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The Speechless Crew Shares Their Experience Behind the Scenes

Have you heard of the hit show 'Speechless'? It features the fictional DiMeo family, including teenage son JJ, who has cerebral palsy. The show follows the DiMeos as they navigate daily life.

We had the opportunity to have a question-and-answer session with the people behind the scenes of 'Speechless', including Helen Marray-Finlay (Makeup Department Head), Melvin Mar (Executive Producer), and Scott Silveri (Creator and Executive Producer). Read their takes on the show, and be sure to catch up with the DiMeos on ABC Wednesdays 8:30/7:30 central.

Debra McGuide, Costume Designer

The cast of Speechless

1. How is working on Speechless different from any other show you’ve been a part of?

Speechless is no different than any other family show. Early in developing the pilot we (costumes), the writers, production design, props and wardrobe, develop a palette and concept to work with.

2. How would you describe JJ’s style? How does it differ from Micah’s?

Generally speaking we dress them a bit younger. We are also sensitive to their economic level...and the dressing must match the overall aesthetic of the home, decor, etc. This is not a family that cares about "trend". It is more "no nonsense!!"

3. What’s your experience been working with Micah?

Micah is a complete professional. Everything is a pleasure working with him. He is not just professional but warm and kind.

4. How does the process for styling Micah vary from other cast members?

There is no difference! The process is the same as with all the other characters.

5. Are there any challenges with styling around the augmented communication device? 

There are no additional challenges dealing with the communication system.

6. For someone with a disability, wearing the latest fashion trends isn't always accessible. How can the fashion industry be more inclusive to people of all abilities?

I don't really think it has to be a roadblock for wanting to wear "trends". Nike has made shoes for easy accessibility (for braces) and I have a feeling that other companies will follow suit.

7. Any tips for people with disabilities who want to express their personal style through clothing?

Accessories are always key. This is a great way to add the touches: jewelry, hats, shoes, scarves, vests, etc.

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Helen Marray-Finlay, Makeup Department Head

Helen Marray-Finlay, makeup department head for Speechless

Helen Marray-Finlay, Makeup Department Head

1. How is working on Speechless different from any other show you’ve been a part of?

This show is just real and can be raw at times. It's real life whether you have a disability or not. It's inclusive and very accepting. I love that about it.

2. How would you describe JJ’s “look”? How does it differ from Micah’s?

JJ has a regular teen look. His look is very recognizable among teens.

3. What’s your experience been working with Micah?

Micah is great. He's a jokester. You just have to ask the Prop girl! He's a consummate professional. 

4. How does the process for styling Micah differ from other cast members (ex: makeup on parts more visible on JJ than other characters like hands/eyes/etc).

Micah's makeup doesn't differ from any other male on the show. He's a good looking fella so we do minimal.

5. Any tips for people with disabilities who want to express their personal style through makeup/hair?

Be yourself. Try it all. At the very least if you get it wrong you can laugh about it!

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Melvin Mar, Executive Producer

Melvin Mar is an executive producer on the show Speechless

Melvin Mar, Executive Producer

1. How do the DiMeos represent the new face of the American family?

Families like the DiMeos have always represented the face of the American Family…  It’s just about time that those working in Network TV recognize it. 

2. What do you hope viewers take away from the show?

Though families appear different from the outside, there is also a similarity and commonality that links us all. This is part of what makes our society great. Brothers will be brothers… even if one of them happens to use a wheelchair.

3. What are you most proud of when you look at where the show’s going?

That it’s unapologetic. In an uber-PC world, we get to laugh at things that are sometimes un-PC, because that’s the reality of it.  When Scott and I talked about his family and the things he did and laughed at as a kid, it was real.  That’s what he had to do to survive as an adolescent and what his family did to bolster each other and come together to deal with challenges. All that is magnified by having a brother with special needs.

4. What challenges (or advantages) are there in intersecting humor and disability?

There is always a challenge in finding humor. Above all, you want to and need to be respectful.  But being truthful about the moments that are funny and cringe worthy is a huge advantage we have on this show.  We can talk about it. Laugh about it.

5. It was said previously that Speechless isn’t an ‘issues’ show or an ‘after-school special.’ How so? What gap is this trying to fill in entertainment about disability?

There definitely isn’t a Speechless Soapbox that we are standing on to preach every week.  This is a family show about a family with a specific point of view and the drama, stories and humor that come with it.  We’re looking to entertain and make people laugh every week with an amazing cast of characters that I think everyone can find something to relate to.

6. How can someone with no attachment to disability relate to the show?

When we made Fresh Off The Boat, someone asked me if you could relate to it if you weren’t Asian or Chinese.  Yes, because that show isn’t only for Chinese people or Asian people. It’s for everyone. 

In the same way, this show isn’t only for people with or have some attachment to disability.  It’s a show for everybody who’s trying to find their place in society as an adult or adolescent. Everyone knows how that feels.  The challenges that the characters, Maya, JJ, Ray, Jimmy, Dylan and Kenneth, have are all specific to them and what make the show special.  We haven’t seen these characters on TV and it’s really exciting.

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Scott Silveri, Creator and Executive Producer

Scott Silveri is the creator and executive producer of 'Speechless'

Scott Silveri, Creator and Executive Producer

1. What was your inspiration behind the show?

I grew up in a family a lot like the one you’ll see on the show – I have an older brother with CP and a mom and dad who fought like mad to provide the best life they could for him – for all of us.  And we laughed.  A lot.  It’s long been a hope of mine that I could bring a family like ours to the screen. 

2. What was the casting process like for JJ’s role? Why was it so important to cast an actor with a disability?

We approached it as we would any role: auditions, videos sent in from far and wide…  The only way it differed from the norm was in how abruptly it ended after we saw Micah.  We saw many talented people, but in our minds, the role was his from the instant he read it.

The decision to cast a performer with a disability was a simple one; the goal was do a show with some authenticity – why start by faking it?  The question of whether it’s objectionable to have someone without a disability play a character who does – I’ll leave the debate to others.    But to me it was never a question; it was a fight I was willing and ready to have.  Turns out, no one showed up to argue the other side.  Too bad, in a way.  I was jazzed to really stick it to them.

3. How can Hollywood help society get past the stigma and gain a new perspective about people with disabilities and their potential? Is Hollywood in a position to do it better than any other industry?

I love it when I watch a show or movie about a life that’s different from mine, but one with characters and stories that ring true to me.  TV has the power to invite an audience in, and make the foreign feel familiar over time. 

Let’s be clear: our aim with the show is to entertain, to make people laugh.  But if we’re able to do that and, in the process, demystify life with a disability a little bit – to make it feel less foreign – that would be fantastic.  Entertainment has the power to do that, yes, probably more than other avenues.  It’s easy to tune out someone on a soapbox.  Everyone likes a good story.

4. Why was it important for you to portray disability as a normal part of life?

I hesitate to say it was a goal of mine, frankly; I set out only to write what I know, and this is a life I know.  But in general, if you want to depict life how it is, it’s a little silly not to include disability at all, isn’t it?   

5. What are you most proud of when you look at where the show’s going?

The decision we made early on to have JJ’s goals be in line with those of any sixteen-year-old: getting a date, winning some independence, making his little brother’s life as miserable as possible…  His story isn’t about “overcoming” anything.  It’s about living his life.

6. What’s the most fun part about seeing this show come to life?

One thing that blew me away was this long line of people – even in the earliest stages, as we just started shooting – who came out of the woodwork to share with me about their own, similar experiences.  People with disabilities, parents, siblings or friends with a connection…  It’s been a chance to share with people, many of whom I didn’t realize I’d had so much in common with.  We talk, we laugh, then I walk off and jot down notes to rip off their stories and jam them in the show.

That said, the most fun might be getting to dig into my own childhood and throw some of my family’s experiences up on the screen.  And this time, I’m the one telling the stories, so the “me” character gets to be right.  I didn’t get that so much the first time around.

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