Authentic Casting in Action: Benjamin Phillips’ Experience on ‘Offspring’
I was very excited to have the opportunity to audition for a role on season six of, ‘Offspring’. They were looking for actors to play two blind characters, but wanted to remain genuine by putting authentic casting in action. Unfortunately, there aren’t many blind actors going around these days — many of them have sadly been discouraged in the past from performing on stage and screen, but leaders in the industry like Endemol Shine Australia are helping to change that.
Being blind my whole life, and being an actor, I was fairly confident that I could pull off playing a blind character. But how would this role fit in with the storyline of Offspring?
Offspring is about an obstetrician called Nina played by multiple Logie Award winner Asher Keddie.
As with most TV series, the script is continually being edited until just before we have to shoot, which means there’s usually only a short period of time to learn it. This time is limited even more when you need to adapt the script into a format that a screen reader can verbalise. In other words, I can’t see the script so I need it in an audio version. Production Coordinator, Jane Lindsay was tremendous in organising this for us so quickly, and for arranging our flights, pick up, and accommodation in Melbourne.
On the eve prior to the shoot, I took a taxi to Sydney airport and got stuck in the typical city peak hour traffic. The wardrobe department called me and asked if I knew my costume measurements, I had no idea but I got creative. I told the cab driver to take a detour past Kmart, where I ran inside and told an elderly checkout employee to check the tags on the back of my shirt. She explained that such requests were against company policy, I said this was a matter of national importance! I urgently needed the size on the label of my shirt, she reluctantly cooperated. Did I mention she also helped to check the size of my pants and shoes to an amused audience of queueing customers?
Having safely landed in Melbourne, I arrived at my extremely plush accommodation and couldn’t wait to get into the very lavish king size bed, but first I needed to sample some local cuisine! So I hit the streets of Fitzroy and explored this amazing city with its winding lane ways and oozing culture. I can’t exactly say that I went “sight seeing”, but all my other senses were richly rewarded during my adventurous journey. Oops! I hadn’t realised how late it was and had to hurry back to my accommodation before the sun came up. Early the next morning I made my way to the studio and straight into the makeup chair to ensure that my Offspring debut was a hit. No doubt about it the make up department worked wonders on me to make me TV ready!
Next was a visit to the wardrobe department where my Kmart antics came in handy and they were able to fit me out in some stylish clothes. During this fit out, they asked, “Do you normally wear a watch?” I explained that I didn’t — I just check the time on my iPhone as it’s able to talk to me. To remain true to authentic casting and the role, they decided not to put a watch on me. I commend them for taking the time to check with me first, rather than just telling me what they think it is that blind people normally do.
During filming, the whole team were also so flexible when things needed to be changed for authenticity. On the occasions my co-star Nastasia Campanella and I would suggest a better way of doing things — such as a more realistic way that a blind person might behave — to their credit they listened and appropriately adapted the script straight away. They really valued our expertise and input regarding the authenticity of our everyday experiences, including the typical body language and natural facial expressions of people who are blind. Shannon Murphy directed with such professionalism; she gently coached us through the process and provided incredibly helpful descriptions of what she needed us to do. It felt like she really closed her eyes and put herself in our shoes — a sign of a brilliant Director!
It was also such an honour and a privilege working with Producer Imogen Banks, she ensured that our experience on the set of Offspring was truly memorable. The biggest highlight for me was the way that everyone treated us so equally, we felt just as important and valued as the rest of the regular cast members. I absolutely loved the way they all viewed us as actors who happen to be blind, rather than blind people who happen to be actors.
We were also introduced to Kat Gillespie who would accompany us throughout the day, ready and willing to assist us with anything we might need at any time. Appointing Kat as our runner was a stroke of genius — she was the perfect person for the job! So thoughtful and considerate, suddenly appearing at the right moments when she noticed we needed a bit of extra help, yet giving us enough space and freedom to prepare ourselves properly for the roles and to get into the zone of staying in character. Kat especially came to my rescue during my time in the green room. I’d decided to use some eye drops just before going on set, and somehow managed to pour the liquid all over myself and my costume! She swiftly pounced on a box of tissues and quickly patted me dry before I was whisked off to set — she was such a legend!
I didn’t get to play the role of a hunky new doctor after all, but I did get to play a handsome young man becoming a father for the first time, and that was a very special role for me to play. I spent the week leading up to the shoot carrying a doll around my house to tap into my paternal side. By the day of the shoot I was deeply into character and was naturally getting emotional just thinking about having a new baby. When our precious newborn daughter arrived, I shed real tears of joy! In that moment I really wanted her to be able to see more than anything else in the world, and I was so incredibly relieved when Asher Keddie told us the good news that she wasn’t blind. I was overcome with happiness to share a beautiful little cuddle with our gorgeous baby girl before we wrapped.
This was all possible because of the beautiful story line written by Screenwriter Alice Bell. It may surprise some of you, but people with disabilities do get married and have children just like everyone else. Congratulations to Offspring for truly reflecting the broader scope of the community by including the diversity of a blind family.
Nastasia and I were exhausted after a long hard day’s work, but we were thrilled with what we had accomplished, proud to have represented others with a disability on Australian television. We sincerely hope to see more people with a disability on stage and screen in the future, but we need more great companies like Endemol Shine Australia to lead the way with inclusion and diversity by providing these authentic casting opportunities. It was an experience that I will never forget. We created such cherished memories that will last forever. Nastasia and I are eternally grateful for being so warmly welcomed into the Offspring family!
Check out Benjamin’s work in the award-winning short, Work Mate.