NBC's 'La Brea' makes Zyra Gorecki a disability role model on screens where few exist

·6 min read

In the premiere of NBC's new sci-fi series, "La Brea," actor Zyra Gorecki outruns a mammoth sinkhole that swallows her mom, brother and most of downtown Los Angeles.

Then the camera pans down, in slow motion, to focus on the black blade propelling Gorecki forward where her left foot would be. The audience gets its first hint that this actor is unlike other action-adventure heroes who've come before.

A scant few characters with disabilities can be found in TV shows, commercials and movies. But Gorecki, a 6-foot blonde amputee and former model, is enjoying a breakthrough role on "La Brea."

It’s a performance Gorecki, 19, who lost her leg below the knee at age 13, said she was meant to play.

Amputee Zyra Gorecki stands on set during the pilot of NBC's "La Brea."
Amputee Zyra Gorecki stands on set during the pilot of NBC's "La Brea."

“To have this platform and to help people with it, that’s all I ever wanted,” Gorecki said in a phone interview (with NorthJesey.com, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network) from her rural Michigan home, the town of 2,000 where she grew up and still lives part time.

The star turn puts the teenager in a rare position. With few exceptions, such as the deaf actor and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, Hollywood has relegated actors with disabilities to sideline roles. When such characters are featured, they've typically been portrayed by actors without disabilities and in roles that define them by their perceived shortcomings, such as the mentally ill mathematician John Nash played by Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind."

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A 2016 analysis of the previous year's top-grossing Hollywood films found just 2.4% of characters with named parts had a disability, according to the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. People with disabilities can only be found in 1% of ads even though they make up 26% of the population, according to Nielsen, which specializes in media analytics.

Gorecki stars in "La Brea" as Izzy Harris, who searches with her father for the other half of her family after the sinkhole sucks Los Angelinos into a mysterious primeval world.

David Appelbaum, the show’s creator, wrote the part specifically for an actor who had lost a limb.

“He wanted an amputee for the story because there isn’t a lot of disability in the media and he wanted that representation,” said Gorecki. “They sent an email to the camp I go to called Camp No Limits.”

The camp, which is for “children with limb loss and differences,” according to its website, sent an email to its campers announcing a TV show was looking for people who were “interested in auditioning for the role of a 16-year-old girl who is missing her leg.” Gorecki said.

Still, as the prosthesis on her left leg illustrates, Gorecki’s path hasn’t been an easy one. She lost the leg in a "lumbering accident” near her home.

“I was not wearing boots because I was a 13 year-old child and cocky: 'Good shoes, I don’t need that.' I thought I was invincible and I was not,” she said. “We live out in the middle of nowhere and have a woodstove and we would cut logs to heat our house. We were moving a really big log onto a trailer and it fell on my foot and crushed it.”

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The catastrophe didn’t keep Gorecki down for a long. Her family “does really well in bad situations,” she said. Sloughing off trouble was a common trait in the clan: You just move on, and so she did.

“In the hospital my aunt wrote, ‘One foot in the grave’ on my cast. We thought that was really funny,” Gorecki said with a laugh.

She was still in the hospital when she realized that she wanted to be a model.

“I wanted to show people they can be beautiful regardless of what they look like because beauty comes from the inside. I wanted to showcase how beautiful being different is,” she said.

Gorecki eventually shifted from modeling to acting on the advice of her agent, who saw her big personality as destined for more than photo shoots.

LA BREA -- "The New Arrival" Episode 104 -- Pictured: Zyra Gorecki as Izzy Harris -- (Photo by: Sarah Enticknap/NBC)
LA BREA -- "The New Arrival" Episode 104 -- Pictured: Zyra Gorecki as Izzy Harris -- (Photo by: Sarah Enticknap/NBC)

By the time of the "La Brea" auditions, she'd had just one prior acting gig under her belt, an episode of "Chicago Fire." Gorecki played a woman who lost her leg in an accident.

She had no lines in that show, just a yell.

“I was a struck pedestrian and my leg was sent sideways. So they obviously needed an amputee for the role. All they did was snap it back and then I screamed.”

'From zero to 100 real fast'

In 2019 she found herself in L.A., meeting her fellow "La Brea" cast members.

“I went from zero to 100 real fast,” Gorecki said.

When she shows up for photo shoots and auditions, Gorecki finds people follow her lead. Her disability isn’t a big deal to her so others tend to respond in kind.

“Most of the time they would go, ‘Oh, wow, you are really tall’ or ‘You have blue hair.’ I don’t think anyone has ever said, 'Oh my God! You have a fake leg.' Most times people don’t notice it. It’s not that I don’t wear pants or shorts that show it off. I just don’t make a big deal of it, so people don’t see that as all that I am,” Gorecki said.

Still, the actor said she realizes she has something to offer in these days where conversations of inclusion often leave disability out of the picture.

“I hope that some person or little kid or whoever it is will see me and go, ‘I can do it, too.’ I hope one day I will be a good role model to somebody.”

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Gorecki said Appelbaum took great care in depicting her disability accurately. A 2019 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropy that advocates for people with disabilities, shows efforts like these by writers and producers could be rewarded.

About half of U.S. households "support accurate portrayals of disabled characters," it stated in its report, “Disability Inclusion in Movies and Television."

These viewers, who tend to skew younger, "would sign up for a content distributor committed to disabled actors," the foundation said. It's a lucrative audience, the report added, with "spending power" estimated at $10.4 billion per month in the U.S.

La Brea” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC and streams the next day on Peacock and Hulu.

Gene Myers is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: myers@northjersey.com

Twitter: @myersgene

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: 'La Brea' star Zyra Gorecki gives Hollywood a disability role model