His noticeable limp was at the forefront of Jordan Walker Ross’ mind every time he went to an audition.
Would they look past him due to his disability, caused by minor cerebral palsy and severe scoliosis? Or ask him to tone the limp down or even replace him? It had all happened before to the differently abled actor, such as the time he got cut out of a national commercial because his limp was too prominent, or the time a dinner theater told him they didn’t cast him, even though they had in the past, because they thought his disability was too much of a distraction.
The rejection from casting directors shot him straight back to his teen years, when kids were cruel about his differences.
“They felt like I was an easy target,” Ross said from home in Fort Worth, Texas. “Having kids say things like ‘cripple’ in school got my insecurities going. And then casting directors saying things was really frustrating. I was given a passion for acting, but I felt like I’d never be able to reach my potential or make a career because of the other thing I was born with.”
But that began to change the day a director noticed his disability and asked if he could write the limp into his character. That director was Dallas Jenkins, the son of famous Christian novelist Jerry Jenkins, of the “Left Behind” series, and the TV show was “The Chosen,” a hugely popular historical drama series about the life of Jesus Christ watched around the globe. Ross plays Little James, one of the New Testament’s dozen apostles.
“I said yes right away, but it was kind of scary at first,” said Ross, who also starred in “1883,” the popular Western series featuring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. “I knew millions of people would see the thing I’ve desperately tried my whole life to cover up or hide. Now they were going to focus on it. I felt very vulnerable, but I told myself that’s what acting is, it’s being vulnerable.”
Ross will bring his speaking engagement, “What’s Your Limp?,” to Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts in Palmer Lake on Friday. The evening also includes a Q&A. It’s an offshoot of his similarly titled podcaston which he interviews actors, artists, athletes and other public figures about their insecurities, struggles and coping mechanisms.
“It’s telling my story in the hopes it encourages other people to be vulnerable,” Ross said about the event. “Once you take that leap, other people are more willing to be vulnerable. Especially for men, the only emotion you can show is anger. I’m doing my part to help break that, and teach people it’s healthy to open up and learn to love whatever their respective limps might be, whether they’re physical or internal.”
Ross’ story began in Arlington, Texas, where being born two months premature birth led to his medical issues. He spent a lot of his early life in hospitals, but managed to snag the role of Tiny Tim in a community theater production of “A Christmas Carol” when he was 6. The acting bug bit hard. He also helped that his grandfather was Barry Corbin, an actor best known for his role as Maurice Minnifield on the TV show “Northern Exposure.”
By 16, Ross had scored roles in more than 40 community theater and professional productions in Texas and California. At 20, he moved to Los Angeles and stayed for four years, before moving back to Texas due, in part, to physical complications. He met his wife and stayed. They have three children.
Along with his role in “The Chosen,” he was his kids who helped him begin to appreciate his body and its differences.
“You see you’re their hero, and they wouldn’t change anything about you,” he said. “That got the ball rolling. If they can love and accept me, I should do the same.”
And improving conditions for disabled actors over the last five to 10 years in Hollywood also contributes. The industry is starting to see “disability isn’t a liability,” Ross said. Hiring folks with different bodies can be profitable, and add perspective and more layers to characters. He cites “Coda,” last year’s film about the deaf community that recently took home Oscars for best picture and best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur, a deaf actor.
“Getting more actors with disabilities in films is good for everyone,” Ross said. “They’d have able-bodied actors playing people in wheelchairs, and we’re starting to move past that and hire actors in a wheelchair. If they have a procedural crime drama, why can’t one of the lab technicians be an amputee or have a judge who is blind? In real life those people exist, and if it exists there it can exist in film. That’s the next step, and it’s starting to improve.”
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