Lillian Carrier Talks Autistic Relationships in ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’ and the Importance of Inclusion

(Featured image courtesy of Alex Plank)

Growing up as an autistic person, “not understanding social cues and not naturally having correct facial expressions,” Carrier took social skills classes and read textbooks that provided hypothetical scenarios and ways to practice. But she found that those more theoretical avenues that followed “rigid, step-by-step” didn’t quite translate to real life. Once she found theater camp and acting classes, she discovered a whole new way to use everything she’d read about in a practical way. “You’re told a lot of the time: smiling means happy. But there’s such a thing as a sad smile, an angry smile, and a frustrated smile. I didn’t know that… theater taught me that that wasn’t always the case.” At just five years old, Lillian donned a gray beard to play an old street vendor in Oliver selling rubber chickens, and that show was only the beginning of years of “hilarious and fond” memories. She never expected that hobby to turn into jobs, but when she caught wind of Freeform looking for autistic actors for a new series, she decided to answer the call.

Carrier’s character, Drea, starts the series as a teenager much like any other, “trying to figure out who she is” and wanting to find love, which she eventually does in Kayla Cromer’s Matilda. Lillian praised the characters’ “beautiful, wonderful” relationship but also noted how Drea begins to go about the romance in a bit of the wrong way, in that “she’s bending over backwards and doing anything she can for this relationship and not being true to who she is.” Becoming who Matilda wants her to be. However, season two is where heartbreak helps Drea find the strength to stick up for herself and say, “I’m me, and you’re going to accept me for me, or this isn’t going to work.” The two girls are just beginning to explore what adulthood might have in store for the both of them, “both being autistic and in this unique relationship together.”

And their relationship is wonderfully unique. Carrier and Cromer have broken ground as the first queer romance on television between two autistic characters, and Lillian couldn’t feel more honored to be a part of that history, but she also questions “if [honored] is even the right feeling.” Of course, relationships like these didn’t suddenly begin in the year 2020. Carrier emphasized how it feels “wrong” that representation like this hasn’t happened before and how viewers are just now seeing these kinds of stories reflected on screen. “Hollywood seems to present the same relationship story over and over, and everyone wants that, but… everyone’s relationship is unique and different, and love is different for everyone.” For Lillian, it really is an incredible moment to participate in. The responses she’s gotten from people who are just over the moon to see a part of themselves or their partners in Matilda and Drea have proven how essential series like Everything’s Gonna Be Okay truly are, if only to confirm that “accepting the way you love is a way you can love, and it’s real, and it doesn’t need to be judged.”

Before working with Cromer, Lillian had never shared scenes with a method actor. “She reads the lines at rehearsals and learns the blocking but doesn’t act it out, so every take is a little different because she is… in the moment.” Carrier never knows exactly what to expect when filming scenes with her, but she finds that Kayla’s technique brings out a certain level of authenticity in her own performance as well, allowing her to react in more genuine ways. The method approach requires Cromer to stay in character between takes, without interacting with anyone who might break that concentration. Even though Lillian is “one who loves to dissect things [and scenes]” with other people, she joked that she knows Matilda better than she knows Kayla herself.

When Lillian met creator Josh Thomas for the first time in the audition room (as she originally tried out for the part of Matilda), she brought along her service dog, Luke. After reading the scene together, Thomas asked about Luke and what service dogs did for people with autism in general. He then asked Carrier to do the scene again with Luke in it, and after seeing their natural relationship, he asked if he would be able to write the dog into the show if Lillian got the part. Carrier remembers thinking, “I don’t know if he can act, but he knows how to be a service dog so I think it’ll work.” After the role went to Cromer and the pilot was filmed, Thomas circled back to Lillian to ask if he could write in a character specifically for her, with a service dog included. “I consulted a bit on the autism and service dog side as he was creating the character, and a lot of [Drea and Duke] are based on the two of us, which is so cool.” Luke quickly became “a favorite on the set” and developed a particular love for Richard Kind (famed character actor who guest starred on the show), “to the point where he was sneaking off into Kind’s trailer or dressing room when I wasn’t paying attention.” Lillian would constantly find them cuddling together, and “the two of them would get so upset sometimes when they had to go film because they had to stop hanging out.” Carrier is grateful that Luke was so warmly accepted on set as a part of the show’s family.

One moment that sticks out in Carrier’s memory from the first season was while they were filming outside of a party scene. It needed to take place at nighttime, but even as they waited and waited, it still wasn’t getting dark enough to film the right way. “There was a point where it was just Carsen Warner [Jeremy] and I on set… while everyone was inside filming the party scene… and we were just messing around on the set playing on Matilda’s piano and hanging out.” The two characters were meant to have their own special moment dancing outside the party after Matilda had abandoned them, and though the bit was eventually cut from the episode, the two actors had their own special moment, bonding and dancing together as they waited for the right conditions.

Lillian would also go on to film a scene in a special education room with all autistic actors, and she found it to be an “incredible” experience. “There’s so much authenticity when you have an actual autistic person, because they bring a part of themselves that’s accurate, and you can use their real experiences to make the story more real. When someone tries to portray the mannerisms of someone autistic, it can come across as a mockery even though it’s not intended to, because there’s always a reason behind the mannerisms.” Carrier praised the autistic community that she’s found for giving her and countless others a network of aid and resources. “We’re just like anyone else, completely capable of socializing and doing our jobs, and I think that we don’t have to be grouped together. We can do our own thing and play any character.” The days on set where the autistic people outnumbered the neurotypical people were uncommon but exciting for Lillian just for how they could “reverse the roles.”

For Carrier, the hardest part about working in COVID was how isolating it all was. “All of the actors were stuck in our dressing rooms. We do the scene and then come back.” Not being able to chat with old castmates or get to know new additions to the set was difficult, and the weight of doing an emotional scene then immediately being sent to isolation to “deal with getting out of that emotional state by yourself.” However, Lillian is happy with what they were able to produce despite the circumstances. Though with the constant mask-wearing and protective gear, she joked, “I’m sure there are people I met this season who I wouldn’t recognize on the street because all I saw was the top part of their face.”

Several years ago, Carrier founded OurTism with her family, a nonprofit with the mission to “listen, empower, and validate adults, teens, and their families in a safe community where skills and tools are shared to build purposeful, meaningful, and harmonious lives”. It’s centered around “helping individuals reach their goals, whether it’s graduating school or getting a job. We’ve had people who just wanted to throw a party and didn’t know how.” They have social skills programs and workshops designed around parenting autistic children, living on the spectrum, and more. “When you’re diagnosed, they tend to tell you all these negatives and use these big science-y vocab words that scare people, so we like to do… a more positive workshop for someone to understand who they are and what it means to be autistic using nice language.” The organization has received strong feedback from participants and developed to accommodate all sorts of situations and needs, and Carrier emphasized that even if they don’t have something for you, “I’m sure we can help find it.”

According to Lillian, great strides have been made in autistic representation on screen, but “we still have a long way to go.” Actual autistic actors are always essential, and she’s hoping that more projects adopt the practices that Everything’s Gonna Be Okay have made commonplace. She also highlighted the importance of having autistic creators behind the scenes, working as directors and writers to be “involved in every step of the process to really get these stories as authentic and real as possible based on people who actually exist in this world and live with this brain and this body.” Carrier believes that film and television have moved past the point of explaining or giving lessons about autistic people and that simply creating worlds that just happen to include characters like Drea and Matilda is the future. “We’ll be including autistic and other disabled characters just like we would with a gay character or a racial minority… It’s just a little piece you add.”

Her current TV favorite is Resident Alien, which she praised for the fantastic lead performance by Alan Tudyk and its relatability as an autistic person “trying to fit into a neurotypical world… We often have associated that mentality with an alien trying to fit in with a society they don’t understand and are trying to comprehend.” Though she did joke that the lead’s evil motives to destroy the world are “not something that an autistic person tends to be thinking or wanting to do.” Carrier is currently working on a panel event for the Autism/Asperger Network (AANE) about autism in the media, where performers can tell their stories and discuss how representation will continue to advance. This panel will be available in June. She also just filmed her first neurotypical role and hopes that she can continue to develop complex parts in the future.

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is a very important story. I hope more people are exposed to it, and the way it’s done is just amazing. Josh Thomas coming out as autistic has been so wonderful. He’s done every part of it, showrunner/writer/director/actor, which shows that if someone can do all of that while being autistic, why can’t you give us a job for just one of those roles? We’re completely capable. These roles are showing that our characters are real people with real stories, and I think it’s beautiful and exciting. I hope people keep enjoying it so we can keep making these stories.”

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is airing its season finale next Thursday on Freeform, and you can find out more about OurTism at their website (https://www.ourtism.com/).

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