Down syndrome actor in My Feral Heart is brilliant, says director Jane Gull

Steven Brandon stars in My Feral Heart.
Steven Brandon stars in My Feral Heart.PHOTO: SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY

Steven Brandon, who has the condition, was picked by director Jane Gull to star in My Feral Heart as he is a brilliant actor

Movies featuring characters with an intellectual disability have one thing in common: The disabled characters are almost never played by an actor with a disability.

The irony is that playing such roles often leads to acting awards because the parts are considered tough to pull off - think of the accolades showered on Leonardo DiCaprio after he played Arnie Grape in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993).

For British director Jane Gull, when she was looking for someone to play Luke, the character at the centre of her film My Feral Heart (NC16, 83 minutes), her mind was made up.

"The script had a character who had Down syndrome so, for me, there was no question about the part being played by someone without Down syndrome. That was important," she tells The Straits Times on the telephone from London, where she is based.

She met Steven Brandon, who has Down syndrome, while out casting for actors to fill the roles of occupants in a care home.

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Brandon is an actor in the Essex- based Mushroom Theatre Company, a group that integrates able- bodied with disabled and special- needs children.

While she was set on casting an actor with Down to play Luke, Brandon showed that he was right in many more dimensions than just that one criterion.

"When I looked at Steven, it wasn't about the fact that he had Down.

"To me, he was a brilliant actor. I did some workshops with him and he's got the personality. He can show emotion, vulnerability, he can be funny and he has comic timing. He is perfect for the part."

In the bittersweet drama, the 40-year-old Gull's feature directing debut, Luke is forced into a care home after the death of his mother. There, he develops a secret life, one that expands his world while also exposing him to danger.

The film has won awards this year in the United States at the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival and the Fargo Film Festival.

In a review, Variety magazine says Brandon "imbues Luke with an assertive personality and prankish humour that never feels contrived, or condescended to".

My Feral Heart opens a festival jointly organised by the Singapore Film Society and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds). Gull will be speaking and taking questions at the film's public screening this Saturdayat Golden Village Plaza at 1.30pm.

Other films in the first-ever Minds Film Festival include the drama I Am Sam (PG13, 134 minutes), featuring Sean Penn as a man with a developmental disability trying to gain custody of his daughter, played by Dakota Fanning.

The Spanish-language documentary Monica & David (PG, 67 minutes) looks at two adults with Down syndrome who want to live as a couple, independent of others.

Working with Brandon required no special technique other than just "being a people person", says Gull.

That he is disabled is irrelevant. Every actor is different so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to working with him, she emphasises.

"We spent time getting to know each other before filming started, so we could get comfortable with each other before we began shooting. I don't like to rehearse too much or bombard Steven with the script," she adds.

"We just worked day by day. That is the beauty of film. It's not like theatre where you have to do everything in one go," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Keep it real with Down syndrome'. Print Edition | Subscribe