'Give us a chance': American Horror Story star Jamie Brewer on tackling Hollywood with a disability

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'Give us a chance': Jamie Brewer

Actress, model and disability advocate Jamie Brewer talks about her new Australian short film and what motivates her.

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If you're a fan of the American Horror Story anthology, you'll be more than familiar with Jamie Brewer. The 31-year-old actress has played three separate roles over the course of the Emmy-winning series' life. In the first season, she was Addie, the daughter of Jessica Lange's Constance Langdon. In the third season, she played Nan, a clairvoyant witch. And most recently, she voiced Marjorie, a ventriloquist's (played by Neil Patrick Harris) demonic doll. 

As an actor with Down Syndrome, she's a shining example for what can be achieved when filmmakers commit to authentic casting and recognise the value of actors who may not fit the typical able-bodied mould. 

And Brewer's impact on visibility for people with Down Syndrome has reached beyond the TV screen. In 2015, she became the first woman with Down Syndrome to strut the catwalk at New York Fashion Week, no doubt inspiring Australia's own Madeline Stuart to embark on a quest to follow in her footsteps and do the same thing this year. She's also become involved politically, successfully lobbying to have the offensive word "retarded" removed from Texas legislation about people with intellectual disabilities. 

Jamie Brewer walks the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2015.

Jamie Brewer walks the runway at New York Fashion Week in 2015. Photo: Brian Ach

Brewer is in Australia this month to shoot a short film with Bus Stop Films, a Sydney-based non-profit dedicated to facilitating a film school experience for students with disability. We had a chat to her about following her dreams and making her mark in tinsel town, on the catwalk, and even in politics.

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Tell me about the movie you're in Australia to film, Kill Off.

It's a neat short film about a refugee bringing two sisters together, through dance. [My character has] a lot of sass, a lot of go-with-the-flow kinda gal. A laid back kinda girl, upbeat. Very street, like... hip hop. Very bold with fashion.

Just like you?

Yep!

What about all your roles in American Horror Story, did you relate to any of those ones?

With all three. All three!

So the story of Kill Off is a lot about the sister relationship? Do you have a sister?

No, I do not. I'm an only child in the family.

Did you ever wish you did have a sister?

Honestly, my family has been blessed with many gifts that we all have. And one of many that my parents were blessed with is having a daughter.

When did you decide you wanted to become an actress?

Ever since I've been young, I always realised that I had a creative side. My family and… from my mother had a very creative side and my dad as well. And also behind the scenes, I got to see the business side from my dad and also my mum. It's kind of like a Hannah Montana thing, it's the best of both worlds.

So your parents were a big influence? How so?

Bringing me to realise things about myself. Realising that I have the creative side. At one point I found out through family that we're a big Disney family. We love Disney! So that's where the creative comes in.

So how to do combine the creative stuff with business?

I'm still trying to learn that! I'm trying to balance it. I'm learning about the production side of the industry as I'm continuing my creative.

And you're influencing the production side, aren't you?

Yes. My political side… I've been very political in California and Texas. I advocate for many topics. And part of organisations, and learning about and supporting the organisations that are out here in Australia, in Sydney, who are advocating for the exact same thing. We're all advocating for inclusion.

So… using our voice and asking for what we need. Asking to be given the chance to do things. If that chance is taken away from us, we don't know what we're gonna do. We have to work harder to get that chance back.

[Joking] I also advocate for shampoo that I use as well!

A lot of us Aussies were excited when Madeline Stuart walked at New York Fashion Week this year, and then we found out that you had kinda blazed the trail the previous year.

A lot of people say I blazed the trail for her, but it's a team effort. It's the joining forces that created the opportunity… that gave Madeline the opportunity to be inspired by me to walk a catwalk.

And what was that experience like?

Humbling. Honouring. And… as many adjectives as I can think of! It was a true amazing feeling. And walking in like, oooh two-inch beige heels. Then if you really look at the shoes, they're my own.

How important is it for other young women with down syndrome to see themselves represented on the catwalk and in TV shows by people like you?

It's really interesting seeing that, in any facet of media form, when it comes to film, to TV and even to theatre. A friend of mine who's in a wheelchair, Ali Stroker?, she was part of a stage play in New York called Spring Awakening. It's really neat to see that in stage plays. We're still advocating, and we still need to advocate for inclusion.

Do you feel like it's changing for the better?

It's trying. The other thing that is really neat about the media is that if you study it, you can find life lessons. And there are several that I live by. One of the many is… I have a feeling people in Australia might know this movie, it's The Haunted Mansion. With Eddie Murphy. There's one line where Jennifer Tilly as a little head on a table, says: "You try, you fail, but the truest failure is when you stop trying."

Who are your biggest role models?

I constantly learn from everybody that's around. There's another movie line that I also live by… it's from a friend of mine! It's called Akeelah and the Bee. And the line is: "You have 50 thousand coaches." And it's the honest truth. Everybody around you… they're all there for us to listen to. Even if sometimes they annoy you!

So looking beyond all the world you're doing at the moment, what are your plans for the future?

Honestly, there's a term that people say in really neat ways: Legacy. For my legacy I want to be known for everything I've been doing. My advocacy work, TV shows that I've been part of. Having people see the real me.

If I have kids or not… at least not personally, because... I'm still trying to find the right man, so [laughs] that's another thing as well.... But even if I don't have a child, I'm also open for adoption. Advocating for a child is a big thing as well, and giving a child an opportunity to grow. Even if they have a disability, from down syndrome ,to autistic, to none at all… I want to eventually someday be a mother to a child who loves me for who I really am at heart, and helping them find that in their own self.

Do you have a message for other young girls like you who might have a disability and want to be an actress one day?

Never be afraid, let your voice be heard. Use your voice! Every medium of creativity… of theatre, of music, of TV, of film. Don't just see it for the entertainment value, study it. Because when you study it that's when you find those life lessons. And when you find those life lessons, apply it to your own life. That's when you can really be yourself.