed in the mass media, based on decades of past bad experiences.”
Danielsen explained to Mashable that “there has been little or no effort in the entertainment industry to cultivate blind talent.” A guild for blind and low vision actors still doesn’t exist, and such performers struggle to land roles as extras on screen, or “don’t make it past the initial audition,” said Bridges in a separate conversation.
See as a “starting point”
See isn’t perfect: The series stars Jason Momoa, Alfre Woodard, Hera Hilmar, and Sylvia Hoeks, none of whom are blind or low vision. Its casting practices (with regard to lead actors) don’t appear to be any different than that of My Blind Brother and Deadpool.
Moreover, in its , the NFB raised specific questions about the inclusion of sighted characters in the series “whom some of the blind characters seem to view with reverence.” In a phone call with Mashable, Danielsen elaborated that the NFB wondered why sighted characters were used as a source of salvation: “Why are we not just seeing a society run by blind people and seeing how that plays out?”
Chiefly, Danielsen stated that the NFB’s concern is that they are “not seeing authentic representation to the extent that (they) would like” because “it’s not apparent… that any of the blind cast have a role that is significant in more than a few episodes.”
Talkington and Klauser both play members of the Alkenny tribe alongside Momoa and Woodard. Talkington’s Souter Bax is a multidimensional but minor character who opposes the Alkenny tribe leadership. Klauser plays a recurring character named Matal, a female warrior whose abilities to sense energies are shown to be valuable to the survival of the Alkenny. In addition, Jessica Harper, an actor who is low vision, plays Cora, a slave of one of the tribes in the world of See. Cora appears in the final three episodes of the first season.
In an interview with , Klauser applauded See’s creators for being “open-minded” when she suggested that the set up of a particular scene didn’t ring true to her lived experience as an individual who is legally blind, and shared that she was glad to have had the opportunity to “accurately represent (her) community.” Similarly, Talkington that she was “proud” to make history by “authentically representing” on the series.
Notably, however, neither Talkington or Klauser are top-billed cast members. After being heavily featured on See’s first four episodes, Talkington’s presence on the series has waned significantly. Because Talkington is the most prominent cast member who is blind, her apparent absence from the rest of the series seems disappointing with regard to the burgeoning representation of the blind and low vision communities on See. Strechay told Mashable that Talkington’s brief timeline on the series’ first season was “just how it was written,” and a merely result of See’s storyline.
Still, Apple and See showrunners are using the series as a catalyst for change. Despite — and as a result of — See’s efforts, Bridges said the series is “a starting point.”
“It’s taking Apple stepping in as a new force within entertainment to really have the first go at this problem… they’re putting their best foot forward,” he said.
Similarly, Strechay clarified that authentic representation of individuals who are blind and low vision on screen is “a continuing process.” “We’re nowhere near perfect,” he said, and reassured Mashable that the series will continue adding cast members who are blind and low vision for its second season.
Strechay explained that although an A-list names like Momoa and Woodard don’t currently exist in the blind and low vision community, See is working to identify and support the blind and low vision actors on set so they can be “fantastic actors down the line.” See’s background cast also included individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, individuals of short stature, individuals who utilize prosthetic limbs, and an actor with cerebral palsy.
Speaking with Mashable, Tatiana Lee, a Hollywood inclusionist at , echoed Strechay’s sentiment and praised See for casting blind and low vision actors and actors with disabilities so they can eventually land “a lead role in something else.” Bridges hoped that the series will “find more qualified blind actors” and that there will be “ever increasing levels of disability on the show” in future seasons.
As See attempts to remedy a complex issue after a decades of discrimination in Hollywood, reservations coexist with optimism for the future. “See has already cast more blind actors than any other film or TV show that we know of. So, progress, while perhaps incremental, has been made,” wrote Danielsen. The series , which grants showrunners a vital opportunity to cast individuals who are blind and low vision in upcoming lead roles while continuing to cast individuals with disabilities in future episodes.
In any event, the progress made by See’s second season will undoubtedly be compared to the strides made by its first. Hopefully, the expectation of such an assessment is motivation enough for showrunners to continue making change in Hollywood.
See is available for streaming on Apple TV+.