By Coen Lammers
Actors with Down syndrome are becoming a hot commodity with three young female actors starring in two movies and a play in recent months.
Actors with Down syndrome are becoming a more regular feature on television and in movies, including Coronation Street, Shortland Street, and of course the current box office success Peanut Butter Falcon.
In New Zealand, Libby Hunsdale from Whanganui has been filming the movie Poppy at the Kapiti Coast, Lily Harper filled the lead role in the theatre production Up Down Girl, while Amber Ranson features in the short film Peninisula which was planned to be featured at film festivals overseas.
Like the Hollywood blockbuster Peanut Butter Falcon, the New Zealand productions mostly centre around life with Down syndrome and the hurdles other people are putting up to stop people with Down syndrome to chase their own dreams.
Libby Hunsdale was picked for the title role of Poppy after extensive casting by writer and director Linda Niccol.
Niccol said that the 18-year-old was “a real find”. “She embodies the spirit of Poppy. She is a true performer.”
Finding the right actress for the role was challenging because the actor had to be able to drive a car.
Poppy is a New Zealand film about a young woman with Down syndrome who wants to become a motor mechanic, starting with the apprenticeship that was promised her by her late father. But Dave, her super-protective brother, who has reluctantly taken over the family garage is far from encouraging.
It is not until she teams up with a former school friend who needs his car fixed in time enter the local burn–out competition that her plans progress.
On the film set, Libby is supported by Sydney-based New Zealander Ari Boyland and another newcomer, Sebastian Hunter.
Producer Robin Laing said that it had been a steep learning curve for Libby who had previously acted in school productions. “But she has taken on the challenge with great courage and enthusiasm.”
In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Libby said that she could relate to Poppy because she is ambitious and wants a career. “And I do too.”
“Poppy doesn’t care about what people think of her and the fact she has Down syndrome. I really relate to Poppy. We could be sisters.”
The film was shot on the Kapiti Coast and is expected to be released in October/November.
The production received funding from the Film Commission’s 125 Fund, in commemoration of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, from TVNZ which will screen the film on prime-time television, as well as several other philanthropic supporters.
Another actress to soon feature at movie theatres in New Zealand is Amber Randon from Rakaia, south of Christchurch, who filled the lead role in the short film Peninsula.
The short-film was written by Fiona McKenzie and filmed in Banks Peninsula last year, and was set to feature at overseas film festivals this year before it will be released in New Zealand in spring.
McKenzie had worked with Amber in acting classes and said she had written the story with Amber in mind.
“Amber’s a strong performer and a strong character. I knew she was a strong enough person to enter a film set without blanching,” McKenzie told Stuff.
“Also, when people see Amber in this film they’ll think it’s a film about Down syndrome, which it’s not. I am so over these things having to be about disability just because people involved are disabled. Can’t we move on?”
Amber’s boisterous persona and sense of humour lit up the movie set and she said the film was “a piece of cake”.
“In one scene my character had to be dancing, so the crew put on Thunderstruck by AC/DC – one of my favourites. I busted the moves out and then off camera the whole crew was dancing with me.”
Another actor to steal the heart of her colleagues and the audience was Palmerston North’s Lily Harper who received rave reviews for her lead role in the stage play Up Down Girl.
The play was originally written as Up Down Boy by UK-director Sue Shields, but adapted for New Zealand by Nathan Mudge who had worked with Lily on other projects.
The play focuses on the main character Mattie and her interactions with her mother who is played by Trudy Pearson, as they are trying to prepare for Mattie to go to college.
The reviewer for Stuff said that Pearson carried most of the dialogue but that Lily ”stole the spotlight”.
Lily is a born performer and has already presented for Attitude TV and also features in the World Down Syndrome Day video message.
Up Down Girl however was her first stage play, but drawing on her own experiences as a person with Down syndrome, Lily nailed the performance and according to the reviewer there was not a dry eye in the house.