Untrained blind student lands starring role in Netflix second world war epic

Disability rights groups applaud casting of Aria Mia Loberti in All the Light We Cannot See

Thousands of hopefuls auditioned for the lead role of a blind character in an epic second world war drama series for Netflix that is based on a Pulitzer prize-winning novel. But the producers of All the Light We Cannot See have chosen a student with no formal acting training who is registered blind, in a move that has been welcomed by disability rights activists.

Although Aria Mia Loberti has no formal training, her natural ability has led to her being cast in a four-part adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s novel. She will portray Marie-Laure, a blind teenager whose path collides with Werner, a German soldier, as they try to survive the devastation of war in Nazi-occupied France.

The book is being adapted by Steven Knight, the British creator of the Bafta-winning gangster drama Peaky Blinders, whose acclaimed films include Dirty Pretty Things, a thriller about illegal immigrants in London, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and directed by Stephen Frears.

“She did several auditions which are absolutely remarkable,” Knight said. “She’s amazing.” Asked whether such natural acting talent can ever be taught, he replied: “You can perfect it. I don’t think you can learn it. You are born with it. She has got it. So we’ve been very fortunate.”

Last weekend, actor Rose Ayling-Ellis captivated audiences in winning Strictly Come Dancing as the competition’s first-ever deaf contestant, proving, as she put it, “that deaf people can do anything”.

For Loberti, being cast in such a high-profile production is similarly significant for blind and partially sighted people, for whom she has campaigned. She said: “I have a rare and severe form of a genetic eye condition called achromatopsia. As a result, I’m completely blind in some environments and have minimal, variable residual vision in others.”In the novel, her character says: “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Lauren Appelbaum of RespectAbility, a non-profit organisation dedicated to changing how society views people with disabilities, said: “Netflix is really going to be able to play a role in changing these stigmas surrounding what it means to be blind. Just because you’re blind, it doesn’t mean you can’t be an actress in a major role … It’s not overcoming blindness or in spite of being blind. She just happens to be blind and is going to play this role.”

Appelbaum, who herself has a disability, added: “It’s almost impossible to truly portray someone with disability without having that disability. The nuances that you can bring to that role are just going to make that character so much more dynamic. You don’t have the risk of the actor making a mistake that would show that it’s inauthentic casting, which I’ve seen happen time and time again.”

Rose Ayling Ellis winning Strictly Come Dancing as the competition’s first-ever deaf contestant,
Rose Ayling Ellis winning Strictly Come Dancing as the competition’s first-ever deaf contestant, Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

The novel became a global phenomenon, selling more than 15m copies after its publication in 2014. In the Observer, Justin Cartwright wrote: “It is easy to understand why Doerr’s book is regarded by many as an epic and a masterpiece.” The New York Times’s critic blamed its author “for lost sleep because once I started reading his new novel … there was no putting it down”.

Loberti had been similarly inspired when she decided to audition for the screen adaptation after hearing of the casting search from a former teacher.

She is currently a PhD student in rhetoric at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, having received her master’s in ancient rhetoric at Royal Holloway, University of London this year as a US-UK Fulbright scholar.

In a statement, she described the book as an “intricately crafted story of hope, forgiveness, power and resilience … Not in a million years did I think anything like this would ever happen to me … I am massively lucky. More lucky and humbled and grateful than I can express.”

The drama is being directed by Shawn Levy, whose previous productions include Stranger Things and the Night at the Museum franchise. Of Loberti’s casting, he said: “We searched the world and reviewed thousands of auditions. We never thought our path would lead to someone who has not only never acted professionally, but never auditioned before.

“It was a jaw-drop moment when we first saw Aria Mia Loberti, who is both a natural performer and an advocate for disability … I can’t wait to tell this beautiful story with her at the centre.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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