After two years of talks with director Kirill Mikhanovsky and screenwriter Alice Austen, Lauren “Lolo" Spencer never thought Give Me Liberty would see the light of day.
The hilarious comedy follows Vic (Chris Galust), a 25-year-old wheelchair-accessible transport vehicle driver. Spencer stars as Tracy, a social worker who gets caught up in the chaos as Vic tears through the streets of Milwaukee determined to help his family while adhering to his route
For Spencer, a disability lifestyle influencer who has lived with ALS for the past 17-years, the role has been a dream come true, especially after getting nominated alongside Octavia Spencer and Jennifer Lopez for a Best Supporting Female Actress award at the 35th annual Spirit Awards. Shadow And Act spoke with her to learn more about her experience making the film and her plans for the future.
“I learned about the film through my agent," Spencer remembered. “She came to me and told me, ‘Hey, these indie filmmakers are trying to make this film, they're specifically looking for a young Black woman who's a wheelchair user. Do you want to audition?' Prior to then, I had never acted. Thankfully, Kirill, who was our director, and Alice, who's our producer, really liked what I had done, and the rest is history. We kept in contact for two years via Skype before even going into production."
The moment Tracy appears on the screen when Vic enters her home to pick her up, viewers are thrust into her hectic and outspoken family. Understanding who Tracy was in all of her nuances and humanity was something Spencer was adamant about from the beginning. “I was really drawn to my character of Tracy because of the way she was written," the Sitting Pretty Productions founder explained. “She just so happened to have a disability. It wasn't some inspiration porn gaze. It was about her humanity, her personality and how she shows up in the world, first and foremost. It was literally about the realness of who she was, and the whole team was open to any notes for authenticity. Once I knew they were cool with those kinds of things, I was 100% on board." Spencer also discussed the similarities she has with the character and how she brought that to the role. “A good chunk of Tracy's personality is me--or was me. When I was younger, in my early and mid-twenties, I was way more rambunctious. I was able to tap into that part of Tracy because I was once that young woman, subconsciously proving to the world that I can hold my own regardless of how I get around."
Image: Music Box Films
Still, Spencer's journey to becoming Tracy was a hard-won and lengthy experience full of false starts and Kickstarter campaigns. “For me, the pre-production process was two years because it was an indie film," Spencer reflected. “The funding was really challenging. No investors believed that this film could be successful because there was a lead character with a disability, and every actor was an unknown first-timer. A lot of people backed out on helping to fund the film. Kirill and Alice even said some investors urged them to cast a non-disabled person for Tracy's character. They were literally raising money as we were shooting the film. I tell you, they put this movie together with toothpicks and glue and rubber bands; that's what it was."
The entire experience of Give Me Liberty has been a whirlwind for Spencer, especially since she nearly dropped out of the project just weeks before filming began. “After two years in pre-production, right before we were going to go into production, I backed out," the YouTuber explained. “I backed out because, at the time, I was working a full-time job. So all of this back and forth, ‘Oh, we're going to start, wait, we're not going to start, oh we're going to start, no, we're not going to start.' And then the last time, they said, ‘No, we're serious this time.' I didn't even believe it. It was too stressful, there was no paperwork, there was nothing, and I just had to go off of their word. There was no way I could go to my boss at the time and be like, ‘Hey, I got to be gone for two and a half weeks because they say that it's going to work this time, but I'm not really sure.' The director reached back out and was like, ‘Lolo, please, please, please don't back out. We need you; you are our Tracy.' It has all been so validating. I was just open to the representation of what it would mean if this movie was even able to make it out. The fact that it had the run that it had, then the Spirit Awards and the fact that I got nominated. It was just amazing."
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“I spent my whole life think in’ out the box...” ???????? Thank you @thewrap for including me in your December issue (center fold btw ????)!!! And all Academy members GIVE ME LIBERTY is available FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION so make sure you stream it and vote for us! ???????????????????? ???? @corinamariephoto #sittingpretty #thewrap #oscars2020 #givemelibertymovie
Looking ahead and riding the wave of Give Me Liberty, Spencer has a lot more up her sleeve. “Sitting Pretty started as my YouTube channel where essentially I just wanted to showcase disability lifestyle in a fun, sly, sexy kind of way," she explained. “I really wanted to bridge that gap between disability and society's assumptions about our lifestyle. I make content surrounding that no matter what it is, whether it's fashion, sex, relationships, going out and turning up, traveling, traveling tips, how to make your home accessible, things not to say, things to do and not to do. I'm really going to go a lot harder this year. I am working on a scripted series that I want to be able to get pitched to networks once it's ready. I've always been a person that wanted to have something of her own. That's why I started my YouTube channel because I don't really like waiting around for somebody else to tell me when I can get paid."
Despite the success of Give Me Liberty and her own personal elevation, Spencer is more aware than ever of the lack of visibility for people with disabilities in popular culture. “I do believe that society hasn't had enough of the conversation, and hasn't had enough of the conversation under the right context," she explained. “A lot of the times when they tell stories of disability it's to make the able-bodied community feel better about their lives because ‘Oh, poor little them, look at them, they can have a birthday party.' I just don't even think the proper conversation has even started in society. With regards to Hollywood, it's been sprinkled in here and there, so I would like to think that Hollywood is starting to really reconsider and cast authentically for roles with disability. When characters with disabilities were actually developed, they still weren't casting talent with disabilities to fill those roles. So, I have started to see, again, very slowly, but all this stuff takes time and patience, the representation is starting to show authentically. I do believe, which is why I do the work that I do, that the entertainment and beauty industries are what shapes culture and what changes culture. So anything that I can do to show that representation in an authentic way, I'm open and down to do it. But I do think the conversation of disability needs to start happening more often."
Give Me Liberty won the John Cassavetes Award at this year’s Indie Spirit Awards. The film is out now on DVD and VOD.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
Photos: David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images, Music Box Films
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