Ruth Madeley forging her own career while fighting for those who follow
BAFTA-nominated Ruth Madeley, star of Years and Years, Don't Take My Baby and new series The Watch, talks to us about an acting career sparked by curiosity, the ongoing fight for equal opportunities for disabled actors and authentic representation on-screen, plus her life-long work from childhood beneficiary to adult patron with charity Whizz-Kidz.
It's almost fitting to meet Ruth Madeley as a pandemic grips the UK. It's a crisis that only 18-months ago would have seemed like a plot point from Russell T. Davies' Years and Years, a series set in the not-too-distant future where the country has taken just about every wrong turn it can. Madeley was part of a stellar ensemble cast who played the Lyons family, through which that future was explored.
"I told Russell T. Davies he is not allowed to write anything else until we're all over this because I can't take it. I said, "It's terrifying. It's so scary." If somebody had said to me when we were filming that, "This is pretty much what's going to happen the next couple of years..." There's just so much now when you think back to what we filmed in Years and Years. People say about the roaring 1920's after the flu pandemic. I'm excited for that bit of this nightmare, when we come out of it and we all just get dressed up and have a good time!"
Going back a few years and years (sorry), the beginning of Madeley's acting journey was anything but typical.
"I'll be honest, acting wasn't even on my radar. I fell into this purely by accident. I studied scriptwriting at university and I always thought that would be my way in to the industry. Acting wasn't even on the peripheral, it wasn't something I ever gave mind to do at all. I've always felt very passionate about having better disability representation within the media, because I grew up being very aware that no one looked like me on-screen, and I wanted to be part of that change, but I always thought storytelling and writing would be my way of doing that. I thought that would be my place, and then the universe had other ideas."
Madeley was born with spina bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't develop properly in the womb. As a result, she requires a wheelchair to get around. Her scriptwriting at university would eventually lead her to a work placement at the BBC in the script editing team, and it's here her career took the unexpected turn toward acting.
"I take my hat off to script editors, it's the most boring thing I've ever done in my life. I thought, 'I am not being a script editor, I can't do this'. Then a producer I'd just met along the way said, 'Oh, they're auditioning for a CBBC drama. It's just one episode where they need a wheelchair user'. It was very much a tick box exercise. It absolutely was. I'm not naïve. 'We don't have a wheelchair user. Well, any wheelchair user will do. Just shove them in'.
"I went to the audition purely to be nosey. I'm a networker. I love meeting people. I love learning about what they do in the industry and about everybody's jobs. I went because I thought, 'Oh, this is interesting. I wonder how they cast things'. I knew that I was going to be in front of the director and the executive producer, so that would be two more contacts I could tap up later [laughs]. I remember going into the audition room and I was so nervous. I thought, 'What's wrong with these people? Why did they do this to themselves? This is horrible'.
"Then, I understood it, The adrenaline hit and I came out thinking, 'I really want that job'. I'd never felt anything like it before in my life. Then I got it. Bear in mind, very little acting experience so I'm assuming that everybody else they saw that day must have been really bad if they chose me but, hey-ho, there we go [laughs]."
The part was a role in Half Moon Investigations. After that, Madeley would land an acting agent and appear in Fresh Meat with Jack Whitehall, but even so, still didn't see acting as the direction her career would head.
"I just thought it was just something on the side that I could do to keep my name on people's radars in the industry whilst I finished my degree in writing. I thought that would be it. A few years passed, I never really went looking for work, then a script came on my agent's desk called Don't Take My Baby by Jack Thorne. I remember clear as day and it'll stay with me forever, my agent said, 'If you get this, everything changes'. And it did. That was 2015 and I've worked ever since."
Don't Take My Baby was the story of a disabled couple fighting social services to keep custody of their new-born daughter, a harrowing tale based on a true story. Madeley would eventually play the lead role, opposite Adam Long as her partially sighted partner, but the audition process to get there was arduous - but ultimately all the more rewarding.
"It was a very long audition process, because it was a lead role, and they had absolutely no reason to trust me. They had to put in a lot of faith that I could carry that story. It was a three-month audition process, and it was hell on earth, but it was also a process I really loved. With every audition, I felt, 'This is my part. This isn't anyone else's. This is mine'. It got to a point where I thought, 'If I don't get this, I'm not going to be able to watch this on TV because I'll be devastated'. It meant so much to get that role. When I found out I'd got it, that will stay with me forever. I thought, 'I'll be doing this process again because this is my job now, I know it is. This is what I'm meant to do'."
"Adam Long was so insanely talented, and Wunmi Mosaku too. When I wasn't doing my take I would watch them, every little nuance they gave and all of their little processes to make sure that they got across what was right. Acting is an instinct and I believe if you've got it, you've got it. I don't think you have to go to drama school, but at the same time, it is a craft that you learn along the way how to be better at. I had no clue what I was doing, let's face it, so to have the opportunity to learn from these actors, producers like Pier Wilkie, and our director Ben Anthony, was fantastic. They were the most incredible team to work with and I feel very grateful and humbled that was my first proper experience on set."
Having said that she hasn't often seen characters that look like her on screen, I ask what it was like to see the finished article.
"As somebody who hates watching themselves, I could not stop crying throughout the whole thing. For me personally, I know that if I've seen something like that on-screen when I was 14-15 years old... I mean, there were sex scenes, there were scenes when I was naked. Disabled bodies are never shown on screen, so that was a big thing for me."
"It wasn't an easy story to tell, and I was given the opportunity to tell it in as raw a way as possible. I knew that meant a lot for the industry, for disabled people, and I just couldn't stop crying. My boyfriend is not a crier and he sobbed throughout the whole thing [laughs]. It was just a very proud moment. For me, from a representation point of view, I think that was a massive step in the industry."
The show would win the BAFTA for Best Single Drama, with Madeley nominated for Best Leading Actress.
"When we were making it, there was the scene where I ended up on the floor. My character was very limited in her mobility, so she couldn't get up and there were lots of tears. I remember our sound guy saying to me, 'This is BAFTA stuff, this'." I'm like, 'Oh, that's a nice thing to say [chuckles]'. Then when it actually happened and the show was nominated, I wasn't surprised because I knew how hard everybody worked. I think it was very fitting that the show won. It was done on a shoestring budget, with a really small cast and crew, and we made something special. To have that recognised, especially when it was a disability story, from a disabled person's perspective, that was special for me."
In contrast to Don't Take My Baby, Madeley's character Rosie in Years and Years is one who is disabled, but that disability is not central to her story, nor that of the show. In fact, the character was not written to be disabled at all. Madeley landed the role after impressing in the audition, and was delighted to play a character not defined by their disability.
"That for me was a benchmark of how it's done if you want to include really strong disabled characters. Rosie wasn't written as anybody with a disability. She wasn't written in any particular way, she was just a character, like every other character in the show. I went in for the audition, they liked what I did, I got a call back, and they liked what I did again. Then they said, 'Right. Well, we want you, so let's have a chat about how much or how little we include Rosie's disability in it'.
"Russell T. Davies and I had a chat about it, and we realised the story didn't change at all. Whether she was a wheelchair user, whether she was blind, whether she was deaf, nothing changed. There was a lot going on in that show, the world was burning around us so there was nothing really that stuck out with Rosie's disability. That for me was a perfect example of how to do it. You find somebody you like and if you need to adapt the script, you adapt it."
"The thing with Rosie's character in particular, she wasn't perfect, and I loved that. She was very flawed. She ended up with three kids by three different dads. She was politically inept, she was a bit of a mess, she was a rebel, she was a headcase. I loved that. If a character can make me want to scream and slap her on one page, then make me want to give her a hug on the next page, that's great, she's layered, she's got loads of different things going on. Then if you add disability into the mix, that's just another really interesting dimension to look at. She was great without the disability, she's even greater with it."
Madeley's latest project is The Watch, a fantasy show based on characters created by Terry Pratchett and developed for television by Simon Allen. Her character in the colourful world is Throat, a criminal with minions she lovingly refers to as her 'bitches'.
"She's vile. I love her! That's the joy of our job. You get to say things that you would never have the balls to say in real life. Here I am, just being overly polite, and inside, I'm like Throat. It's so different to anything I've played. I've really wanted to try something that was very steampunk and supernatural. So many characters in those worlds have disabilities or have different things, and they're very rarely played by people with disabilities.
"It's very exciting to be able to bring that character to life and have her in this mega chair that was built by the props department. It was so cool. All our extras had to be dressed in Ankh-Morpork styling. Nobody around you, apart from the cameraman and the sound guys, were in normal clothes. You were just surrounded, completely immersed in this world. It just makes your performance even better because you feel it. It's everywhere. It's just so exciting. I didn't have to wash my hair for ages. It was brilliant. No, it was vile, but it was brilliant [laughs]."
There's no doubt that representation on screen for disabled artists and characters has come a long way, and Madeley is hugely grateful for the opportunities she's had. Sadly, the reality is that there is still a long way to go. Disability remains the most underrepresented minority on screen, and Madeley wants to be part of the move that makes the industry more inclusive, especially for the next generation of disabled actors looking to breakthrough.
"We're so much further than we were 12 months ago. We're so much further than we were 12 months before that. I think it's really important to take stock of how far things have come. It can get really hard though. It's a horrible conversation to keep having to go through, having to prove your worth and explain why you have a right to decent representation and authenticity. If I have to keep having that conversation so that another kid doesn't have to. I don't want them to have to think of something else to do because acting not accessible to them. That's what drives me a lot.
"Yes, sometimes you feel like throwing your phone through the window when you get on Twitter [chuckles]. Some people think we're just making a big deal out of nothing. I, as a disabled woman and as a disabled actor, could not care less if you play a character with a disability, as long as disabled actors are granted the same access and the same opportunities that every other actor is. At the minute, they're not. Therefore, don't take our roles from us. Until there's a level-playing field, this conversation will keep happening, rightly so.
I offer that the ongoing fight for equal opportunity must be exhausting at times. Efforts not made any easier when certain casting sites make it easier to exclude disabled actors from searches. A high-profile one in particular has since corrected that position, with more than a gentle nudge from Madeley and her sharing of hashtag #DisabilityOptIn.
"I'll tell you something, I think it's been more exhausting during a pandemic. Some people seem to think that authentic representation means you just have to get a disabled person and shove them in a role. No, it's about acting. There are disabled actors, believe it or not. If you're a shit actor and you're disabled, you're not going to get the role. End of. If you're a good actor with a disability, you need to be in the room. You need to be allowed to audition." That's the fight. March on, we must."
With that in mind, I ask what she would like to see from writers and filmmakers, especially new ones coming through in short film, in terms of creating more inclusive opportunities.
"Short film is one of the most inclusive arenas that I've had experience with, because new creators want to do things different to the way things haven't been done before. It almost feels like preaching to the choir, because people in this kind of community, they get it. They want to create something new and interesting. I understand that a lot of things with disability come with fear. Fear of doing things wrong. Fear of putting someone in danger, which always makes me giggle. There's this notion that disability is going to cost more, or be more of a risk, and it's not the case at all. Trust me, I am as cheap as they come [laughs].
"Just think outside the box when it comes to casting, and if you're going to tell a story about disability, you need to include disabled voices within that or else you're not telling it from a true point of view. For me, you can tell when something hasn't included disabled people, because 9 times out of 10 it just falls flat. Don't be afraid to ask questions. That's how we all learn. I'm the queen of getting things wrong, saying things I shouldn't and making mistakes. We all do. We all learn. I learn every day about disability. I'm an expert at spina bifida, but I'm not an expert about all disabilities [chuckles]. It's about learning from other people and just being as collaborative as possible."
With the benefit of hindsight now, if she was able to go back and give herself a piece of advice at the start of her career, what would it be?
"There's quite a lot, I think. Don't be a wimp, just stand your ground. I never want to offend anybody. I'm upset if I think I have said the wrong thing or offended somebody. As a disabled person, you're not going to get it right all the time. Nobody does. You need to just accept that and do your best.
"The other piece, I think I'd just say, 'What you're doing is needed. When it gets really tough, that's when it's needed most. Just have a cup of coffee, or a whisky depending on what time of day it is, and just crack on."
Finally, we speak about Whizz-Kidz, the charity that has been part of her life since she was a child, working hard to change the lives of wheelchair users across the UK. Madeley has gone from working full-time for the charity, to being a patron and helping to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
"Whizz-Kidz is like my other family member, really. They bought me my first wheelchair when I was five. They taught me how to be a confident disabled kid, how to thrive with the right equipment, and not be limited in my access to the world. It was a privilege to be a beneficiary of them. I had two wheelchairs from them growing up, and then I became a volunteer for them. I was on their Kidz Board of Trustees and then I became their employee when I finished university. When I say they've been in my life forever, that's genuinely true.
"This is a funny story. I didn't stop working full-time with Whizz-Kidz until after Years and Years finished. I was convinced acting was not going to be my job, that there weren't enough roles for disabled people and I've got a mortgage to pay [laughs]. I worked full-time as a fundraiser, then on my weekends, evenings, and taking annual leave I did acting.
"When I got Years and Years, I knew I wouldn't be able to do both, so I took a sabbatical for six months. Then I finished that and got another role on The Accident. I remember my boss at the time saying, 'I think you might be an actor now'. I said, 'No, no. I work here, I just do a bit of acting on the side'. She said, 'This isn't on the side anymore, Ruth. You need to dedicate your time to this'. And you know how you're usually invited to become patron, well, I invited myself. I said, 'Okay then, I'm going to be patron [laughs].
"It feels very special to be that and tell people about this incredible charity that gave me so much as a kid, and as an adult. I've learned so much outside of the acting world. I'm not a luvvy. I'm just a very normal person who's got very lucky, and feels very privileged to do this as their day job."
You can follow Ruth on Twitter: @Ruth_Madeley