Is There a Right Way to Act Blind?

Activists slammed the TV show “In the Dark” for casting a sighted actress in a blind lead role. But what if blindness is a performance of its own? By Andrew Leland
NY Times, July 1, 2021

I learned about the TV show “In the Dark” in March 2019, when the National Federation of the Blind, the largest and most politically active blindness organization in the country, announced a protest of the show. A few weeks later, just before the premiere, the organization staged demonstrations outside CBS’s Midtown headquarters. The reason for the protest was that the show had cast a sighted actress in the lead role, a blind character. Blind protesters stood on West 53rd Street, holding canes in one hand and signs that read, “Let Us Play Us!” in the other. “We have had enough!” the N.F.B.’s president, Mark Riccobono, said in his announcement of the protest. “There are blind actors looking for work, and no sighted actor, however accomplished or talented, can bring the same insight and authenticity to a blind character.” With production on the show already wrapped, the N.F.B. demanded that the network, the CW, trash the first season and reshoot it with a blind actor in the lead, replacing Perry Mattfeld. The CW ignored these demands, as did CBS Studios, which produces the show, and the series premiered on schedule.

“In the Dark,” which just began its third season, follows Murphy, a single blind woman in her 20s, as she navigates the contrived wreckage of her life. Most of Murphy’s problems aren’t directly connected to her blindness. Her foibles will sound familiar to any televised millennial living in her own post-“Veronica Mars” genre-blended soap opera: She hates her job at a guide-dog school run by her parents, but it’s also her main source of friendship. She can’t stop drinking and smoking and sleeping around. She might be falling in love with the guy who works at the absurdly named food truck (“Dirty Sliders”), but her self-destructive behavior keeps messing up their relationship – as does his involvement in the cartoonish criminal underworld whose violence continually interrupts the show’s otherwise sarcastic tone.

In the pilot, Murphy happens upon the body of a teenage drug dealer she befriended, identifying him by feeling his face, whose contours she is familiar with because, conveniently, she felt it earlier that episode, on a lark. After the body disappears and the police don’t believe her story, Murphy takes it upon herself to investigate her friend’s murder, becoming a sightless eyewitness – a blind detective. Each episode follows Murphy as her guide dog pulls her around a CW-burnished Chicago (i.e., greater Toronto), her gaze wobbly and unfocused, her head cocked as she listens for clues.

I began watching the show with great interest because, right now, I’m caught somewhere between sight and blindness myself. I’ve been losing my vision slowly for my entire life. At first, it was imperceptible –
to me and to anyone else. Over the years, I passed various milestones of blindness: In my early 20s, I retired from driving at night; in my late 20s, I retired from driving altogether. A few years after that, I gave away my bicycle. Today, at 40, I can’t see much of anything in low light, and my extreme tunnel vision means I’ll probably leave you hanging for a handshake or a high-five. If I tried traveling without my cane, odds are that on my way across town I’d accidentally kick your dog, walk into a signpost and fall off a curb. But under the right conditions, I can still read print (especially if it’s large), watch TV and generally pass as sighted.

In public, I often feel as if I’m performing my disability: People see the cane, the ultimate signifier of blindness, and expect me to be blind – which I am, only not in the way they expect. The cane and the word “blind” each suggest a total absence of sight, but then people see me make eye contact with them or read a street sign, and I can feel them (sometimes, in the most painful cases, even hear them) wonder why I’m faking it. I’m actually relieved when I inadvertently do something “authentically” blind, like touching my cane to an obstacle I had no idea was there. Having a disability in public can make you feel like a celebrity: People look, and look away, then look again. I feel like a method actor, immersively training for the role of a lifetime: a blind star. But how should a blind person act? What does real blindness look like?

As I watched the show, I became fascinated by what made Mattfeld look blind, even when she was standing perfectly still. I’d spent plenty of time around actual blind people – many of whom were in fact professional blind people, workers in the blindness industry, whose jobs it was to help the newly blind figure out how to do things like find the bus stop and cook dinner without sight. But now I wanted to understand what someone who acts blind professionally looks like – to observe up close how a convincing performance of blindness is constructed. So I flew to Toronto, to visit the set of “In the Dark” during its second season, to see for myself how it is done.

Blindness may be, in some ways, the easiest disability for a nondisabled actor to inhabit: There’s no twisting of the limbs or facial contortions of the kind that won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for “My Left Foot” (1989, best actor), and no need to learn sign language, as Sally Hawkins did – poorly, according to one deaf critic – for “The Shape of Water” (2017, best-actress nomination). But while it’s fair to point out that most blind people don’t technically watch television, you don’t need to actually see the visual intricacies of a performance to understand the sort of cultural work it’s doing in representing you. Negative and reductive portrayals of blindness have persisted onscreen throughout film and TV history, from Thomas Edison’s “The Fake Beggar” (1898) to Al Pacino’s virile blind depressive in “Scent of a Woman” (1992, best actor).

Yet the N.F.B., founded in 1940, organized protests of films or TV shows only a handful of times before “In the Dark,” most recently in 2008 with the release of Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation of Jos’ Saramago’s novel “Blindness.” It argued that the film (and the novel) – about an epidemic of sudden blindness that leads to a societal breakdown, which is, in its broad strokes, not unlike a zombie movie – portrayed blind people as “monsters.”

An actor in a blind role must figure out how to inhabit the experience of sightlessness, how to represent its emotional dimensions alongside the practical ones. Some actors, including Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray” (2004, best actor) and Blake Lively in “All I See Is You” (2017), have chosen to wear ocular prosthetics, rendering them literally blind during their performances. But this creates a new problem: Unlike real blind people, who can spend years honing their orientation and mobility skills, the blindfolded sighted person becomes lost, confused and frightened with the sudden loss of sight – Foxx told interviewers he began hyperventilating as soon as his eyes were glued shut with the custom prosthetic eyelids that the filmmakers affixed over his eyes.

Blind characters tend to be slotted into a few basic tropes. There are the blind seers, whose loss of vision affords them a spiritual second sight, like Tiresias from Greek mythology and Neo from the “Matrix” series. There’s what critics call the “supercrip,” a character who compensates for a disability so spectacularly that he becomes a superhero – as in “Daredevil,” about a blind vigilante whose remaining senses have grown supernaturally sharp. Conversely, there’s old Mr. Magoo, a nearsighted man played for laughs as a slapstick buffoon, unwittingly destroying everything in his path, or the disabled stars of inspiration porn, whose stories of overcoming adversity seem to exist solely to make nondisabled viewers feel better about themselves.

“In the Dark” was born out of the CW’s desire to present an image of blindness that moved past these clich’d depictions. In 2017, Lorri Bernson, a media liaison for Guide Dogs of America, was invited to speak at a corporate retreat attended by about 80 CW executives. In a talk about her experience of blindness, she told the audience that she didn’t let herself look like the stereotypical blind person – she planned her outfits carefully and figured out how to continue her daily routines even after she lost her sight from diabetes. The CW’s president, Mark Pedowitz, invited her to speak at another retreat. Introducing her the second time, she recalled, Pedowitz told the gathered TV executives, “Listen closely – I think there’s something here.”

The network hired Corinne Kingsbury, a former writer on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” to develop a show. Kingsbury was initially skeptical of a show about a guide-dog trainer, but after talking to Bernson, Kingsbury began to form a vision of Murphy as someone “complicated, flawed, unapologetic – who just happens to be blind.” She would be, Kingsbury said, “a blind person like you’ve never seen on TV.”

Kingsbury siphoned Bernson’s personal experiences into the show: the time she was attacked by a homeless man who wanted to steal her guide dog, or her irritation with restaurant buffets (she struggled to figure out what was in each serving dish or where the plates were stacked). In the first episode, someone cheerfully asks Murphy, “Why don’t you look blind?” This is something Bernson, and many blind people, get all the time. In real life, Bernson usually keeps her mouth shut, but she delights in the snarky comebacks that Murphy gets to make onscreen. With her mouth full of food, she snarls at the woman: “Same reason you probably don’t look stupid.”

Despite the fact that blindness is largely invisible – at least until the blind person picks up a cane, or fails to notice an obstacle – there’s still a public perception (however ill conceived) of what blindness ought to look like. The casting director needs to find someone who can convincingly look blind while also having the characteristics – acting skill, sex appeal, charisma – required to carry a mainstream network TV show. “In the Dark” made a point of auditioning blind actors for the lead role, though the casting directors said they knew from the beginning that they would have trouble finding a talent pool large enough to draw from. When the handful of blind roles in film and TV shows each year go almost entirely to sighted actors, most blind people grow up without any reason to expect to find a career in show business. Why would they bother?

Before Barbara Stordahl and Angela Terry auditioned actors for “In the Dark,” they worked on a show called “Huge,” about a group of teenagers at a fat camp. Casting “Huge,” they encountered a similar problem: Overweight teenage actors are, like actors with disabilities, an underutilized population on television, and so the talent pool they could draw on through their usual channels was tiny. “Normally we get 2,000, 4,000 submissions for a series regular,” Terry said. Auditioning actors for “Huge,” they found fewer than 70 choices for each role. So they reached out to schools, camps and advocacy groups, building a database of “kids who carry more weight” as they went.

They used a similar strategy on “In the Dark,” sending their casting call out to nearly 30 schools for the blind, auditioning trained and untrained blind actors for two blind series-regular roles: Murphy, the lead, and Chloe, the daughter of a police detective. They cast Calle Walton, a blind 19-year-old, for the supporting role of Chloe. But in the end, nearly everyone I spoke to from the show about the decision to cast Mattfeld in the lead told me the same thing, in somewhat defensive and declaratively blunt terms: She was the best person for the role. The other actors they auditioned – including all the blind actors – just didn’t have the level of experience, or craft, that Mattfeld did.

Matthew Shifrin, a 24-year-old blind podcaster and composer with little acting experience, auditioned for the role of Josh, a visually impaired character introduced in the show’s second season. Josh was supposed to have just been diagnosed with a degenerative retinal condition – he didn’t even own a cane yet. Shifrin lives on the other end of the blindness spectrum: “Sunglasses, cane, the whole nine yards.” He hired a gesture coach to teach him expressive body language that people born blind, like Shifrin, typically lack. On his own, he says, he tends to stand like a statue, arms at his sides, and has to remind himself to raise his eyebrows or smile.

I asked Shifrin about how he sees disability in relation to the increasingly intense debates that surround films and shows that fail to cast actors who can authentically embody their roles, whether around race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. Despite the significant obstacles that members of these other groups face in getting these roles, he said, once they’re hired, the actors most likely won’t have any trouble navigating a set, learning their blocking, hitting their marks or performing stunts. But getting the role is just the first challenge for disabled people, who need accommodations throughout the production process: more time getting from location to location; accessible scripts, or ramps, or bathrooms. Shifrin finished the audition process skeptical that blind actors could ever break into the industry in any significant way. “It’s like a turtle auditioning for the role of a bird,” he said. An actor with a mild, nondegenerative visual impairment got the part of Josh.

Marilee Talkington was one of the few professional blind actors who auditioned for the role of Murphy. The show offered her a recurring role (later cut down to a few lines in the pilot). Talkington was diagnosed with rod-cone dystrophy. She has no central vision, but she can see somewhat through her periphery, which is gradually degenerating. This makes eye contact complicated. When she was in fifth grade, her mother, who has the same eye condition, sat her down and told her that she had a choice: She could look away from people’s faces in order to see them, or she could look directly at them – and not see them. “If you choose to look away,” her mother warned, “the world we live in will treat you differently.” Talkington trained herself to look people in the eyes, locating them with her blurry peripheral vision.

With this skill, she has spent most of her career playing sighted characters. She had a recent appearance as a lawyer on an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and the question of blindness doesn’t figure into her performance at all. She appears in the scene alongside her client, who’s being interrogated by the police. As the cops lay glossy headshots of young women down on the table, Talkington shoots her client a concerned look. Her gaze is natural and direct. Aside from a few lines (“Tell them what you know, Alex”), she spends the entire scene performing one of the most basic tasks of acting: silently reacting to everything around her. She looks with downcast eyes at the photos on the table, then glances back with anxiety at her client. Her head turns, and toward the end of the scene, she fixes the detectives with a look of stony defiance.

When I arrived at CBS’s new 260,000-square-foot, six-soundstage facility near the Toronto airport where “In the Dark” was being filmed, I met the publicist who arranged my visit, and from that point, she didn’t leave my side unless I actually entered a men’s room or left the building to go back to my hotel. I wasn’t sure how much of this was standard operating procedure – making sure I didn’t try to sneak beyond her watchful P.R. gaze – and how much was because of my blindness, a fear that I might get lost or accidentally wander into a shot. On the third day of my visit, she finally guided me to Perry Mattfeld, whom I met in the Linsmore Tavern, her character’s local bar on the show – her Central Perk, her Cheers. There’s a real Linsmore Tavern in Toronto, but it was more than 20 miles away – and besides, “In the Dark” is set in Chicago.

We were standing on the soundstage, with spacecraft from “Star Trek: Discovery” parked on the other side of a corrugated steel divider. The bar itself, aside from the missing wall that allows cameras to pan and peer inside, was convincing: The dingy walls were covered in posters, and stuffed birds were perched above the bottles. As I slid into the booth, I set my white cane down beside me, and its tip fell past the edge of the set, which opened out into the fluorescent-lit concrete expanse of the soundstage.

Some blind people told me that their problem with the show isn’t with its casting, or even the way it represents blindness, but simply that it isn’t very good. “In the Dark” isn’t prestige television, nor is it trying to be. But the formula seems to be working, at least commercially: Not many viewers found the show when it was first broadcast, but it later moved to Netflix and did well enough there for the CW to order a third season before the second even premiered and a fourth season before the third was written.

The night before I sat down with Mattfeld, I watched her shoot a scene on location, outside a restaurant. She sat on a bench, rocking from the fictional cold (it was actually a mild fall evening) as she pulled out her phone and gave it a voice command: “Call Uber.” Her car arrived quickly, and she told her dog to advance. After fumbling to find the door handle, she climbed in with the dog, and the car sped away. I watched her cycle through this series of actions a half-dozen times. For the first few rounds, she made hardly any gestures toward blindness, just working to get the blocking right. Then the director was ready to shoot, and she went into character, spending more time searching for the car door’s handle before she let herself find it. It was jarring to watch her emerge from the back seat each time, restored to her sighted, out-of-character self before she plopped back onto the bench and reset her blindness for another take.

Much of Mattfeld’s performance of blindness comes down to a tendency toward mellow groping for objects and looking just off to the side of the action. Her acting emphasizes the imprecision of blindness: It’s unlikely that you’ll find something right away without seeing it, or knowing in advance where it is. So Mattfeld pats, feels and fumbles. Her eyes are always on some fixed point beyond the person she’s speaking to. As she moves around, her gaze is permanently averted, like a terminally shy person trying at all costs to avoid eye contact. Like any performance, this is an exaggeration of reality.

Any sighted person who has had a more than cursory conversation with someone who’s blind has had the uncanny experience of the blind person’s suddenly making direct eye contact with you. This is because your voice comes out of your face, and when one face is pointed at another, odds are that, occasionally, the eyes will meet. Many blind people, from Stevie Wonder to blind YouTubers, have been accused of faking their blindness, and eye contact is usually offered as one piece of (totally spurious) evidence. For the doubters, blindness can only look like slapstick and imprecision – anything else belongs strictly to the realm of sight. The biggest inaccuracy of Mattfeld’s performance, then, may be its failure to allow for the appearance of sightedness within blindness – to occasionally make direct eye contact, or once in a while reach for an object and nail it on the first try.

I wound up spending most of my time on set with Ryan Knighton, the first season’s only blind writer. (The show later hired another.) We passed hours sitting side by side in matching black director’s chairs, listening to takes, chatting and accepting improbable snacks from craft services – stuffed manicotti, apple slices dipped in caramel cream cheese – offered by hands that neither of us saw coming. Knighton has the same degenerative retinal condition I do, and he lost his remaining useful vision more than a decade ago, in his early 30s. It was strange to feel at once aligned with Knighton and still so unlike him in my blindness, as I did things with my residual vision that he no longer could. He kept forgetting how much vision I had, and I was surprised at how shocked he sounded when, one night at a bar, I carried two beers back to our table, my cane tucked into my armpit.
“In the Dark” wasn’t Knighton’s first run-in with the N.F.B. In 2012, he contributed a story to “This American Life” recounting an incident when he got lost in his own hotel room. (There was a confusingly situated alcove.) In a speech, the N.F.B.’s president at the time excoriated Knighton and “This American Life” for inaccurately depicting blindness as something alien, comical and frightening. “Can respect for blind Americans exist,” he asked, “when bigotry is permitted to masquerade as journalism?”

“But it’s real!” Knighton protested when I asked him about the story. He really did get lost in his own hotel room – it had even happened again since. (Years later, during shooting for Season 1 of “In the Dark,” he locked himself out of his hotel room in his underwear, without his phone or cane, and had to wait in the hall until a maintenance worker walked by to rescue him.) If these episodes are genuine parts of his experience of blindness, why not write about them?

The N.F.B.’s advocacy can be traced back to a single motivation: raising the low expectations that society has for blind people. Riccobono, the organization’s president, told me that these low expectations have profound consequences on people’s lives – as in cases where blind people are denied employment as soon as they disclose their disability, or infants of blind parents are taken into state custody because social workers don’t understand that blind people are capable of safe parenting without sighted intervention. So a scene like the one on “In the Dark” in which Murphy hides in her underwear under a coffee table from the wife of a hookup, not realizing the table has a glass top – for the N.F.B., comic scenes like this perpetuate the stereotype of blind people as an extended family of Magoos.

Knighton seemed to adopt an affectionately superior attitude toward me, the younger, still-somewhat-sighted blind novice who would someday be as blind as he was. He made blindness seem like a source of humor and even joy. Sometimes, though, his avuncular pose dipped into semibrutal honesty about the terrors of blindness – another idea that’s anathema for the N.F.B. Between takes one day, we were discussing Murphy’s alcoholism on the show. “She doesn’t drink to self-medicate,” he told me, gazing at a bank of TV monitors he couldn’t see. “It’s to change the view from the skull you’re trapped in.” We were sitting in Video Village, the black tent that the crew had built on the other side of the wall of the set. Being in the tent was like cramming into an F.B.I. surveillance van with six other agents, all of us wearing headphones, listening in on the repetitive action taking place in the artificial office on the other side of the wall. Knighton’s comment, about Murphy’s being trapped in her skull by her blindness, touched on my sense of “real” blindness as a claustrophobic nightmare. I suddenly had a vision of Video Village as the inside of a blind person’s skull: a black tent pitched in the middle of the world’s soundstage.

A blind person, I imagined, will often find herself at the center of the action while simultaneously at a remove from it. It’s so easy to exclude the blind from any situation, whether it’s a conversation or a job. Inclusion requires effort. Whenever we got up to leave Video Village, so that Knighton could observe the blocking of a new scene (with the aid of verbal descriptions from the producing director), we were guided by our minders, who gently steered us around hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of film equipment and unpredictably arranged ramps, boxes and cables.

The N.F.B. argues that blindness is not what defines a person – the blind are the same as everyone else. This is an empowering idea, but I find it less useful as a negative definition: If blindness is a nondefining characteristic, is there anything coherent that we can say about the experience? Is it really just a lack of sight, or can there be some sense of continuity around how it feels, and what it looks like?

After I ate dinner with Knighton and other members of the crew in an echoey concrete room next to the soundstage, the publicist guided me and Perry Mattfeld past the show’s Chicago police station and guide-dog school sets into the fake Linsmore Tavern. As we sat down in a booth across from each other, I wondered aloud what personal material Mattfeld drew on to inform her performance of blindness. “I don’t think Murphy and her blindness is any different than anyone else,” she said. “I mean, I’m almost six feet tall.” She has worked as a model and, in that context, feels comfortable with her height, but sometimes it can feel alienating. “I’m not sure that I’ll ever quite figure out how I fit in space.”

I peered at her through the toilet-paper tube of my tunnel vision. She took her glasses off and put them on again. “I don’t want to say I’m comparing my height to blindness,” she added, but then she did. “There are times – for example, I’m in a Pilates class, and we all stand and face the mirror, and I’m horrified by the fact that I look so big. I stand out, and I just look so out of place. I just feel so self-conscious. I assume that’s how Murphy feels sometimes, too. About her blindness.”

This is, in a mixed-up way, a progressive view of disability, an odd paraphrase of the N.F.B.’s ethos that blindness is not what defines you. Mattfeld’s reduction of blindness to tallness mirrors the way the show decenters her disability, the way her character “just happens” to be blind. Mattfeld might be tall, and that might feel awkward sometimes, but that’s not all she is – just as a blind person might feel about her blindness. It’s the double bind of representation: Blindness should be incidental, just one of many qualities that make up a character, but at the same time, underemphasizing blindness trivializes the stigma and marginalization it carries.

I find myself vacillating between two images of blindness. The N.F.B. presents blindness as a mere technical challenge, as long as one finds the proper training, tools and opportunity. The real barrier, the organization says, comes not from a lack of sight but from the low expectations of an ableist society. Then there’s the sense I got, listening to Knighton’s stories, of blindness as a claustrophobic absurdity, allowing a person to get lost in his own hotel room, locked in his own skull. Each of these images of blindness is, in itself, a performance: an attitude, a pose one can strike.

Neither reflects, I think, the full, lived reality of blindness, which is far messier. The most convincing and authentic performance of blindness is more ambiguous: precise in its fumbling, steady as it wobbles. Blind people don’t feel blind every moment they’re awake; for most of the day, they’re simply people, until they encounter an obstacle or someone says something that returns them to awareness of their difference.

I recently spent a weekend with a friend who has been blind since childhood. I watched him pat and fumble for objects, but he did so in a way that struck me as utterly assured, and entirely unembarrassed –
his fingers scanned the table just as your eyes might: quickly, casually, without apology. I aspire to this kind of blindness. The only way to get there, I suspect, is through rehearsal – practicing until my blind presence becomes convincing, if not to the world then at least to myself.

Sitting in the booth in the ersatz bar on set, Mattfeld explained how she constructed her performance of blindness. She described the process as a conscious turning-off of vision, the way you might tune out an annoying song playing in a cafe where you’re trying to read. “I try really hard to not focus on specific details,” she said, gazing through the invisible wall of the bar out into the expanse of the soundstage. “Like that ladder over there. I will note it, I will mentally take in the ladder, but I will not bring my focus to the bolts that are on the ladder.”

As it turns out, this deliberate letting go of vision is something that people do as they actually lose their sight, too. Knighton told me that years ago his visual field had dwindled so much that he could still see his computer screen but had to blow the text up to such a large size that it caused immense strain to read; at a certain point, seeing didn’t seem worth the effort anymore, so he stopped wearing his glasses altogether. We usually think of blindness as something that happens to people, whether gradually or suddenly, but blindness can also be a choice – a role one might grow into.
Through the long, stop-start production days, I watched as Mattfeld visually tuned out the world again and again. Eventually, I thought I could pinpoint her transitions into self-styled blindness. After a break in shooting, a voice yelled, “Rolling!” Mattfeld’s head dipped into a slight hangdog bow, and her eyes went dead.

Andrew Leland is a writer and audio producer based in Western Massachusetts. His book about the world of blindness and his quest to find his place in it is forthcoming from Penguin Press.

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