Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) is a mom on a mission who will do anything for her husband Jimmy, her kids Ray, Dylan, and JJ, her eldest son with cerebral palsy. As Maya fights injustices both real and imagined, the family works to make a new home for themselves, and searches for just the right person to give JJ his “voice.”
During our visit to the ABC set of Speechless, we had the pleasure of speaking with the Creator and Executive Producer Scott Silveri.
Recent work includes the NBC series “Go On,” starring Matthew Perry, which Scott created, and “Perfect Couples,” co-created with Jon Pollack. At Twentieth Century Fox Television, Scott developed numerous projects and served as executive producer on the pilot for Fox series “The Grinder.”
Scott attended Harvard University where he served as an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Shana
How did your family react knowing you were gonna write a show that’s based on your experience?
They were really incredibly supportive about it. I made it clear from the beginning to them, as I try to make clear to anybody else, this is not their story. This is not my story or my brothers or sisters. What’s important to me is to capture a couple of elements about the time we had growing up.I feel like you can take whatever challenge is thrown your way and wallow in it or turn it into something. You can curse the heavens or you can band together and make it work. And that’s what my mom did. That’s what my dad did. And I wanted to celebrate that at every turn. This (the show) is intended to be a love letter to my mom and my dad.It really is meant to be a loving depiction of our family. When I first showed them (the show) it wasn’t flattery or vanity, like there’s gonna be a famous actress playing a version of me or it was just Oh, it’s gonna be a family like ours on TV, and that’s fantastic, because so much of the experience of families like ours was just feeling invisible, you know, and not being heard.I don’t think that’s unique to disability, but it’s certainly the experience of a family with somebody with disability. It’s like people either stare or ignore.
Did you have to make any changes to make it more network ready?The network was pretty open and supportive of what we wanted to do. There’s a difference between Micah’s character, JJ and my brother in real life and real life my brother’s condition is more is significant. I there to be a lot more back and forth with his character. I never wanted that character to seem like a prop. I wanted him to be active. When I was thinking about the JJ character, the criterion that I kept coming back to is this a character that would exist on TV independent of a disability, independent of the wheelchair. That was the litmus test. But if it was simply defined by a wheelchair, that’s telling a story I didn’t wanna tell.
When did you know that Micah Fowler was the perfect actor for this?The second I saw the tape. We did a wide search all over the country and there was a funny thing that happened with the casting director, Susie Farris, who I worked with on a couple shows over a bunch of years. With Micah she said this is the one. We’re done. I’m sending you a tape. You’re gonna like it or I’m gonna quit. I saw him and he lights up the screen.
You know, I write words. He doesn’t have that to deal with. It’s a challenge for us thinking for the best way for him to express himself without them. It’s a challenge for him making this stuff work, being present in the scene without lines. Butt he did it from Day 1.
I’ve been wanting to do a show like this for 20 years, as long as I’ve been doin’ this, but he was the one that allowed me to do it. It was pretty easy. He made it easy for us —
It’s hard to find kids that aren’t like cutie pie. I feel super lucky with these guys. They’re real. They can carry scenes. And a lot of shows you’re lucky if you have one character who can go out in the world and mix it with them. We’ve been careful, and deliberate about stretching and having them go out and giving each of them the opportunity. And they — to my estimation, they can do it.
Can you talk about the relationship between Kenneth and JJ.
They just hit the ground running. In the early iteration of the script, there was no Kenneth, (JJ) spoke through a computer. Then I met a woman who’s since become a consultant on the show. Her name’s Eva Sweeny. It’s far more common these days to use a device and iPad. The technology’s unbelievable in the way it enables communication. When I was a kid in the ‘70s, there would be a board on somebody’s wheelchair and it’s like I want milk. I want bathroom. And that’s like it. People have more profound things to say and it’s incredible the way technology’s being used to empower these kids to speak. But, it’s a choice. There are a lot of different ways to do it. This young woman I met, Eva, is the one who I first saw communicating this way, and it was through an aid, and it was this odd thing. She prefers it. She finds it to be warmer. She finds it to be more conversational and there’s a flow to it. I liken it almost to like it’s like vinyl versus an MP3.
We cast Kenneth first. Cedric was the first one to sign up on the show. God bless him. I don’t know why he did. There was nobody else, and it was late in the process. We didn’t know that we’d find a family, but he signed up for the show and I had him meet Eva. He and Micah, right from the beginning, had a fast friendship. They just clicked and they make each other laugh and they sure make me laugh.
How does it feel to know that you nailed it (the show and telling the story)? I can’t agree, and I feel like we stretch out in different directions. We get it right. We get it wrong. But I will say the reception that we’ve gotten from families in this community has blown my mind. And I was, I was prepared for the fear because that’s how I feel like when I watch. There’s so many ways to get this show wrong.
As somebody who feels this stuff very personally, if I was a viewer I’d be very, very cautious about it. And I was really surprised, frankly, that people gave it a shot and embraced it. And then those who early on, said, like oh this is, this is gettin’ it right. I am wholly, deeply grateful to the people who gave it a shot and didn’t write it off before it aired.
We’re talking with parents’ moms of kids like this. We’re talking to kids like this. We’re talking to families. We have a partner in the Cerebral Palsy Foundation where we run ideas by them. So, we aree doing our homework. I can tell you our hearts are in the right place.
I just wanted to tell the story of this one family, but because there are so few representations, you can’t help but feel the burden of responsibility for people who are watching. So, I’m glad we’re not disappointing them in large numbers. I’m glad the majority seem to think we got it right, and I take that very seriously.
Why was this the right time to make the show? (he had been wanting to make it for 20 years)
There’s a couple things. I didn’t want it to be like the first thing I tried, because of the tone and because of the subject matter I didn’t feel like I was up to the challenge. I didn’t think it was going to be easy. And it’s not easy. I feel like I’ve just gotten a little older and a little more mature, and I had a sense of more mortality and mortality in my career. Like if I, if I don’t do it now, when am I gonna do it? Why shouldn’t I, why shouldn’t I take the shot? And it’s a little scary to put yourself out there that way.
It’s not a cynical show, and I think it’s easier to be cynical. But I thought what the hell? I’m just gonna try and put it out there. I feel like maybe I’ll write something I actually care about and understand.
On the show normalizing disabilities…
They did that years ago on Life Goes On for kids with Down Syndrome but it hasn’t happened a lot since, not with this. Any time you get a chance to show something with a little specificity, somebody who’s not like me but we have a lot in common, I think that’s great. Just have a conversation — you can ask. You — just don’t ignore people. You know, that was the anger that I felt growing up. Don’tt look the other way. Don’t stare. Don’t look the other way. There’s a lot in between. Let’s find a little something in between.
If I have any axe to grind, it’s that.
What’s the vetting process that you go through like when you’re trying to decide the — if something’s taking it too far or being politically correct?
I think that the mechanism is simply we ask people who lived this stuff, who live in the advocacy world. Um, we ask them. For instance, early on Micah, the actor, is working on walking. He has been for a long time. We thought well, if all the things that you see on TV, all the arcs that, you know, I’m gonna get a job at Bloomingdales, we’re like wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to do? Then we kicked it around for a while and I talked to a couple of people in the community, and they’re like, ehh, I’m not sure that you wanna go there especially early — ’cause we don’t wanna make it a story about overcoming a disability.
That’s insight that I don’t have. So, we’re doing our homework and asking the questions, but in terms of like — generally the things that make us afraid are the things that we’re running for. Like sexuality and disability. That’s somebody nobody wants to talk about we really wanna get this kid dating. When I talk to Eva, I was like, well, what kind of things should he be doing? And she said, well, he’s 16, he should wanna date. He should rebel. He should wanna be popular, wanna make friends. He should be out making mistakes. And so early on we had like drinking, we had him like driving a car when he shouldn’t be.
Be sure to watch a brand new episode of Speechless tonight, NOVEMBER 30 (8:30-9:00 p.m. EST), on the ABC Television Network.
“R-A-Y-C RAY-CATION” – Maya enlists the family to assist JJ in romancing a girl at school, but it backfires when JJ expresses his feelings to Claire, and they are not reciprocated. Meanwhile, as the DiMeos are always late, Ray has the family practice to get to school in time for his upcoming weekend field trip, on ”Speechless”
“Speechless” stars Minnie Driver as Maya DiMeo, John Ross Bowie (“The Big Bang Theory”) as Jimmy DiMeo, Mason Cook as Ray DiMeo, Micah Fowler as JJ DiMeo, Kyla Kenedy as Dylan DiMeo and Cedric Yarbrough as Kenneth. Guest starring is McKaley Miller as Claire and Jack Guzman as Driver.
“R-A-Y-C RAY-CATION” was written by Carrie Rosen & Seth Kurland and directed by Bill Purple.
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Disclosure: I was provided with an all-expense trip to LA by Walt Disney Studios to attend the Red Carpet Premiere of MOANA, as well as visit ABC televisions sets and attend the BFG brunch. All opinions are 100% my own.