"The acting industry must be more open to persons with disabilities"

Interview with John Patrick Garth, actor

Whether it’s the stage or a television camera – John Patrick Garth feels comfortable about slipping into the role of another person. He is an actor with all his heart and soul. Nevertheless, he is not always the first choice at auditions because as an actor living with spasticity, people often don’t have high confidence in his abilities.


Photo: John Patrick Garth; Copyright: Johannes Mairhofer

John Patrick Garth; © Johannes Mairhofer

REHACARE.com spoke with him about his path to becoming a trained actor and the different approach to his disability in Germany and the U.S.

Mr. Garth, after you graduated from school, you decided to train to become an actor. What happened when you applied?

John Patrick Garth: After passing my Abitur (German university entrance qualification), I applied at 45 acting schools in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The standard answer was always, "You are a good actor, but we are not able to train you because of your disability".

One evening, there was an Open Night at a private acting school in Munich where I was able to network. In 2001, I started my training there. Unfortunately, the school went bankrupt after three months. I tried my luck with another school and was accepted there. However, after about a year, I realized that I no longer learned anything new. I subsequently moved to the U.S. and continued my training there.

What differences have you noticed there compared to Germany?

Garth: In L.A. or rather in the U.S., basically every waiter or plumber calls themselves an actor. When you tell someone, "I am an actor", people in Germany ask, "Is that possible with your disability?". In the U.S. people generally say, "How cool, tell me more." There are very distinct notions of competition and envy in Germany. In the U.S., other actors also give you advice on where auditions are taking place. In Germany, creative work often fails in its implementation because Germans are always afraid that things might go wrong. Failure is not considered a bad thing in the U.S.

I also had to steel myself against inappropriate remarks in Germany. I was asked about my disability only twice in the U.S. – and in both cases by Germans.

You don’t believe acting and your disability contradict each other. Why is that?

Garth: I’ll give you one small example: I was in a theater at a casting for the role of Shakespeare’s Richard III. However, they said I was "too disabled to play this role". And yet the role was outlined with a physical impairment in the script. I met this requirement – especially because of my disability. A non-disabled actor needs to focus on incorporating this disability into the role on top of things. Yet here I already meet this qualification and am able to concentrate on the remaining part of the role hundred percent. That’s when I ask myself why non-disabled actors are cast for the role of a disabled person. They first need to acquire this skill and that also impacts the acting itself because it requires concentration. If we are being realistic, it is almost impossible for a non-disabled person to convincingly portray a person with Down syndrome for example.
Photo: John Patrick Garth on stage; Copyright: private

"I think it is important for an actor to look beyond his/her own nose. That’s the only way your acting becomes even richer and more diversified," says John Patrick Garth; © private

So the real problem lies with those who cast roles?

Garth: Essentially yes. Filmmakers should generally incorporate more disabled roles into screenplays without focusing on the disability. For example, a prosecuting attorney, judge or bank employee can also have a disability. But directors usually say, "We need to explain this to the viewers." Yet I don’t think that’s true! The viewers are often being underestimated. The acting industry must be more open and actively look for persons with disabilities or at least give them a realistic chance during castings – for any type of role, regardless of whether it involves a disability or not.

Did you ever have doubts about your chosen path during the course of your career?

Garth: If you get rejected in 45 auditions, you of course occasionally question whether you have chosen the right career path. You wonder whether the others, the skeptics maybe had a point after all. Even though it’s not easy being an actor with a disability, I still advise those who truly live for this craft to try it.

What would be your absolute dream role and why?

Garth: Actually, I don’t have any particular notions in that regard. I just want to play roles and characters that are rough around the edges. That’s what’s important to me. I want to develop the character. Yet regardless which role this would be, my disability simply is another facet and aspect of the character. No more and no less.
More about John Patrick Garth (only in German) at: www.jpgarth.de
Foto: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Fromman

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)