Bringing different worlds together

Lolo Spencer on casting people with disabilities and Give Me Liberty

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Give Me Liberty star Lolo Spencer: "I want to be a symbol of representation. I want to represent the community authentically, the black community, womanhood, and being a person with a disability."
Give Me Liberty star Lolo Spencer: "I want to be a symbol of representation. I want to represent the community authentically, the black community, womanhood, and being a person with a disability." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In Kirill Mikhanovsky's unparalleled absurdly hilarious and decisive Give Me Liberty, co-written with Alice Austen, shot by Wyatt Garfield (Kent Jones's Diane), Lauren 'Lolo' Spencer's character Tracy is the voice of reason.

Vic (Chris Galust) is the driver of a medical van in Milwaukee. This particular day, nothing works as planned. His grandpa (Arkady Basin) insists on cooking his idiosyncratic chicken dish for breakfast in the home, where he lives with a group of emigre Russians his age. One of them, Lilya, had recently died, and there is no ride to the cemetery, so Vic has to step in and drive the rambunctious gaggle to the funeral, combining this with the scheduled rides of the people with various disabilities that it is his job to pick up.

Vic (Chris Galust) with Tracy (Lolo Spencer)
Vic (Chris Galust) with Tracy (Lolo Spencer)

Among them is Tracy (Lolo Spencer), who herself has to take Steve (Steve Wolski) to a job interview. Instead they end up at the funeral, where her wheelchair breaks down and the Russian seniors are battling over which song to sing. Along for the ride is Dima (Maxim Stoyanov), who claims that Lilya was his aunt. But who knows? A perpetually hungry boxer, Dima is as big a liar as he is a flirt and a chicken aficionado.

Tracy's family is chaotic in its own way, she tries to keep calm in the immense mayhem surrounding her - which isn't easy. With her sword - a gift for her boyfriend but better suited for her - she resembles a warrior princess out to save the day. "It is what it is" we hear a remarkable character say early on in what turns out to be a kind of preface to Give Me Liberty. What "it is" in this unique comedy of humanity, is life we hardly ever see on screen.

On the afternoon before the theatrical premiere in New York, I met with the model/actor/activist to talk about this adventure, representation, and how important it is to cast people with disabilities.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You are the voice of reason ...

Lolo Spencer: I like to think so!

AKT: … in a film that has such wonderful total chaos.

LS: Yes!

Lolo Spencer on Give Me Liberty: "Tracy's character was very similar to experiences that I've had personally, I just knew that it was something I needed to be a part of."
Lolo Spencer on Give Me Liberty: "Tracy's character was very similar to experiences that I've had personally, I just knew that it was something I needed to be a part of."

AKT: Well, you do have a sword … Anyway, when you first read this script, what did you think?

LS: You know, when I first read the script - because so much was happening - I was a little bit like, how is the story going to come together? There were just so many elements to it. The more I read it, the more I understood it, I really saw the humanity in the project and how important it was to bring all these different worlds together. And how interesting it would be to bring them together in, of all places, a medical transport van. Given that Tracy's character was very similar to experiences that I've had personally, I just knew that it was something I needed to be a part of.

AKT: Did it change a lot from that initial script you read?

LS: There were definitely some revisions, for sure. Kirill, Alice and I spoke for two years before we went into production. Between those two years we talked, we shared stories. Stories about Milwaukee and of course Kirill telling the story of when he was a medical transport van driver. I shared my experiences just being a person with a disability, navigating the world and being an adult and having a career and all of those things. There were a couple of revisions, but the heart of the story and the authenticity that they wanted to maintain never got compromised. That was the part I was really really appreciative of.

AKT: There are times when you have to keep a stern face in the chaos of elderly Russians singing Let My People Go all around you.

LS: Yeah, I know!

AKT: And you just thought, "I need to get there!"

LS: Because that was what was going through my mind at all times. Tracy, okay, she's on a mission, she's already late which has already pissed her off. She's like, I just have to get through it to get there. A lot of the times, from a personal perspective being a person with a disability, that is part of our life. As much as we want to kick, scream, complain or whatever the case is, we still have to depend on people for certain things. That can be a very frustrating experience, to the point where we just have to be, like, okay, I just have to get there. I have to do whatever it takes. Okay, if I have to wait a little bit longer, if these people have to go ahead of me because nobody's paying attention to me - fine. But just let me get there!

Tracy (Lolo Spencer) with Steve (Steve Wolski) in Vic's (Chris Galust) van
Tracy (Lolo Spencer) with Steve (Steve Wolski) in Vic's (Chris Galust) van

AKT: And that experience is really shown in the film. That isn't shown in other movies.

LS: Right! Exactly. And those are the moments that are so important to this film, so important for so many people to see. Because you catch those moments that are never really shown in other projects. In other projects it's always like this kind of like angelic umbrella of when it comes to talking about people with disabilities and our lifestyles.

And this is a film that shows what really happens and how people have to deal with these things on a regular basis. That's what I think makes the film so special - that you see those moments that you probably have never seen before, especially if you aren't within close proximity to someone with a disability in real life.

AKT: And many filmmakers, I think, are very much afraid of that.

LS: Yeah, absolutely. There's this fear of being offensive. There's this fear of ableism, as we like to call it in the disability community. There's this feeling of not being mindful, you know, thinking we can just do any and every thing everyone else can - which we can in so many ways, yet there's still the things that you have to be mindful of, of our health and our feelings and those kinds of things. I think because a lot of people have not come within close proximity on a social level, on a personal level, to people with disabilities that they don't know how to handle it so they'd rather not deal with it at all, which is really unfortunate.

AKT: In Give Me Liberty, the fact that all these different communities are all brought together in this transport bus is fantastic.

Lolo Spencer: "I shared my experiences just being a person with a disability, navigating the world and being an adult and having a career and all of those things."
Lolo Spencer: "I shared my experiences just being a person with a disability, navigating the world and being an adult and having a career and all of those things." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

LS: It really is like insane.

AKT: Back to the sword you have. It's so totally absurd. Tracy giving this sword to her boyfriend who collects them. But this is his first.

LS: Exactly. That was one of the moments even on set when we were like, okay, the gift is going to be a sword. And everyone was like "What happened? And where is this coming from?" My co-star Max [Maxim Stoyanov], who plays Dima, he always calls Kirill a mad scientist. And it's moments like those that make you realise, yeah, he is a mad scientist. Like he knows what he's doing. Everything is strategic. Everything makes sense in his brain and then we see in the film, okay, now we know why the sword was there. It's such a great comedic relief.

AKT: And even in the comic relief the care is there. Tracy warns to be careful about Steve [Wolski] with the sword. It's the absurdity and the care - wrapped into something so wild.

LS: Yes, absolutely.

AKT: There's a mirroring we see with your, that is, Tracy's, family situation and Vic's situation. We get to know both mothers, we get the transport of things that you lie on, a mattress in one house, a sofa in the other. Did you talk about that mirroring while filming?

LS: No actually, because the scenes with Victor [Chris Galust] and his mom [Zoya Makhlina] I wasn't there for. So when I saw the film for the first time at Sundance I saw that mirroring as well and was like, there goes that mad scientist thing that he does! That's another element that makes it so relatable. Literally, no matter what's your background, where you come from, there is a mirroring because we are people at the end of the day first. Both mothers aren't the type of mothers that seem to have it all together.

AKT: No, not really.

Tracy (Lolo Spencer) carried by Dima (Maxim Stoyanov) with Vic (Chris Galust) at the graveyard: "I mean that scene is literally, I think, one of the best scenes, but it was the toughest shooting."
Tracy (Lolo Spencer) carried by Dima (Maxim Stoyanov) with Vic (Chris Galust) at the graveyard: "I mean that scene is literally, I think, one of the best scenes, but it was the toughest shooting."

LS: But yet they're the mothers trying to tell their kids, who are the responsible ones, what they should be doing with their lives. I think a lot of people can relate to that kind of relationship between parent and child and coming into your own adulthood. Trying to navigate that, but you still have your parents and siblings and people who are just there making their mistakes. And you're trying to be the most responsible, yet you're the one constantly being badgered all the time. I thought it was a great way to mirror worlds and keep it very authentic at the same time.

AKT: Authentic, with the absurdity that the mattress is stuck on the staircase in the same spot in the house when you return, where Vic was leaving it. But I want to talk about the scene at the funeral.

LS: One of my favourites. One of the toughest, but one of my favourites.

AKT: You're being carried to the grave. Well, we'll not give away what happens there, but it's a fantastic scene with the gravediggers and everything else.

LS: I mean that scene is literally, I think, one of the best scenes, but it was the toughest shooting. It was so cold that day, I couldn't even believe it. I'm a California girl through and through, like born and raised California. Lived in Northern California, that's where I was born and raised, moved to Southern California. I don't know cold like that. I don't understand the snow, I don't even know why it exists, it's just not my thing.

Lolo Spencer on Give Me Liberty screenplay by Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen: "There were a couple of revisions, but the heart of the story and the authenticity that they wanted to maintain never got compromised."
Lolo Spencer on Give Me Liberty screenplay by Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen: "There were a couple of revisions, but the heart of the story and the authenticity that they wanted to maintain never got compromised."

That particular day it was so cold and we had to be outside, and the chair breaking down and being carried all the way through. It was tough because even Max/Dima had to have the physical stability to get through. In between the breaks Max had to put me down, then Vic had to pick me up. We had so much fun doing that scene but even in the graveyard it wasn't like level ground. My wheels were really sinking into the ground. But it turned out to be a great scene.

AKT: What's coming up for you?

LS: That I can talk about? I do have some really cool things on the way.

AKT: Movie-wise?

LS: Modelling, actually. Film-wise I'm still auditioning, practising every day, and just hoping for the next best project.

AKT: This film should really open doors, to have a greater variety and to have more honesty.

LS: That's the goal. If for whatever reason I don't get cast for anything else after this, I hope they cast some more talent with disabilities in projects as well. That's one of the goals in anything that I do, whether it's my YouTube channel or modelling or public speaking or any of those things - I want to be a symbol of representation. I want to represent the community authentically, the black community, womanhood, and being a person with a disability.

Give Me Liberty poster - opened in the US on August 23
Give Me Liberty poster - opened in the US on August 23

So, like I said, if for whatever reason I don't get cast in anything else, I hope this film opens up the eyes to other casting directors, filmmakers, producers that they can cast people with disabilities in roles written for people with disabilities. And even if those roles have characters that don't necessarily have disabilities on paper, that people with disabilities can still play those roles too. We can be cast across the board, no matter the spectrum, just give us a shot to audition and show that we have talent just as much as everybody else does.

AKT: You did a fantastic job in Give Me Liberty, I really loved it. On another note, what is the jacket you're wearing? It's beautiful.

LS: Thank you so much. My stylist Stephanie Thomas, she specialises in dressing people with disabilities and has been for over 20 years. She found this jacket, it is Les Petites Chiara Boni and it's a really great brand from a really great designer because all of their pieces have no buttons and no fasteners. Which is ideal and something that my stylist Stephanie Thomas taught me, it is ideal for people with disabilities, because we're able to dress on our own when we don't have to worry about little buttons and tiny zippers. Even the zipper on here is a pretty big zipper.

Coming up - Give Me Liberty director/producer/editor Kirill Mikhanovsky and co-screenwriter/producer Alice Austen.

Give Me Liberty is in cinemas in the US.

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