Below is an interview with Katherine Beattie, a writer for the CBS series NCIS: New Orleans. Katherine shares the behind-the-scenes story of an episode she wrote this season featuring a number of disabled characters played by disabled actors.
You’re not only a badass extreme athlete, but you’re also a writer for television and film. How did you become involved in the entertainment industry?
I grew up in Los Angeles around a fair number of “industry folks,” so while I wasn’t always interested in entertainment, I always knew it was a possibility. My father, who has since passed, worked in the White House Office of Advance for 20 years, and he’d often let me tag along on his local trips. One of his stops was taking candidates on The Tonight Show, so I got to know some people there who eventually gave me a recommendation for a college internship on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. I worked at Ellen for a year after college before quitting to pursue a career in scripted TV, and spent almost a decade working in various assistant positions before finally becoming a writer in 2017.
Currently you are a writer for NCIS: New Orleans and you wrote a recent episode titled, “In Plain Sight” (Season 5, episode 18). How did you pitch this story to your colleagues and why did you want to write one centered on disabled veterans?
I have been pitching a story about disabled veterans through the world of the Warrior Games since season 2, but there was never a right time to get it off the ground until now. We’re in season 5 and have done well over 100 episodes, so our showrunner, Chris Silber, really challenged us to mix it up. He was interested in doing a “day in the life of Patton” episode as Patton (portrayed by Daryl Chill Mitchell) is one of our most interesting characters, but we rarely see him outside the Squad Room. We blended these two ideas by having Patton involved in a wheelchair rugby league, where we meet his friend Nick Taylor, a disabled service member. Taylor being active duty Navy gave us our NCIS “in” to the episode, but Patton was the emotional hook.
What was the process like working with your fellow writers and colleagues on shaping this episode? How much of your own lived experience and knowledge contribute to the storyline?
As with all episodes of our show, the writer of a particular episode starts with a seed of an idea and then brings it to the Writers Room, where we spend a few days fleshing out the beats together before the writer goes off by themselves to write the outline and script. We went down a few different avenues for this story before settling on the story of using disabled people as spies. Funny enough, the idea came from my actual experience – not of being a spy – but how when I was young and broke I used to sneak alcohol into concerts using my wheelchair because I didn’t want to pay $15 for a cocktail. I’m sorry if I’m blowing cover for a bunch of wheelchair users out there, but think about it… security guards aren’t going to ask me to stand up to see if I’m hiding contraband in my wheelchair. So I told the writers, I bet I could sneak pretty much anything in anywhere, what could we be using these disabled vets for?
For multiple seasons now I would pitch getting Patton out of the office to do things like surveillance, but the idea would always get shot down because Patton would “stick out like a sore thumb.” I’d be over here like, “I’m telling you, he wouldn’t!!” so it felt really great to finally land that pitch this season.
One of my favorite lines in the episode was when Daryl Chill Mitchell, who plays Patton Plame, says to his team, “Disabled people are everywhere. But society trains people to look right through us. If they look at us at all. We hide in plain sight.” What are some of the main themes you wanted to express about disabled people in society?
The idea of disabled people being invisible was huge for me, and resonated with the rest of the writers as well. I’ve been on this show in some capacity the longest of anyone here, so for the rest of the staff it’s totally normal to work with and be friends with a disabled woman. Even though this is their normal, they had a lot of questions about interacting with disabled people that aren’t me. Our room kind of mirrors the characters on the show in a way. All of our agents know and love Patton. They’re comfortable with him, and yet they still say the wrong things (and that’s okay! Everyone puts their foot in their mouth sometimes!), like when Lasalle is unintentionally patronizing to Zander when he meets him at the rehab center, or they don’t think about the wider disabled experience beyond Patton.
Another huge thing I wanted to tackle in this episode was ableism, both internal and external. We got the chance to explore that through the relationship of Patton (Chill Mitchell) and Simms (Kurt Yaeger) – when they meet, Simms is dealing with a lot of internalized ableism in refusing to associate with the other disabled people in his world, but by the end of the show, his eyes are opened to the point where he joins a wheelchair rugby team. And even “hiding in plain sight” is rooted in ableism. How often do we encounter parents telling their children not to stare or not to ask questions of disabled people? Both of which are completely natural processes for children to go through. We’re taught so early not to be “rude” that in an effort to be respectful we do a hard 180 and completely otherize disabled people.
This episode is notable in that there is a significant number of disabled actors and veterans featured such as Teal Sherer, Kurt Yaeger, and many others in addition to cast member Daryl Chill Mitchell. Can you share any stories about the casting and filming of this episode that had such a large presence of disabled people on screen?
I made it clear at the outset that we’d be casting disabled actors for the roles in this episode, but that was largely unnecessary on my part. It goes without saying that we practice authentic casting on our show. Kurt and I have known each other through action sports for a while and I’ve always wanted to work with him, but I thought it was super important for Patton’s journey that the Simms character also be a wheelchair user. Chris had some discussions about whether we could cast Kurt because, while he is an amputee, he doesn’t have an SCI. Would it be okay for us to portray his character as such? In the end we drew from Kurt’s own personal experience of being a chair user for a time after his motorcycle accident.
As for the other parts, Teal Sherer has been a great friend of mine since we shot a short together many years ago, so it was such a blast not only to work with her again, but to spend 5 days in New Orleans together! I was initially a more well known actor for the character of Zander, but Sommer Carbuccia just came in and nailed his audition. I was really happy we went wide with that role because, while only one actor got the part, there were another 15 or so whose tapes were seen by our director and executive producers. Now those guys are on the radar. Hopefully that means they’ll be thought of for other projects down the line. It was also really great to be able to cast some real life veterans as background, which is something we always love to do on this show. I assumed one of the hardest things to pull off would be the rugby game because there isn’t a team in the New Orleans area. In the back of my mind I just knew we’d have to change it to basketball or something. No disrespect to basketball, but you see that all the time. I wanted rugby. Much to my happy surprise, the production was willing to fly in members of the national team from all over the country. So not only did we get my rugby team, we got the BEST rugby team in the country! I’m sure that was not a small expense, and it just goes to show the lengths the entire crew went to to make sure this episode was authentic.
Pre-production and filming was an interesting experience. Everyone on the crew is used to working with Chill, but they’re not used to working with so many disabled people at once. How do you handle the logistics of that? The First Assistant Director’s dad uses a wheelchair, so the two of us were not fazed, but everyone else seemed very nervous at the outset. I kept telling everyone to relax, that it was going to be fine. But I had to remind myself this is my world, not theirs. In the end the only real adjustments we had to make were having more accessible bathrooms and transportation on set. Once that was taken care of it was just like any other episode.
Because I am a total Star Trek nerd, I have to add that LeVar-freaking-Burton directed this episode! What was it like working with him?
LeVar was so great to work with because he’s an actor himself, so he draws out the best performances from his cast. He’s also a writer, so he really respects what’s on the page and tries to honor it. TV is such a collaborative medium, and LeVar is the ultimate collaborator while also maintaining his role as the leader on set. I had the most knowledge of the “world” we were working with in this episode, so I really got in there during prep and production and gave opinions on a lot of different things. Some directors wouldn’t take very kindly to a Story Editor like myself being so vocal, but LeVar was so very gracious with me and really listened to everything I had to say.
After almost 3 weeks together we were on the same flight out of New Orleans, which was delayed. LeVar took me into the Delta lounge and we spent a few hours reminiscing about the episode and connecting on a lot of different experiences. People kept coming up to him to tell him that they loved his work, or they worked with him on a project in the past and it was really cool to see what an impact someone like him can have after over 40 years in the business. There were also a lot of people just staring at us, and I have to assume they were thinking “who is that random girl having a 3 hour moment with LeVar Burton?”
What was the response with your colleagues on NCIS: New Orleans since making of this episode? Do you think they’ll be open to more storylines featuring disabled actors in the future?
Everyone has been super supportive of this episode since the outset. What’s so great about being on a military show is we’ve had numerous opportunities to feature disabled actors and characters in the past – Katy Sullivan, Katherine Kampko and Rachel Handler come to mind. I have no doubt we’ll continue to be a leader in disabled storylines in the future, and I hope after this experience as my coworkers go on to create their own shows they will cast disabled actors in those projects as well.
As a writer for television, what do you want to see in the future in television and film when it comes to disability representation behind and in front of the camera?
First of all, we just need MORE representation. And more diversity when it comes to disability on both sides of the camera. Something we talk about is how, at the moment, self-identified disabled writers working in TV are overwhelmingly cis, het & white, and the same can be said about most of the disabled characters on TV. We need to be intentional and actionable in finding ways to elevate the voices and experiences of BIPOC, queer, trans and otherwise intersectional disabled creators.
Aside from that, I want Hollywood to move beyond tired disability tropes, which can only happen when you allow disabled creators to tell their OWN stories, not merely participate in stories told about them by non-disabled people. I have to admit our show is guilty of this in that we have Patton, the wheelchair user, playing the computer expert. Doesn’t that always seem to be the case? I will say, however, that the role of Patton was written as non-disabled, and only became disabled when Chill was cast. And even though I was only an assistant at the time, it was I was incredibly vocal in my opposition to the idea that the character became a computer expert because he couldn’t do anything physical. It was important to me that he was a computer genius (and a badass action sports athlete) BEFORE his injury, and continued to be one after.
When you have disabled characters written by non-disabled people, you tend to get stories about wheelchair users who just want to walk, neurodivergent people depicted as “crazy,” deaf people who are only oral, etc. You’re not getting into the real lived experience of these characters, but the non-disabled writer’s approximation of what those experiences must be like, which is usually negative or inspirational.
What are your own goals and ambitions in Hollywood? In addition to working on NCIS: New Orleans, are there other projects or activities you are excited about?
If you can believe it, this episode of NCIS: New Orleans is the first thing I’ve written with expressly disabled themes! It was such a joy to work on that it lit a fire in me to continue telling more disabled stories in the future. I hope to have a long career on NCIS: New Orleans, but I’m also having fun developing more of an autobiographical comedy that I hope to run somewhere on down the line.
Katherine Beattie has been working in television for over a decade. She started her career at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, but quickly realized her heart was in scripted, so she quit her stable job to become a background actor. She made a real name for herself playing blurry nurses, party guests and restaurant patrons while working her way through the UCLA Extension Television Writing Program. She held various assistant jobs on series for Showtime, ABC and Freeform before landing at NCIS: New Orleans where she served as the Script Coordinator for the first 3 seasons, becoming a writer in season 4. Katherine is one of the rarest sights in any TV writers’ room – a los Angeles native. She’s also disabled. When she’s not writing Katherine enjoys extreme sports and had hoped to try out for the US Paralympic Skeleton Team before remembering she’s from LA and can’t survive in temperatures below 60. Katherine is one of only a handful of competitive female WCMX riders, and is semi-internet famous for becoming the first woman to land a backflip on a wheelchair.
Follow her on instagram @ktbeattie