New York, August 19 – Deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank has joined NBC’s “New Amsterdam” as Dr. Elizabeth Wilder.
It is important to note that Frank is being added as a doctor, as many medical shows feature disabled actors as patients, but not as people who are helping others. Actors Rachel Handler, who is an amputee, and Matthew Jeffers, who is a little person, previously have been cast in roles as medical professionals. New Amsterdam overwhelmingly has been an example of best practices since Season 1, through casting authentically, including Lauren Ridloff and Eileen Grubba; working with consultants to ensure accurate storylines; and including conversations about diverse topics within the disability community.
Frank is a trained stage and film actor. Ever since she made her mark in Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, she has been doing various projects from music videos, theater productions, films, and TV. She is also the production manager of Deaf Austin Theatre, a nonprofit theater company in Austin, Texas. Most recently Frank was featured on NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, performing a song in ASL.
“Young, talented and self-assured, Dr. Wilder is one of the few deaf surgeons in New York City,” Executive Producer David Schulner said of Frank’s character. “She’s also one of the best surgeons, period. But when Max tries to lure her to New Amsterdam, she refuses to join his team. Many times, in fact. In high demand all over the country, what’s it going to take to get Dr. Wilder to practice at this fabled hospital? And who is she replacing? These are just a few of the questions that will be answered in the season premiere.”
Frank is represented by Gail Williamson at KMR & Associates.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sandy for the majority of my years as a talent agent and her years as an actress,” said Williamson. “It has been pure joy working with her. Her understanding of her craft is powerful, and she makes it so easy for us to believe she is exactly who she is portraying. I have watched her play a broad spectrum of roles, from naive schoolgirl to disenchanted wife. She has performed in musicals, dramas, comedies, and she does it all seemingly effortlessly and with profound grace. I have been blessed to be part of her growing career!”
During summer 2020, Executive Producer David Schulner and Casting Director David Caparelliotis spoke to a group of 30 disabled individuals working behind the camera who were taking part in the 2020 Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities by the disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility. Caparelliotis and Schulner joined RespectAbility’s VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media Lauren Appelbaum for a conversation on how New Amsterdam is a case study in best practice of on-camera representation.
“Representation matters, and I think that simple phrase sums up a lot of what we do,” Schulner said during the conversation with the Lab participants in July 2020. “The stories we tell are stories that I haven’t seen other places… If people see themselves as important enough to have stories told about them, then you’re shining a light on people who have been in the shadows for far too long.”
“No roles were defined before we saw actors for them,” Caparelliotis said, explaining that “actors would define the roles.”
“Every actor has an individuality, has a place that they come from, and it just so happened that these two actors, when we called them in, clicked in the roles that we call them in for,” he added, saying that there is an “active effort on our part to forward this sort of authentic casting in this show as often as we can.”
In fact, Schulner said they have a wall of headshots of actors with disabilities that they want to write roles for “because these are amazing actors who just aren’t being used enough.”
An important episode in season 2 featured Gigi Cunningham, a young Black actress with Down syndrome. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee had the honor of consulting on the episode’s script, which touched on so many hot-button topics, from abortion to conservatorship, conservative Christianity to inadequate health care in rural areas, and so much more.
Schulner, who identifies as a “straight, white, neurotypical male,” was intentional about hiring a diverse writers’ room to be able to tell diverse stories such as these. After hiring Cunningham, Schulner was cognizant that it was her first time acting on camera and that “the TV and film production machine, it’s not set up to help these actors.” As such, he called the president of NBC, asking for more time on set for Cunningham to do this role. Production was given a full extra day in order for Cunningham to feel more comfortable on set, which resulted in a very effective and moving episode.
Including people with disabilities on screen is not only the right thing to do but also financially valuable. According to Nielsen, the disability market is worth one trillion dollars and is the third largest market in the U.S.
“This is not social justice work – diversity equals better stories, studies have shown that diversity in the workplace equals better outcome,” Schulner said. “So, selfishly, hiring these actors, hiring these writers, hiring these directors – people with disabilities can only make our show and any show stronger, more exciting, showing different points of view. It’s essential to art and it’s essential to our society.”
As the success of New Amsterdam shows, including people with disabilities is a win-win for everyone. Seasons 1, 2 and 3 can be viewed online or on Hulu. Season 4 premieres on Tuesday, September 21 at 10/9c.