It's incredibly rare for an actor to score the lead role in their first-ever feature film, but that's exactly what happened to 22-year-old Kiera Allen with Hulu's Run. From the team behind the John Cho-starrer Searching, Run stars Allen as Chloe, a 17-year-old whose overbearing mother, played by Sarah Paulson, has a tight grip on her entire world, from the medication she takes to her ability to leave the house. Understandably, Allen has quickly found herself awash in a much-deserved spotlight. "It's such a busy, busy, crazy day, like you wouldn't believe," she tells BAZAAR.com. "I'm setting up for the junket on Saturday and the premiere on Monday, and I'm also in school. It's a crazy time."
A wheelchair user herself, Allen and her casting are forging new norms on-screen. As one of the few disabled actors to play a disabled character, she's in a unique position. And though it's frankly unbelievable—and quite frustrating—that we're still discussing lack of representation on-screen in 2020, disabled characters are almost always played by able-bodied actors. It's a truth that the disability community, myself included, has long campaigned against. Arguably, change won't really happen until disabled writers and directors are telling their own stories, but Allen's casting is a critical move in the right direction.
Ahead, BAZAAR.com chats with Allen about her experience—learning from Sarah Paulson, navigating accessibility on set—as well as her love of The Crown's Olivia Colman and disabled representation both on and off the screen.
This is your first-ever movie role, and it's incredibly rare for a disabled actor to be cast as the lead in a Hollywood movie. How did that feel?
It is pretty crazy. It's very unusual to do a leading role in your first feature film. It is very fortuitous and very lucky that it happened that way. They were looking for someone who fit my description. They were open to casting an unknown. It's also quite an intimidating thing coming in with no film experience whatsoever, but I was very lucky to be working with this incredible, incredible team—[writer/director] Aneesh [Chaganty], [writer/producer] Sev [Ohanian], [producer] Natalie [Qasabian], and actress Sarah [Paulson]—all of whom have much more experience in this arena than I do and were so, so supportive. All of them believed in me from the very beginning. Believed in me more than I believed in myself.
I remember going home and reading the script, and looking at what I had to do the next day, what I'd have to pull off as an actor, and saying, "Oh, my God, I can't believe they trust me to do this. I can't believe they're giving me this much responsibility and they're resting this much of Run on my shoulders." It was terrifying, but it was also amazing for my very first film to have that many people I really admire and look up to believe in me.
And, of course, it is such a huge moment for representation, and I'm so glad that they chose to have authentic casting in this film. It's exciting on many levels. As a person, as an actor, as a person in the disability community.
I can't imagine them casting someone who wasn't disabled. I'm so glad they were willing to do that and to look for an unknown actor who maybe hadn't had this chance before.
I feel very lucky. The timing was right. They wanted authenticity. They cared very much about the authenticity of this story, in the writing of it as well. They did a lot of research. They spoke to a lot of people at universities about disability and listened to me when we were on set about my perspective, my experience. They cared very much about having a movie that was truthful to this character.
I saw that you were involved in advising on the script's disability content. What did you hope to get right from a disabled perspective?
I definitely don't want to overstate the role I had, as really the script was all Aneesh and Sev. They wrote this beautiful, amazing script. From the first time I read it when I was in the audition process, I emailed Aneesh and said, "Whatever happens with this role, whether I'm right for it or not, I'm so excited to see this film because this is one of the best representations of a disabled character I've ever, ever seen."
We were starting from a really amazing place, but they really welcomed my perspective and my feedback. They never demanded it of me, or made the authenticity my responsibility, because they were doing their own work, their own research, and had done all this groundwork. But they made it a very safe, comfortable place for me to come forward and say, "Actually, I wouldn't do this this way, I would do it this other way," or, "I wouldn't use this word, I would use a different word."
And not only in regard to disability, but also the character in general. I had the space and the permission to come forward and be like, "I don't feel right about this moment. This is my understanding of the character, and I feel like I would do it this way instead." They always made that space for me to be a collaborator. And that's definitely not something you always get as an actor on set. The story came from them—I'm not an official consultant on this film—but I felt very, very lucky to be working so closely with this team and to have that kind of respect and trust from them.
It's so rare to see accurate representations of disability, and I feel like there's such a long way to go in the industry. Sometimes I think that we're not going to get disabled representation right until we have more disabled people behind the scenes, and disabled writers and directors too. Is there anything you might look for in future roles?
I absolutely agree. I am only one person, so I can't represent the whole disability community. But, of course, having disability representation in front of the camera is extremely important, and having that representation behind the camera is extremely important as well. It's very exciting to be breaking this boundary, but, of course, it's just the beginning. And I really hope people see Run not as the finish line, but as the starting line. There's so much more that people haven't seen in terms of what disabled artists can bring to the table, because there's been so little media representation. So this is a really exciting moment to be a part of.
I would love to see more stories written by disabled people as well. I'm a writer, I would love to be a part of that. And I would love to see disabled actors cast in roles that aren't written as disabled. It's, of course, important to tell stories that relate to disability, but a lot of stories in my life have nothing to do with disability. Let's see disabled love interests; disabled superheroes—I'm so excited to see Lauren Ridloff in Marvel's Eternals—disabled supervillains whose motive is not being angry about their disability; disabled Black, Indigenous, and people of color; LGBTQ+ folks; disabled people who have not had the privileges I've had in getting here from looking the way I look. There's a lot more diversity in the disability community than we're seeing right now, and I really hope that this is a step toward better visibility. I'm just so excited to see disabled people as people on-screen, and I think this is a huge step in that direction.
One of the reasons I took a break from working in theater was because I found it quite inaccessible. I wondered if there were any adjustments that were made for you to do this film? Was it accessible, or did you encounter any barriers?
I'm so happy you brought up theater. I'm sitting in my room looking at my theater posters—Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Falsettos, and Hamilton, Les Mis. I was mostly working professionally in theater before Run. And certainly, accessibility is always something to be considered. I'm really lucky to have worked with a lot of amazing teams in theater, where it really wasn't made an issue. I think in theater and in film, these are people who are used to working around various logistical challenges. That's kind of the job of being on set or working on a theatrical production. These are innovative people, smart people, people who are used to finding workarounds. I really don't think accessibility is all that different from that.
One of the people I got very close to on set was a guy named Marc Reichel, who did our special effects, and I was talking to him all the time about the creative solutions they would have to find. And it was wild the stuff they would do—wrapping hoses around trees for fake rain and decorating them so they looked like vines, because they were out in the open and couldn't have a rain machine. These are things that people in this industry are used to figuring out, so I don't see accessibility as all that different, other than it makes space for so many who haven't had these opportunities before.
Working with [the team on Run], the whole crew up in Winnipeg, they made it so easy and comfortable. Aneesh, Sev, and Nat approached me early on and said, "Would you like to send out a memo to the crew? We'll get it approved by the studio, and it'll say, 'Here are some helpful things to know about working with a person with a disability.'" It was one page where I said very basic things like, "Don't come up behind me and push my chair without asking. Unless I say otherwise, I'm perfectly fine pushing myself. Don't put things in front of ramps. Don't set up equipment so that the pathway is very narrow." Very, very simple things that were easy for people to understand and follow through on, and they did. They absolutely did.
It was amazing that with this one page, this one short memo, everyone was on board. And so many of the issues that I have on a day-to-day basis, going through the world as a wheelchair user were just gone. And it was wild to me how little it takes to make it a really comfortable, wonderful working environment.
It's funny, because I've been asked quite a bit about accessibility on set, and I keep thinking back and, you know what? I don't even remember much about it, and that's the best part of it. After you've set up, it was just part of our day. It wasn't something I thought about much, because the structures were in place. I really think there's a lot of fear of the unknown, because people aren't used to making accommodations.
You're a creative writing student—what are you working on right now?
Right now, I'm working on what I have to write for my school. I'm a cross-drama major in fiction and nonfiction. It's a really amazing program. I'm lucky enough to take a class with Margo Jefferson, who's a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and an astounding mind. And so, to sit in a class like that every week is such a privilege.
Writing is something that I've always had a passion for. There was never a time where it was acting over writing, or writing over acting. They really bloomed from the same place of this love of storytelling, so I see them as very deeply interconnected. I haven't yet had the chance to combine the two and write my own material, but that's definitely something I'm interested in for the future.
How did you get into acting? Has it been a long journey to get here, or did it just happen?
I'm only 22, so by necessity it hasn't been a long journey [laughs]. I'm very, very lucky to have had this incredible opportunity so early in my career. I've always loved acting from a very young age. I always loved films, and loved theater, and was just so enamored with the stories. I always, always wanted to be a part of that world.
I started acting professionally a few years ago. When I was 19, I made my off-Broadway debut in Bekah Brunstetter's play called Girl #2, which was part of a festival with the Off Broadway Theater Company and Theater Breaking Through Barriers, and it was a hugely formative part of my education as an actor. That was the thing that really made me feel like I have a place in this world.
It's certainly a confluence of a lot of factors. Of luck, and privilege, of course, and hard work, and having the right people around me and a lot of support. But I dedicated myself to this as fully as I possibly could and gave it everything I had. So to have that paying off now is, just, I don't have words for it.
You are so wonderful in Run. I love that the camera spends so much time with you. What was it like performing opposite Sarah Paulson?
I've been asked this question a lot, and rightly so, because it's so extraordinary to have an experience of acting opposite someone like her. But I still start off speechless every time. To get to do your first feature film opposite one of our greatest living actors, and someone who's so generous as an actor—even when the camera wasn't on her, even when we were doing my coverage, she always gave me everything she had. Even if it was exhausting, even if it was emotionally difficult, she did that for me. She supported me in every way. I think if I had just been allowed to sit on set, it would have been a masterclass where I got to watch her work. It would have changed my life.
To be in scenes opposite someone of Sarah's caliber, it's just every actor's dream and something that so few people ever actually get to do. I feel so lucky to have done that with her and to have her as a friend now, to have her support. And having seen the film since then, I was with her in every scene that she shot, and I was still shocked by her performance, by how amazing it was. There were threads that I hadn't connected. There were choices that she made that didn't come across to me until I could see the whole film in sequence. I texted her that night and was like, "Sarah! Oh, my God! What did you do?!"
Do you have any dream collaborators?
So many. I would absolutely love to work with [the Run team] again. It was just such a dream to work with them. There are a number of other people I really look up to in this industry. I really love Marielle Heller as a director. I really admire Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is another writer-performer. And Lin-Manuel Miranda. Matt Damon is someone I really looked up to growing up.
People who act and write, and do them both equally well. I would love to work with people that are like-minded like that. I've been really obsessed with Olivia Colman lately. I just think she's so, so incredible, and I've been watching and re-watching Broadchurch. She's a really beautiful actor. And Sam Richardson, who may be the greatest improv actor in the world. Acting opposite someone like that or watching him work with something I wrote—that would be a dream come true.
Where do you see your life in five years?
I'm trying to stay present right now. There's so much that's unknown, especially because this is my first time doing it, and I really don't know what to expect. I just feel very lucky to be in this moment right now, appreciating that people are watching Run and enjoying it, and to have everyone see all of the incredible work that this team has done together, that I'm really proud of. That's my main focus.
Really, my main goal is just to work with really good people. I want to work with people who are passionate, and who are kind and generous, like the team on Run.
Photos courtesy of Kiera Allen, Eric Hobbs, and Hulu. Design by Ingrid Frahm.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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