One of the striking things about The Chosen — the life-of-Jesus series now almost half-way through its second season — is the way it casually incorporates physical and developmental disabilities, some of which were not understood all that well until very recently, into its dramatization of the gospels.
For example, the show depicts Matthew as someone with Asperger syndrome, which is a mild form of autism that was only recognized as such over the course of the last century. The first season also featured a fictitious blind woman who meets Jesus on at least three occasions — and who is still blind, the last time we see her.
In both of those cases, as far as I can tell, writer-director Dallas Jenkins hired actors who do not have those conditions to play characters who do. But, as an article at Deadline today informs us, he also cast a disabled actor in a role that was not written that way, and then wrote the actor’s condition into the character:
Jordan Walker Ross is a series regular on the historical drama The Chosen. He plays Little James, one of the 12 Apostles in the New Testament. When Ross auditioned for the role, Dallas Jenkins the show’s director and creator could see that he was disabled, but he apparently didn’t notice the limp – not at first, anyway.
“I have severe scoliosis and minor cerebral palsy,” Ross told Deadline, reaching out after reading our coverage of a SAG-AFTRA panel on disabled performers. “Because of my conditions, I have a pretty noticeable limp, very limited flexibility in my torso and legs and am much shorter than the average person [5’4”]. Needless to say, my physical differences have negatively impacted my opportunities as an actor. I have been told by casting directors to ‘lose the limp,’ and was even cut out of projects because my limp was too noticeable.”
He said that when he was cast, Jenkins didn’t notice his limp at first, and that it wasn’t until his first day on set that he “saw that I walked differently. But rather than re-cast or try to hide it with creative camera angles, he embraced it and asked if I’d be opposed to him writing it into my character. Now it has given a whole new layer to my role.”
“When Jordan auditioned, he did a really good job and was right for the part,” Jenkins said. “His disability is a factor – it can’t be hidden, so we just leaned into it. I not only thought that his disability wouldn’t hurt the role, but would open up some interesting possibilities for us. We take challenges and turn them into something exciting.”
You can get a sense of the sort of “interesting possibilities” Jenkins had in mind from the most recent episode, which features a scene in which Thomas asks why Jesus hasn’t healed James, and James wonders if the people praising Jesus would still believe in him if he wasn’t healing so many of them. The actor’s condition gave the series an opportunity to explore questions of real theological and pastoral significance — questions that apply well outside of the first-century setting — like why Jesus heals some people and not others, and how pure a faith can be if people are getting something out of it.
Deadline has a three-minute clip of the scene in question. You can also see it at the 1:30:26 mark in this video of the livestream where the episode made its debut last week:
I hope to say more about this season’s episodes in the near future. Stay tuned.
Incidentally, one other thing I learned via Deadline is that Ross is the grandson of Barry Corbin, an actor who will always, for me, be the general in 1983’s WarGames.