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Speechless star on portraying kids with disabilities: ‘We haven’t had a chance see them be that real’

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Richard Cartwright/ABC

JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler) may be the resident scene-stealer on Speechless, but his father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) is easily capable of both snagging the spotlight and tugging at heartstrings when the occasion calls for it.

“The show does these very sweet moments, but then it’s undercut with something absurd, which has been my experience in life,” says Bowie. “You don’t have a lot of time for sentimentality. Life has other plans.”

For Jimmy, these “other plans” have included accompanying his wife Maya (Minnie Driver) in her attempts to befriend their insurance agent to make sure that JJ receives good health treatment, turning JJ’s wheelchair into a DeLorean for the family Halloween costume, and buying matching robes for his middle son Ray (Mason Cook) and himself to wear while they have conversations together.

With Speechless wrapping up its first season, EW caught up with Bowie to discuss his character, the impact the show’s had, and what fans should take away from the recently renewed sitcom.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jimmy doesn’t worry about a lot of things that most other characters would worry about. How has that been for you to play?
JOHN ROSS BOWIE: There isn’t actually a ton of Jimmy in the pilot, so I didn’t have a really firm grasp on who this guy was. I knew he’s got a dry wit and loves Maya and his kids. That’s all I had to go on. So I sat down with Scott (Silveri, the show’s creator), who had come to the conclusion that Jimmy is just really cool. Not necessarily in an edgy way. Just in a very unflappable way. This is not a guy who sweats the small stuff. As somebody who personally does sweat the small stuff, it is lovely to just throw myself into this guy who simply doesn’t care. Then he wrote me this beautiful speech that is something his father said to him. It’s about four episodes in, where Jimmy talks about being bulletproof and just not being concerned with what other people think at all. You’re right. So much of television comedy is “Oh, if I do this, people are going to think I’m ___.” But he just does not care. It really is liberating.

The show also has very real discussions about what it’s like to live with someone who has a disability. How do you balance that while still tackling the comedy?
By being honest about what that life means and what the future means. A lot of these things that these last few episodes have dealt with opens up a lot of doors to topics that we don’t often see discussed on TV. On the one hand, there are some really scary ideas about whether or not JJ is going to be able to live by himself. But then it also gives us the opportunity for him to play with the idea of dependence a little bit more. The key thing is, without trying to write his autobiography, keeping things honest and grounded and letting the humor come from there. Even the silly stuff has a kernel of truth to it. It’s just the kind of show I like to watch, let alone be on.

One of the episodes I loved was the one with the Oscar viewing party; it found a way to be inclusive but also very, very funny.
When Kenneth [Cedric Yarbrough] is looking around the room, and he realizes he’s got all these genuinely differently abled children in that they all have different abilities and they’ve all got different disabilities, he just takes the reality of, “Okay, we need to make this an inclusive experience for everybody.” If you just keep following that to its logical end, it just gets funnier and funnier and funnier. Eventually, everyone is wearing a blindfold and whipping each other with pool noodles. I will say this about that scene: All the writers took a break, came down from the writers’ room, and just stood in the video village watching the monitors. It was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. We’re all on the set of the house, so there’s not a ton of room, but we all just crammed in, and it was a truly incredible day. Those kids were great and just so game and willing to try anything. Micah [Fowler] was having the time of his life. It was a really, really fun day of shooting.

Richard Cartwright/ABC

Have you heard from fans who are differently abled or their family members?
Yeah. It’s been incredible. The community has really embraced us in a way that is incredibly moving. For instance, when we did the Oscar party episode, a couple of the kids had cerebral palsy. We had a young man with autism. All of their parents and the kids themselves were just gushing about the show and how they finally feel represented on television for the first time and in a real, holistic way. It’s not just like, “Oh, there’s this sweet little boy who uses a wheelchair, and he’s basically just Tiny Tim 150 years later.”

Micah and these other kids are given dimensions, and that disability deathmatch scene is great because they’re all trash-talking and they’re all being snotty little teenagers at each other. This is as it should be. They’re allowed to be kids, and they’re allowed to be viewed as occasionally really obnoxious. In the pilot episode, Micah flips me off. He flips off his father! Now I have children, and my sons recently learned the middle finger at school. He has, in a fit, flipped me off. Now is that appropriate or okay? Of course not, but it’s realistic. These are things that happen and that real kids do. We just haven’t had a chance to see kids with disabilities be that real.

JJ is a regular teenager in terms of having all that attitude.
He’s incredibly snotty! And he has this wonderful laziness. There’s this horrible trap that I think we fall into as viewers, and as just typical people, where we think that people in a wheelchair are either going to be also profoundly cognitively delayed or Stephen Hawking. We don’t allow for any gray area between those two extremes. It’s so limiting. One of the things the show does so well is show that there’s as much diversity within that community as within any.

We’ve learned things about Jimmy throughout the season, but what’s been your favorite thing to discover about him as a character?
Jimmy’s projects. I like these little short-term goals he sets for himself. Like when he discovers he can talk all the dads into doing things because they get used to being bossed around so much, or when he decides that he has to get a six-pack of banjo cola for his daughter, and it turns into all this action in the back of the supermarket, which is the closest I’ve ever come to shooting an action movie. We had a stunt double that day. It was crazy. So I love these little short-term goals he makes to make his life more interesting and fun. That’s a really fun thing to play. He maybe doesn’t have massive, grand aspirations in terms of, “I’m going to get my master’s degree, or I’m going to do this, or that.” But he sets these fun little short-term projects for himself and then occasionally follows through. I love that about him.

What would you want fans to take away from this?
Oh, goodness. To do 23 episodes of anything good is just a huge, huge effort. It really is. It’s really hard to get something with a really strong comedic vision on the air, on the network, and get a full season out of it. So I’m really, really proud of the 23 we did. If that’s it, then it will remain a complete and total career peak for me personally.

Speechless has been renewed for a second season.