For I Am Sam director Jessie Nelson, whose film this week celebrates the 20th anniversary of its December 2001 release, her project brings back an array of memories, mostly warm and affectionate but some difficult as well. She clearly has a continued fondness for the film, stemming from the love she feels for the disability community, with whom she connected closely before and after production, and her crew and cast, including Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laura Dern and then-newcomer Dakota Fanning. But it’s also clear that the movie Nelson made in 2001 would not be the same one she would make in 2021.
“I wouldn’t make that movie today without a lead being from the community,” the director tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But that movie would not have been made 20 years ago. It wasn’t like I had the choice: ‘Make that movie with a lead from the community, or not.’ It was ‘The only way this movie will get made is this.’ ”
Even getting the movie made the way it was 20 years ago was never a given. Nelson recalls clashes with studio execs over the casting of both Penn as Beatles-loving single father Sam Dawson, and Fanning as his second-grade daughter, Lucy. In fact, Nelson says she was dropped from the film by one studio that wanted a bigger star for the lead, whereas she was more concerned with a performer who would give the proper characterization.
As it turns out, although she describes Penn’s work in the film as “undeniably beautiful” and has nothing but praise for him, Nelson says she wouldn’t even have cast him back then had she been able to carry out her ideal vision. “At that time, they would not allow me to hire a real disabled actor to play the role,” she shares about the studios. “They were afraid to put a budget of that size on the shoulders of an actor from that community.”
Nelson feels a sense of relief and validation that the industry has not only become more accepting of lead performers with disabilities but also provides better opportunities for training and agent representation; she cites her own recent Apple TV+ series, Little Voice, which featured actor Kevin Valdez, who is on the autism spectrum, like his character. But the community’s struggles for Hollywood opportunity haven’t gone away, underscored by recent debate surrounding Sound of Metal (2020), which earned Riz Ahmed an Oscar nomination as a musician losing his hearing, and this year’s Sia-directed Music, starring Maddie Ziegler as a girl on the autism spectrum and recipient of a Golden Globe nom for best picture.
“In the past 30 years, half of the men who have won the best actor Oscar have won for playing a disability,” says Jay Ruderman, president of Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for people with disabilities. That best actor list includes 2021 winner Anthony Hopkins, whose title character in The Father suffers from dementia, and 2020 winner Joaquin Phoenix, whose Joker character dealt with emotional incontinence. Ruderman notes, “Twenty percent of the American public, and of the world’s public, has some form of disability, and routinely they’ve been excluded from representing themselves in entertainment.”
In 1994, Nelson made her feature directorial debut with the New Line Cinema release Corrina, Corrina, from her own script about a widowed single father (Ray Liotta) who hires a nanny (Whoopi Goldberg) to help care for his young daughter. Around that same time, Nelson became a mother herself and was struggling to help her young daughter deal with colic, leading to internal questions about her abilities as a parent.
This was just when longtime friend Kristine Johnson pitched an idea for a film about a father with a mental disability, spurred by fact-based stories she had read. Nelson, like Johnson, had connections to the disability community, and so the premise appealed to the director, in part because of her own experience with her parents having had a difficult time expressing love. As part of the process of working on the screenplay together, the pair spent significant time at L.A. Goal, a center aimed at helping people with disabilities to develop both a career and a creative life, and met parents with disabilities who were tasked with navigating the system.
Nelson had a deal set up with now-defunct Fox 2000 Pictures, and although the studio liked the script, it became evident that the brass would not be seeing eye to eye with the director. According to Nelson, the studio’s team removed her from the project because they were dead set on hiring Tom Cruise — the star had portrayed a Vietnam War vet with a physical disability in 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July — or another A-list actor, rather than going with Nelson’s top choice, Penn, who was interested in the role and possessed the acting chops she believed necessary to pull it off.
Nelson recalls an individual at Fox 2000 telling her that the reason she wasn’t landing “the Tom Cruises of the world” for the role was that she was a woman. Nelson says she replied by explaining she believed the actual reason was that some actors knew they wouldn’t be able to execute the performance, but this explanation was dismissed. “And then they fired me for a while,” Nelson says.
According to the director, Fox removed her from the project and began taking the script out to other helmers. Eventually, her agent managed to broker a deal granting Nelson a two-week window to see if she could land another home for I Am Sam, at which point Fox 2000 would be free to continue without her. “It was a total Hail Mary,” Nelson recalls of the scramble to locate another interested distributor within the limited time frame.
Luckily, New Line, which had backed her previous film, stepped up. Despite some concern over Penn being more associated with darker, less hopeful characters, New Line ultimately supported Nelson’s plan for him to star. She also remembers conflict around finding the right Lucy, a role for which they read roughly 300 young actresses. “Even casting Dakota was a bit of a battle because they wanted an actor who had been in things,” Nelson says. “Once they saw the dailies, they got completely on board.”
Because she didn’t feel empowered to cast a performer with a disability in the lead, Nelson was determined to hire members of the community to fill out Sam’s circle of pals. During the writing process, she and Johnson based Sam’s friends Joe and Brad on two people they met at L.A. Goal, Joe Rosenberg and Brad Silverman, who had no acting experience outside of productions at the center. Sure enough, that move proved to be easier said than done.
“It was such a battle even to just get the friends of Sean to be from the disabled community in the movie, and that was such a victory at the time to be able to hire those actors,” the director recalls. Although she emphasizes that her overall experience with New Line was positive, she remembers individuals at the company having concerns about whether performers with disabilities would become stressed on set or have trouble remembering lines. Thankfully, Nelson’s persistence won out, and the performers brought “so much truth and heart” to the set. “Everybody quickly realized that those were all misconceptions, and actually bringing that community on board is the best thing that can happen for a film, whether there are disabled characters or not.” (New Line did not respond to a request for comment, and Fox 2000 is now shuttered.)
The importance of visibility in entertainment is not lost on Ruderman, who cites TV programs such as Ellen and Will & Grace as having been part of the societal change that led to the marriage-equality movement. “People are coming into our home through streaming services, and we’re getting more used to it, which impacts how we see people who are not like ourselves,” he says. “People with disabilities are the most segregated, most ostracized, poorest members of our society, and if entertainment, by having authentic representation, can change that, our society is going to look very, very different.”
While Nelson’s film earned support within the community, including the endorsement of the Special Olympics, she also knew to brace for tough reviews. “There’s a lot of cynicism around making movies about that community, and there’s also a lot of unconscious stereotyping and bias that comes through in reviews because it can be uncomfortable for people who haven’t dealt with the community to face it,” she says. “One review just skewered Sean’s performance, was so vicious, and then the next day, he got nominated for an Academy Award. A review, in my opinion, tells you more about the person reviewing it than it does about the movie.”
Years later, the movie resurfaced in the zeitgeist when director Ben Stiller’s 2008 Hollywood-skewering satire Tropic Thunder featured a memorable scene mocking the types of roles that actors seemingly view as awards-voter catnip. Robert Downey Jr., whose high-minded actor character is wearing blackface to exemplify how far performers will go to transform their bodies for accolades, delivers a speech emphasizing that audiences prefer characters with disabilities to remain pitiable only to the point of not being off-putting, à la Tom Hanks’ Nixon-charming hero in Forrest Gump.
“Never go full [R-word],” Downey advises Stiller’s fellow thespian about the best way to win an Oscar. “You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember, went full [R-word]? Went home empty-handed.”
Nelson recalls getting a heads-up that the barb was coming. “Ben had called Sean to warn him and tell him,” says Nelson, who adds that neither she nor Sean felt offended by the bit. “I understand the cynicism of ‘Oh, if you do a movie about a disabled character, you’re gonna win an Academy Award.’ But in truth, how many movies are actually about the disabled community? There are so few. But yeah, people are allowed to razz it and make fun of it however they want. Once you do a movie, you’re kind of out in the world.”
Against the odds, I Am Sam was a hit. The film collected nearly $100 million at the box office on a modest budget, earned a SAG Award and Oscar nom for Penn and turned Fanning, who also won a SAG Award, into a household name. All of which raises the question: If everything went so well, why didn’t Nelson direct another film until the 2015 Christmas comedy Love the Coopers?
“The door did not open for me,” Nelson admits. “Now, when you look at the statistics, so many women have had the experience that I’ve had, where they couldn’t get their next movie made. At the time, you think, ‘Is it something about me?’ Or, ‘Oh, doing a movie that wasn’t successful, that’s what puts people in directors’ jail.’ But for so many women at the time, it was just being a woman that put you in a different category.”
This mirrors what director Amy Heckerling told THR when her beloved 1995 comedy, Clueless, was marking it’s 20th anniversary. At the time, Heckerling lamented that no one was banging on her door after the release, with the industry perceiving her film as a project strictly targeted to a female audience. “What good is that if the people go, ‘Isn’t it nice they remember?’ and you go, ‘I wish it would have helped me do other things because it’s fucking hard.’”
While there’s clearly still improvement to be made, there are also reasons to feel hopeful about both the landscape for performers with disabilities and the opportunities for female filmmakers. CODA, director Sian Heder’s film starring deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, has been in the Oscar conversation since its Apple TV+ release over the summer, while Lauren Ridloff recently played the first deaf superhero for a Marvel movie in director Chloé Zhao’s Eternals.
“CODA was a great effort, but there needs to be much, much more,” says Anita Hollander, a one-legged actress and national chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers With Disabilities Committee. “Marvel is finally getting the point and doing more with disabled actors — the deaf community is doing better than the mobility disabilities or blind actors. One out of four people in this country identifies as having a disability, so you no longer can say there’s no money in doing it — look at the audience you’ll get when you actually hire a disabled actor. I would like to think that that boulder is reaching higher up on the mountain, but I have to tell you, it’s been a lot of work.”
All in all, Nelson is proud of the film and recalls Penn once telling her it’s the movie of his that fans praise the most when he encounters them in public. But she’s also hopeful for where the world is heading and ends the conversation with “Thank God there’s been change.”