Man on a mission
Drummer, actor, writer and black belt Mat Fraser is also phocomelic, born with shortened arms after his pregnant mother was prescribed Thalidomide. He has carved out a varied and provocative career that faces his challenges head on, and tonight joins ‘Fair City’ as part of his plan to bring disability to a wide audience
IT’S A FIRST FOR Fair City– a first, in fact, for Ireland. The English actor Mat Fraser bursts on to our screens tonight in the Dublin-based soap, in the role of Esther Roche’s long-lost son. The storyline will have plenty of Irish families nodding their heads in recognition. A baby is given up for adoption and sent away in silence and secrecy, only to return as an adult seeking openness and answers.
The complicating factor, in the case of Fraser’s character, is that he has a very obvious physical disability. In the case of Fraser himself, it’s the first time that a disabled actor has portrayed a disabled person on Irish television. Fraser has the limb disorder phocomelia, which means that his arms are extremely short – less than half the usual length – so that his hands are where most of us have elbows.
As with many disabilities, it’s hard to imagine until you see it in action. And Fraser is a bundle of action. Partly because he has no choice in the matter: it’s just the way his body shape is. When he opens a door he leans right into it; when he dunks his croissant into his coffee he gets down on his knees beside the cup and is back on to the sofa before I’ve taken a bite of my own breakfast.
He makes a similar movement to indicate a hefty pile of Fair Cityscripts on the floor. “Look at them! I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” he says, although it’s clear that shooting his first soap opera has been a blast. “It’s fantastic.” Of the plot he will reveal nothing except to say that he has four cliffhanger episodes in a row. How did he get the part? “They phoned me out of the blue,” he says. “Most writing about disability is clunky and inaccurate, and I don’t want to do stuff like that. So I said could I come over and talk about it, and they said yes. So I met Brigie de Courcy [ Fair City’s executive producer], and we spoke for an hour, and they said, ‘We’d love you to come over and do this.’ I was amazed. Every single role I’ve ever done, I’ve always had to fight for.”
While his script was being composed he’d get calls from the writer. Could he switch on the radio? Could he button his shirt? How, exactly, did he do that? He was, he says, impressed. He has retained the right to change the disability aspects of his storyline – or, if necessary, anglicise his script. “Sometimes, you know, there might be things like, ‘Myself and so-and-so are going to the pub.’ An English person would never say that.” But so far, he says happily, he has changed nothing.
On the face of it, it seems odd that Fraser would take on a role in a mainstream soap, let alone enjoy the experience. His previous work, which includes his one-man show From Freak to Clique?, Channel 4’s comedy drama Cast Offs, a spoof reality show in which six disabled people are sent to a remote island to try out their survival skills, has tended to be cutting-edge and controversial. “I’m enjoying it precisely because of that,” he says. “It’s so different from anything I’ve done before. And I’m fascinated by the rhythm of it. Things you don’t notice in a soap until you get up close. The programmes are designed in such a way it’s assumed people won’t see every one – or it’ll be on as they’re drifting in and out of the kitchen – so every piece of information has to be given out four times by four different characters in the course of four episodes. And the stage directions are brilliant. There’s one where somebody ‘has intimacy’, as we say on the show. That’s the word for shagging. And the stage direction afterwards says, ‘She looks at her adulterous self in the mirror’ ”
Fraser isn’t about to mistake soap scripts for Shakespeare. But they are, he says, the ideal place for an actor such as him. He has made it something of a mission to bring disability to the wider public – and you don’t get a wider public than a soap public. “I just want to portray people with disability as warm, rounded, fun human beings – like my friends who are disabled are.” Often, the problem is not only cutting through ignorance and bigotry but cutting through political correctness as well.
He does this in various ways. He has just hosted a Disability Pride conference, he has made videos on the topic, and he works on the BBC equality podcast Ouch!But mostly he does it by being himself. His disability may look horrendous when it’s written down in black and white, but to watch Fraser in action is completely different. He is – and these may seem like strange words to use under the circumstances – poised and graceful. It comes as no surprise to find that he’s a black belt in several martial arts.
A career as a punk drummer, though? How did that come about? If you have short arms, why would you take up drumming in the first place? He smiles. “To be obtuse, I suspect. I mean, I could have taken up singing. I could easily hold a microphone, and I can sing.” But his mum had had a thing with a drummer; he left a drum kit in the house, and Fraser tried it out. “It was a revelation,” he says. “Before that, at school, I was a spastic. Now I was a punk.” He had also, at school, been labelled a “flid”, the common term of abuse for children whose mothers had been given thalidomide during pregnancy.
It was, however, rock’n’roll. Not a particularly healthy lifestyle for someone who has to be careful not to provoke his joints too much. Fraser also felt he was avoiding his disability rather than squaring up to it. So he went to watch a theatre company composed entirely of disabled actors, just to see what kind of work it would put on. “They were doing Ubu Roi, and there was someone with a disability spitting cake at someone in a wheelchair, and I thought, You know what? There might be something in this.” He joined Graeae Theatre Company and never looked back. But the years of rock’n’roll excess had taken their toll. When he spotted a sign for tae-kwon-do lessons he went along to ask if he could sign up. “They said, ‘Can you kick that board?’ And they held up a board. I put my foot right through it. They said, ‘You’re a natural.’ It was partly a self-defence thing, partly for health reasons.”
After the tae kwon do he took up hap ki do and karate. It led to him starring in a martial arts movie, Unarmed But Dangerous. “It was a lads’ film. Let’s face it. Lads like those films.” Does he keep up his practice? “Oh, yes. RTÉ gym. It’s cheap. Me and the executives. They play squash; I kick seven shades of s**t out of the punchbag.”
It all gives the impression that he’s quite a tough nut. He denies this with a grin. He has just shot a scene with his Fair Citymum, which made him well right up, he says. “But then I cried in Kindergarten Cop. I’ll cry at anything.” Although not, with luck, at the reaction to his role as David Osbourne in Fair City– though it will, he says, be provocative. “Without giving anything away, there will be some scenes which will cause objections.” Would some of these involve “intimacy”? “They might.” He makes a face. He has seen all these reactions before. “People will be shocked. The Nazis will come out. But they’ll get over it.” And the six-million-dollar question: is he in Fair Cityto stay? He shakes his head. That’s one he can’t, or won’t, answer. He thinks for a minute. “It won’t be the end,” he says, finally. “But it won’t be dot dot dot either.”