SXSW 2020 Interview: Ashley Eakin on a Blind Date That Will Change How You See Things in “Single”

It isn’t uncommon for Ashley Eakin to be treated like a hero, even when she hardly feels that way about herself.

“You’re at the grocery store buying milk and someone will say, ‘You are so inspiring,’ and you’re like, ‘Okay…’” laughs Eakin, having become accustomed to strangers seeing the effects of a rare bone disease known as Olliers and Maffucci Syndrome when she exposes her arms reaching into the refrigerated case and feeling the need to comment. “And it’s something where I think people mean well and you also have grace, but I think it’s good to open the world’s eyes to how it really sounds.”

Although going about her daily life is only as admirable as it is for anyone else, Eakin really has accomplished something inspiring – and funny as hell – with “Single,” a delightfully impolite comedy that had been set to make its debut at SXSW this week until the festival was cancelled because of the coronavirus. Whenever the short does reach the public, it will be well worth the wait, disabusing audiences of their preconceived notions of the disabled community when surveying the many landmines of online dating for those who have been made especially conscious of their appearance by the culture at large.

Peeking in on a set-up between the brassy bombshell Kim (Delaney Feener) and a suave playboy named Jake (Jordan Wiseley), “Single” exposes how hardwired attitudes towards people with atypical physical dispositions have insidiously crept into how they see themselves as Kim trades barbs with Jake, resenting how it seems they have been paired only because they each are missing a traditional body part and finding that she may be an ableist. However, as Jake works to win Kim over with extraordinary charm, it isn’t only Kim who starts to look at things in a new way as Eakin uses the sharp battle of wits between them to reveal what they have in common has little to do with their bodies and everything to do with their minds.

Feener and Wiseley make for an irresistible duo and “Single” is already seductive enough under Eakin’s energetic direction, with a swagger reflective of its lead character in its vibrant, colorful imagery and propulsive pacing, primed to open eyes as much to an exciting new filmmakers as to its subject matter. While the premiere of “Single” is on hold for now (it is streaming until April 30th on a makeshift platform set up by Oscilloscope and Mailchimp for this year’s SXSW shorts), Eakin graciously took the time to speak about how “Single” came together, wanting to apply what she learned about representing underrepresented communities from her experience assisting director Jon M. Chu on “Crazy Rich Asians” and thinking bigger than just any one production.

How did this come about?

For over 30 years of my life, I was not okay with the part of my identity of being a woman with a disability. I wouldn’t even use that word and I came to realize I had my own unconscious bias of my own community that I was born into, which I didn’t really have a choice, but it’s more how society’s perception of the disabled community also made me feel negative emotions. It starts so young in our culture how you relate to disabilities. [There’s the first scene in the film set in a supermarket] where the kid in line [looks at Kim] when the mom pulls the kid away and says, “I told you staring isn’t nice.” I’ve heard that so much because everywhere you go, people do stare and you think about growing up [as an able-bodied person] and you’re three and you see someone who looks different, and your parent shames you or [identifies] something as a negative reaction, then that kid is like, “Oh, I need to ignore people who have disabilities,” so it’s almost [encouraging] the opposite where people don’t want to interact with [the disabled] at all.

I’m passionate about showing different people on screen because I feel the reason why we have those negative thoughts or feelings is because we never see it represented anywhere. [What we do see of the disabled on screen is] very narrow. It’s like the heroic story of the football player or the person we feel really bad for that died, but [I wondered] what about the person who just is dating? And I went to this camp in 2018 called SheLift, started by this woman who had one arm, and I was very hesitant to go because I wasn’t heavily involved in the disabled community. I didn’t know if I want to keep furthering my identity in this direction and I [worried] it was like a forced friendship because we all have disabilities and we should be friends, but I met them and they’re all just like any other friend I’d ever have. They were interesting and funny and sassy and had all these stories and I was like, why was I so afraid to identify with this community?

The big thing that we would talk about was dating and how it is so complex with a physical disability, especially online dating where you don’t know what [the other person’s] whole body looks like. We talked about how some people get set up on dates where one girl that I [partially] based the story off of, was [told], “I know someone great for you,” and she’s like, “Oh cool, what’s his social media? I’ll look him up.” And she has one arm and when she looked him up, he had a limb difference and she was like, “What else are the qualities that would make us a good match?” That’s an experience that you never see on screen in TV or movies and I feel like people probably don’t do it because they’re afraid to, whereas I feel like because I do have a physical disability, it gives you permission to tread in that water. It’s almost cathartic to let a character push the boundaries, so I knew that I wanted to create a strong character that didn’t hold back, who would call people out if they’re being rude and a lot of who she is is very similar to myself, except it’s a heightened version and she goes places that I would never go. [laughs]

When it’s about unconscious bias, is it difficult to figure out ways these characters become conscious of it?

Yeah, I drew a lot from my own life — conversations that I’ve had with people where all of a sudden I realized I had an unconscious bias and when I first figured it out [for myself], I was working on the Warner Brothers lot and we all got in trouble because we were parking in a parking lot that we weren’t supposed to and someone I was working with made a joke, like “You should mess with the cop and say something like, ‘Would you really do that to a disabled person?’” I had this very strange reaction where I went into my office and I felt like I was going to cry, trying to understand why I was having this visceral negative reaction to him saying that. I realized why am I so afraid of identifying with this word [“disabled”] and I really just looked at my own life because even though I have a disability, I have my own unconscious bias against the community.

The funniest part is when I went to that camp [I discovered] a ton of people that I know [now] felt the same, like “I didn’t want to go either,” and you realize it’s even within the community, but now because we’re getting more diverse representation and people that I know who do have disabilities are like the coolest badass people, [you’re seeing more people say] I’m so proud to associate myself with someone like that who is killing it and proud of who they are and their body. Not until recently on social media have I seen that and now it’s just infiltrating into our stories because it’s not out there. You don’t see these characters ever and that’s something that hopefully I think it starts to change because diversity is always talked about, but disability is rarely at the forefront of that conversation and I feel like it’s just starting to happen.

It was interesting to learn you worked as an assistant for Jon M. Chu on “Crazy Rich Asians,” because for that film, I know they had to build a casting pipeline where one didn’t exist before since there was never a search for Asian actors on that scale before for a Hollywood production. Did you find it to be a similar situation looking for talented disabled actors to play your leads?

Yeah, working on “Crazy Rich Asians” is one of those things in life where that was so amazing and serendipitous because the day before I got hired, [Jon] had me read “Crazy Rich Asians” as a book and asked questions like, “How would you make this into a movie?” and I ended up quitting to work on my own stuff with his support right before the premiere, so it was like the beginning all the way to the end and I got to see just what it meant for Asian-Americans to see themselves represented in diverse roles instead of the nerdy Asian guy or the sexualized foreign woman and how it was life-changing for them.

At the same time, I had this Soul Pancake video that went viral in 2017 that has like 50 million views now, and it’s me talking about my having a rare bone disease and being on social media, having to hide my body. I had these two separate identities of who I was online and then who I was in the world and how being the positive influence and representation for younger people is so important, especially with my disease because it’s so rare that people need to see people with your disease living out in the world and they’re working on big movies and they’re in other countries. I think that’s important to see yourself.

As far as “Crazy Rich Asians,” it was crazy we had casting directors in all these countries and because we did an open casting call, I was helping Jon filter through all these auditions that were coming through the public that were submitted online and what I learned is there are people out there, you just have to find them and with [“Single”] I went to every avenue that I could to find people and we started in the end of December last year and then we shot in July, so it was seven months of casting, trying to find that right person because they’re carrying the movie. It’s not something you can cut around.

Jordan [Wiseley], the male lead, actually was on my radar just from Instagram, so I wrote it with him in mind, but I knew he was a model and he was on “The Real World,” and I [thought], “Watch, this guy can’t act.” Acting is hard and people think anyone can do it, but this is a skill and he ends up being incredible. It was so effortless and he was then reading against all the other women that we were trying to get to play the other lead. It was online virtual auditioning because Jordan was in LA and he would be with us, and I had a casting director that went out to a bunch of agencies and then I personally was going on Instagram and DM’ing girls who have one arm, being like, “Hey, my name is Ashley. I’m a filmmaker. Will you self tape for me?” And they’re like, “Who is this creepy person that wants me to send a video?” [laughs]

We actually found Delaney through a casting call and it was a very specific tone [to play Kim], and she really got that sassiness, and [she and Jordan] worked together great. What I loved about them is they could banter back and forth really well, so you realize if I want them to improv a little bit, they could easily do that. Jordan’s a fun-loving, jokey guy and he would improv in some areas that made it feel very grounded and real and I ended up writing some of that in because we did have a day to do rehearsals.

You just mentioned the idea of presenting yourself online in a certain way when you have a disability. Is that something you could incorporate into the visual approach of the film?

Yeah, everyone who has a disability deals with it differently, but when it’s something you’re able to hide, it’s sometimes almost creates a little bit bigger of a complex because you get to see what life is like when no one notices and then you get to see what life is like when they notice, so there’s two very different worlds that I liked playing with in the film. In our first scene, we do that with the audience, where the audience doesn’t really see that [Kim] doesn’t have one arm and is thinking what’s happening here, why is she so rude [to the little girl that’s looking at her]? And then you get that reveal, which happens a lot in real life when you’re someone who has a disability. I like creating that experience for the audience and prior to Soul Pancake — and sometimes still — I would really choose clothes that would limit how much someone would see my disability. I know I would like [a certain] jacket because of the shirt pockets and when I see myself, my body looks a little more normal than when I don’t wear that type of outfit, so that was definitely a conscious decision when we were talking about shots and clothing.

What’s cool is it gives the film a very specific language to be creative with your shots and how to represent the audience’s experience, to kind of let them into the world of what it’s like to live with a disability. I also wanted it to be fun and bright and poppy and neon [because] I feel like a lot of disability content is very safe or very sweet and I wanted something that matched [Kim’s] personality, so I wanted to be bold and punchy.

I know we’re in an unusual situation here with the premiere, are you pleased with how the film came out?

Yeah, I am. We [were supposed to have] our big showcase for the AFI Women’s Directing Workshop that I’m a part of, and they actually cancelled our event the day of and it’s like first South By and then this, but I finally got to show it to the actors last night because they flew out anyway. We had a very small screening with my family, and they finally got to see it and they were blown away and loved it. That’s the part that I love the most is to be able to show the people in my community that these can be our stories and let’s keep doing this on a bigger scale with TV shows and movies. What I’m working on now to pitch out is a TV show in the tone of “Single,” and also a coming-of-age feature about a girl in high school, dealing with her disability, but she drinks and does drugs and gets into trouble [because] I’m consistently trying to disrupt the narrative that currently exists. I feel it is so limited and I don’t identify with it at all. There’s a whole community that has been scared or didn’t feel right identifying with the disability community because it didn’t represent them and I like having media that exposes these things in a fun way.

“Single” is awaiting its festival premiere. It can be streamed here until April 30th.

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