Breaking The Mold: An Interview with Katy Sullivan

I've been a fan of Katy Sullivan since her TedxTalk. I wanted to interview women for this series who are real, and who are making waves in the world. Katy is an actress, producer, writer, and in 2012 she competed in the Paralympics ambulatory track where she set an American record. I wish you guys could have sat down with us while we chatted because we covered A LOT! Katy is witty, smart, and an all-around badass. Talking with Katy did not feel like an interview, it felt like having an empowering conversation with a friend. 

I started this series because I wanted to show people how important representation in the media is. Most people judge from a lack of experience and naiveness. 

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are?                                                Katy – Yeah I started doing theater while I was in school and that moved into doing theater outside of school, and I ended up getting my degree in acting at Webster University. I started beating the bricks like all actors do. I was in Chicago for a couple of years doing theater; I was fortunate to go back to Chicago. I shot an independent film there and have done theater at the Goodman since then. Being out here in LA is a totally different thing. I never played a character with a disability until I got to Hollywood. In theater they were way more open to non-traditional casting. It was at that point I realized this is what helps me stand out, and it won’t be easy, but if this will help me be able to more of an individual, and then I started leaning into it more. It’s been great, but its been a struggle. What do they say? Everyone is a 15-year overnight success. People end up saying “where did this person come from?” and its like “oh that person has been hustling for over two decades.

It’s funny, right? No one ever thinks about the back-end of success they just see it and assume it was easy to get there. What kind of pushbacks have you gotten in auditions?
Katy- I would say the pushback tends to come before the auditions. I think there is probably plenty of pushbacks that I am unaware of that my agents deal with. But people tend to be terribly polite to individuals with disabilities. They are scared; they are scared to be rude or honest if that is the word. I think its more of in a roundabout way.

In your Ted talk, you talk about a doctor who told your mom “The world doesn’t need another athlete” which I think you proved wrong really quickly. But you started running for fun and then you are setting world records. Do those moments of someone not believing in you or thinking because you have a disability you can’t do it, ever creep into your everyday life and how do you deal with that?
Katy- For me, most of the time I try to use that stuff as motivation. For me, someone not believing that I am not going to accomplish something is more of an “Oh yeah?”. I’ve always said no is just someone's opinion. When someone tells you, "No that you may not work on their show”, that is someone's opinion of if you can or can not accomplish working on that show. If people are shutting doors and telling you, you can not accomplish something, if you can use that as a way of motivation it can be pretty empowering. In terms of the doctor who said that to my mom, I think he was generally trying to comfort a mom who just had a daughter with a disability. He was trying to say just because she is not going to be Usain Bolt does not mean she is isn’t going to have a full life. It was funny on my way to London my mom got a shirt that said: “The world doesn’t need another athlete.” Disability or not, the human condition is people are going to try and stop you from doing what you want to do. If you can look at it as a long game and try to stay focused and try to persevere great things are possible, you gotta believe in yourself. You have to be able to show up with the goods. If it is acting, go to school, take an acting class and know what you are doing so when you do get an opportunity you are professional.

Katy Sullivan

"I’ve always said no is just someone's opinion." 

It kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier about a 15 minute overnight.
Katy – Yes! It is incredibly difficult. I chose two incredibly difficult paths whether you have legs or not. Being an athlete and being an actor. Am I where exactly want to be in life? Not yet, but that doesn’t keep me from trying. And trying to be the best that I can be and hone my skills. I am going and auditing an acting class tonight that my friends teach. I am in the process of writing a tv show, and I thought it would be really helpful for me to have a creative outlet instead of rewriting this script. I don’t want ever to stop learning and honing my skills.

I love that! You talked about how personal goals was going to be how you measured success when you started running. What are some small personal goals you have set, or do you set one every day?                                                                                                                                        Katy – Of course! The goals I have set for myself general have mostly to do with being kind to myself. I am incredibly hard on myself and have very high expectations and standards for myself. When I don’t meet certain things, I tend to be a little hard on myself.

You are always your worst critic. 
Katy- Oh totally!! Sometimes it is something just like "Oh I shouldn’t have eaten that cookie" or whatever. But, you have to live your life and celebrate and treat yourself kindly. But it tends to be, more for me, treating myself gently and not being too judgmental about what I should be doing or whatever it is I am working on. The biggest thing for me is I am trying to be how I treat my friends. I would never be critical of my friends so why would I do that to myself?

Do you have any mantras or sayings for when you are too critical of yourself?
Katy – I think honestly more than anything I tend to say things like "You are exactly where you are supposed to be" there is no should/shouldn’t stay in the moment! That was a big thing for me when I went to London. I trained for six years for a race that was going to be less than eighteen seconds. The amount of pressure one feels in a situation like that is huge. It is big. So spending more time staying in the moment and being grateful. Having a roof over your head or food in your belly, or people wanting to meet you and learn and talk to you. I have had more meetings this year, than I ever had, with executives from networks. They aren’t asking about the show I have written but wanting to have a conversation about performers with disabilities and how they can do better. I reached out to one film producer and just said “Look, I think we need to talk” because he was producing and working on projects where they didn’t cast authentically. I just told him I think you are missing the boat. If a production company was saying “We have this great film about MLK, but we are going to cast Mathew McConaughey because he’s great!” you can’t really do that! But for the disability community there is not that outrage, you can’t CGI someone's legs off and understand the experience!

I’ve been talking about this a lot lately with the Golden Globes happening. They said they were going to have this inclusion movement and then they didn’t include anyone with a disability, physical or intellectual. As a woman with a physical disability what was that like for you to hear there was going to be this inclusion movement and then they didn’t even do full inclusion?
Katy- Well let me start by saying I am not surprised. When I first met with this film producer, he said: “Well, we needed a star and this movie would not have been made if we didn’t have one.” And I was like “No one with a disability will ever be a star if they don’t start having opportunities.” It takes people speaking up and starting to say we are here too! The hard thing I think with the disability community it’s not like any sort of race or ethnicity community in the sense that they all have this one common thing. The disability community is the largest minority in the country, in the world actually. The disability community is almost 20% of the population, but within that population, we are so diverse, it is really difficult for all of us to stand under the same umbrella and say we have the same needs. We want to be seen and heard, but we are so diverse that looks different for all of us. My needs on a set or audition are very different, then say someone who has hearing loss who might need an interpreter or someone with a cognitive disability who might need an acting coach. My needs are so much different then other people with disabilities. So it is hard for us all to stand together, it is happening but it is so much harder then #oscarsowhite.

So what advice do you have to those of us without a disability? How can we stand next to y’all and advocate with y’all?
Katy – I think what you are doing is great. Just putting energy towards it, putting words out there and talking about it. I was at a school district this morning and a teacher asked me if I had seen a movie and I told her “No because they cast an able body person to play a part of someone with a disability.” I mean, go find a someone with that disability and let them be actors and tell their own story! Someone who does not have a disability, no matter how fantastic of an actor they are, does not understand going into a room and having people stare, or snicker at them. If you cast someone with a disability to play the part of someone with a disability they would bring something so authentic and true to that part that they would not even have to act. So I don’t see movies like that. I don’t know, maybe that’s what needs to happen, maybe we need to boycott those things. Because if an MLK movie came out and a white person played it, then we would boycott it. Rightfully so!

Yes! Exactly. There have been so many movies and shows lately that tell the story of someone a with disabilities, and so many people have called me saying things like did you see this show it featured someone with autism, or whatever isn’t this amazing? And I‘ve had to be like, “No not really, I have plenty of clients who could have played that part and where offended by the fact that a neurotypical person played it."                                                                                            Katy- There are so may gorgeously talented actors who have disabilities!! My writing partner and I have written a show called Legs. It’s loosely based on my life, theatrically based. But it’s about this woman who lives in LA and she just can’t get her life together. It’s told through the lens of a WOMAN living with a disability. That has never been done.  It’s never cast authentically and its always been from a male perspective. But I think that comes from society and the idea that women can’t have flaws. Men can age, but women can’t, and they can’t be flawed and they need to be a size two and all these things. I don’t know where that comes from, but that’s where we are. So to have a woman with a disability it has to be tragic or inspiring. I’ve played a veteran more than once on television because that’s what makes sense to people. I had an audition, and the part was originally written for a man, but I got it, and they rewrote it for me. When the writer came up to me, and she was a woman, she said “I didn’t even think to make this part for a woman.” We don’t think about women as soldiers, or injured, or not perfect.

I love that you out there sharing your voice and experience.
Katy – I’m trying! Anyone who will listen. It is just changing one person's mind at a time.  That producer I talked to in January emailed me in February. He had talked to his casting director, and for the new pilots, they are going to look for more individuals with disabilities. I was like, "Good for you dude!" But that took me contacting him, sitting down for an hour and talking to him and saying this has got to change. The way to change the casting pool is ultimately for people to see themselves on television. I didn’t see anyone who authentically looked like me until I was on television. The first time I saw someone who, I thought, looked like me was in Forest Gump. A teenage girl can so relate to a cracked out veteran right? And then later I found they just put green socks on him! It’s that whole “If she can see it then she can be it.” If people with disabilities see other people with disabilities who are working and making a difference then they also feel like they can do it! That’s how you change it.

Yes, that’s exactly it! So what else can we expect from you for 2018?
Katy- Big picture is getting this TV show out there, hopefully I’ll have an update for you soon. I am auditioning for pilot season, but I am also writing a book! I’ve always known there was a book in there and was just waiting for the time to present itself. A book publisher contacted me and asked me to write it, so I am. But I want it to be light-hearted and funny because my life has been so fun and the most hilarious things happen to me. You know the best part of my life is that you never know what is coming next and you can look at it two ways. You can say “Urg I don’t know what is gonna happen in the next six months.” Or, you can say, “Guys I have NO idea what is gonna happen in the next six months and that is so exciting!” It’s all about perspective.

I think that might be the best advice to end on!!