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Film starring Burnaby actor with Down syndrome set to hit the film circuit

Award-winning short film Chicken features Burnaby Actor Aaron Waddingham.
Burnaby actor Aaron Waddingham (centre) pictured with Chicken co-star and writer Lucy McNulty (right) and director Emma Pollard (left).

The disability arts community is coming together in support of the highly anticipated short film, Chicken, starring Burnaby actor Aaron Waddingham.

Waddingham plays Emmett, a character who, like the actor himself, has Down syndrome. But the short film does not centre around that.

Instead, Chicken is a story about the bond shared by a sister and her brother, who has Down syndrome.

In most films with disabled characters, Waddingham’s father, Mike Waddingham explained,”[Disabled characters] were kind of mascot-y — they happened to be on the screen, that’s it.” But Chicken was different — it’s a story which has never been told — for its reflection of what he saw as a parent, “which was an authentic tale of a sibling relationship, one of whom just happens to have Down syndrome.”

This portrayal of an honest relationship is important to him as a parent of a child with a disability. “It's really important, especially when they're young, to know that it's a possibility that your child(ren) will have relationships that are real relationships and not just one caring for the other.”

The film does not give the disability a front seat, but rather weaves the disability into the story, “normalizing” it. This approach helped the 14-minute short film, which has started its film circuit run in 2023, win the Jury’s Choice and DEAI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Access) awards at the Thomas Edison Film Festival.

Lucy McNulty, the writer, co-director and producer of the women-led crew, said that she was inspired by her own relationship with a friend who has Down syndrome. “Our relationship just like anybody's relationship — it is not always easy,” she said. “There is tension and laughter, and compassion and fighting. And I wanted to put that on screen, something that was really real, really authentic.”

McNulty plays Sam, the older sister of Emmett. She and Waddingham met while working together at Neworld Theatre’s LEAD Ensemble, a creative space for neurotypical and neurodiverse actors. The two bonded, and Aaron ended up auditioning for the role in Chicken, along with other disabled actors.

“We wanted Aaron to bring his own take to the character as an actor,” said director Emma Pollard, adding it was important for Waddingham to improvise the character and lines as he saw fit because he was more than a “non-verbal” character in the film.

In fact, McNulty noted, he has the most dialogue in the whole film. “I knew what he was capable of. He can handle monologues; he is incredible.”   

Mike Waddingham said that it was a great experience seeing McNulty and Pollard connect with Aaron and understand him. “They weren’t hesitant with him. They weren’t afraid of him as a disabled actor— also because of Lucy’s lifetime experience with her friends.”

The making of the film

To produce an authentic film about a disability is a challenge in itself, but the real challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic — which seemed to play a major role in the production.

The film was made over two years during the pandemic. After shooting started in September 2021, the crew was highly cautious about keeping the set safe because of many of the actors were immunocompromised actors. Pollard said that they wanted to be flexible and compassionate towards everyone on the set. “Part of our attitude going into production was to be flexible with cancelling and changing stuff as and when we needed,” she said.

One of the scarier moments, was when there was a COVID-19 exposure scare during filming despite the precautions.

No one got sick, but they had to pause production and pick up later, which proved to be a challenge for continuity, Pollard said.

The production  was finally completed in 2022 after editing.

The crew is proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish through the film. 

"The more I worked with Aaron, the more I realized that creating a film is about learning how to communicate with each other,” Pollard said, adding that the underlying theme of the movie is about "really reclaiming your own insecurities and fears and even labels that people have given you. And the support that you get from your family."

The film's creators hope Chicken will touch audience's hearts  “I cry every time…the parent of the kid cries,” Mike Waddingham said  but the film also takes a hard look at some uncomfortable realities.

“The important thread to pull here is that people with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities are often blocked from any kind of career” he said. “And we’re very lucky that Aaron caught the eye of an agent, and that he's had some experience, including this film, because it actually gives him a potential career.

“It really is work that lights him up, and that's the thing that is important to his mom and me — it’s that whatever any of our kids do in life, it's something that they really want to do.”

The film’s trailer will be teased in the first-ever Down Syndrome Film Festival happening in Burnaby this March.