Lee Ingleby opens up about British autism drama The A Wordby Fiona Rae
British actor Lee Ingleby stars as Paul, father of an autistic boy, in comedy-drama The A Word, now in its second season on UKTV.
Absolutely. I think if we all had our way, we’d carry this on for as long as possible. The idea is that we keep returning after about two years and see how Joe has progressed, not only because he is autistic, but the growing pains that come with that and how he deals with life as he approaches his teenage years.
In the first season, the family was in denial – where are they in the second season?
I think the second season is acceptance. They’re making progress, although not really, because in the first season, it was Paul’s wife Alison who was in denial and Paul was the accepting one. He was the one who jigged everyone along saying, ‘we can deal with this’. But he’s had a couple of years to sit back and take stock and I think he’s realised that it’s not as easy as he first imagined it would be and he’s started to struggle with it, and struggle with his personal life and his family life and what autism actually means. I don’t think he knows.
Do you think parents go through a phase of seeing the deficits in an autistic child rather than the plusses?
I think what he struggles with is the gung-ho of his wife saying, ‘everything’s fine, we can get through this’ and going to a parents’ support group and he’s very much a private guy. He hasn’t had time to process it, he just doesn’t know how to deal with it. He’s not a guy who can open up to others, which is kind of his downfall.
Did you do a lot of research about autism, or do you just trust the scripts?
I did do quite a bit of research, I read an awful lot of accounts and books and different points of view, from the parents and the autie point of view. There’s a really great book written by a teenager who talks about his Asperger’s. But half-way through reading that and talking to people, I thought, actually maybe I’m doing too much research to be on a journey with a guy who doesn’t know that much about it.
Do you think it’s more difficult for Paul to come to terms with it as a father than it is for Alison?
I don’t think it’s more or less difficult, I just think it’s different. It’s almost like their roles reverse in the second season. I think he finds Alison quite difficult to talk to, probably as much as she finds him difficult to talk to, so in the end it comes out as vitriolic, something almost nasty. He shouts it rather than openly talks about it.
What are the emotions that he’s experiencing?
I think it is a bit of denial. There’s a really lovely speech that Pete [Bowker] wrote where he says that he always thought he was Super Dad, he could always get through to Joe, even if it was just talking about music, but as the years roll on, they don’t even have that anymore. Joe slightly disappears into his own world and Paul loses his magic touch with him, and that’s too much for him to bear. In the end, it’s him struggling with the fact that the ideal of father and son disappears. He says, ‘I feel like I’m using my boy’.
He has to come to terms with the child that he doesn’t have.
That’s what’s great about Pete’s scripts, they’re incredibly honest, there’s nothing sugar-coated at all. They’re brutally honest at times.
He’s portraying people who can’t talk to each other very well – not only about the autism.
Yeah, exactly, they preach about how much they’ve got to communicate in order for Joe to understand, yet they can’t communicate to each other at all, they struggle with the basic concept of openness and honesty. It’s also ingrained with love and not wanting to hurt anybody, so sometimes they tend to say nothing.
There’s an actual autistic teenager in the show this season; was it interesting to work with a real autistic person?
Yeah it was great. Travis, he’s called and it was his first role really. There’s a scene in it where he has a breakdown and I was asking him what he’d done to prepare for it, and he said ‘I just drew on my own personal experience, how I was two or three years ago’, which must have been quite an intense thing to have to revisit, but he did it brilliantly. I was speaking to his mum and she was saying that two or three years ago they’d never left Wales because he was so riddled with anxiety and discomfort that they never travelled, so getting on a train was a feat in itself, and for him to come to the Lake District and pretend to be somebody else and do this brilliant job was a real progression.
What do you think in general about portrayals of autistic people on television – do they get it right or wrong?
It’s a hard one – as you know, there’s no right or wrong way of portraying autism. They say when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Every story is different, as so you can only tell it from one point of view and everybody’s got a different story.
Have you come to any conclusions about the support that autistic kids need?
I can only speak for Britain, but the thing that struck me is the fact that in many rural places there’s not enough support. We highlight that in the series, the fact that they have to go for miles to go to a school that facilitated people with special needs.
THE A WORD, UKTV, Sky 007, Monday, 9.30pm.
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