Kiruna Stamell is an Australian actress, dancer and sometime comedian born with a rare form of dwarfism. A role in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge paid for her to move to Britain, where she took up a place studying Shakespearean and Jacobean drama at LAMDA. She has since appeared in EastEnders, Cast Offs and Life’s Too Short, and in numerous dance and theatre roles both in the UK and abroad. She talks to Nione Meakin about why you can never work too hard...
I’m determined – I’ve had to be.
All my life I’ve had people saying, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t be a dancer, you can’t go to drama school, you can’t travel to another country on your own.”
I was aware of being treated differently from a young age and a large element of becoming an actress was about redefining my body. I can be a poor young girl in the Scottish Highlands or a teacher in EastEnders, but the body playing them is the same. For me, it’s about challenging people’s judgments.
One of the roles I’m most proud of is teacher Sandra Fielding in EastEnders – that was wonderful. When soaps introduce a disabled character, there’s often a lot of discussion behind the scenes but she was just an ordinary human being. The issue of disability did come into it because the other actors knew how their characters would respond to my height and showed it in their body language and expression, but that’s real and that’s how it should be – it doesn’t need to be dictated in the script or plot. I’d like to see more integration rather than disability-specific shows.
I come across obnoxious scripts; there was one recently where the character was great but due to some oversight was referred to only as “dwarf” throughout, even though she had a name. I feel I’m constantly educating people. It’s hard in auditions; as the underling who wants a part, it doesn’t always seem wise to say, “You’ve offended my sensibilities”.
Although there was criticism of Life’s Too Short, all the discrimination Warwick [Davis] faced in the show I’ve seen myself and I think the fact Ricky Gervais highlighted it and made people talk about it was progressive. One article likened it to a Victorian freakshow, which shocked me; people obviously assumed I hadn’t been to university, hadn’t chosen to do this. A lot of the criticism seemed to come from a place that assumed dwarves can only be exploited. If they’d been flat, two-dimensional characters, I might have agreed, but there was diversity throughout that show. I think the arts still has a long way to go in improving attitudes towards people with disabilities, but I think society in general does.
The advice I’d give to actors, disabled or otherwise, is to pursue what you want to do but always make sure you have other options, so you’re never in a position where you’re forced to take something you’re not comfortable with. I also recommend constantly developing your skills and techniques as a performer. As a disabled actor, there are fewer opportunities to get those skills in the workplace because casting opportunities are fewer, but if you take time to work on them off your own bat – if you know how to approach Shakespeare, how to do a variety of accents – then there can’t be a question of skill or talent.
I have great empathy for those with disabilities who decide they just can’t follow their dreams – it’s very difficult to turn away from everyone you know and say, “No, you’re wrong, I can achieve everything you think I can’t.” I don’t quite know how I’ve managed it, but I consider myself very lucky.
Visit Kiruna’s website.
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