ABC is no stranger to showcasing some special shows on their network. However, their newest series, Speechless, is shining a light on an important topic. The new series revolves around a family with a son, JJ, that has a physical disability. Cedric Yarbrough was lucky enough to have scored the role of Kenneth; the wise-cracking groundskeeper turned JJ’s aide. I got the chance to speak with him about his role and the show as a whole.
How does it feel to be a part of a show that’s shining a light on such an important topic such as disabilities?
It feels wonderful. I am very proud to be a part of the show. When I read the script back in February, I thought to myself if they can pull this off it would be amazing to have a person with a disability-with cerebral palsy- actually doing the role. I figured it would be an important step showing that an actor with a disability can play a character with a disability. Especially showing that an actor with cerebral palsy can work. Then you have an African American be their voice. I find it very refreshing and diverse to be in the cast and be a part of it.
From what we’ve seen in the pilot, Kenneth is a bit sassy and sarcastic, but he’s a great character-well developed. What attracted you to this role or does it go hand-in-hand with what you just answered?
It goes hand-in-hand with the first answer, but as a character actor, I sometimes have to stretch a little and do things that aren’t necessarily what I do. I did a show with Greg Kinnear, and it was called Rake, and I played a homosexual pimp on that show. That’s not really what I do. I played a cop on Reno 911 for many years, and I’ve broken the law many times, but the character of Kenneth is a little closer to home. He’s a fun guy; he’s genuine in his beliefs, and he cares about this kid, JJ- Micah Fowler’s character. He likes to have fun; that adds a lot. I think the bond I have formed with Micah Fowler, the actual human being, that relationship will carry over to the television. I hope people can tell the fun that we are having.
We can definitely tell that by both of you. By the end of the pilot, your character ends up with working with JJ. Did you do any training of working with someone with a disability?
Yeah. I had a chance to meet an amazing woman, Eva. She has cerebral palsy; she’s nonverbal. She uses a lot of communications that we use for JJ’s character. She has the laser pointer, and she will point with the laser to communicate. I also met with her aide temp who was very instrumental in telling how things work. It’s an amazing thing because Kenneth’s character has never been an aide or been trained in being an aide.
I can also use that aspect for this show because Eva, she prefers that people aren’t trained. She likes to learn, work together, get a rhythm. [Speaking on behalf of Eva] I don’t want individuals who do what they’re supposed to do. I want them to do what I want them to do. I want them to be my voice. I don’t want them to come in after working with someone else, because I’m different. I’m completely different. She likes people who have never done this before. So we used that as a blueprint for the show.
That’s fascinating! Has the whole cast been involved in working with special needs kids? Or did you just do this yourself to familiarize yourself with this role?
This is something I just did. I haven’t had a lot of experience with people with disabilities or individuals with special challenges. I wanted it to be authentic. As much fun as we’re having, I really want to know what I’m doing. I didn’t want to come in blind. I wanted to be someone who isn’t like Kenneth, who doesn’t know anything. I just wanted to be part of a Kenneth, but a little smarter than that character.
Your character’s bond with JJ, how it’s presented, is perfect. Can you tell us anything about how your and his friendship develops over the season? Or is it something we just have to watch and find out?
I think it’s something you have to see in our next episode. We’re not sure he’s going to stick around, frankly (laughs). He’s not doing the best at his job and now that we know Minnie Driver’s character doesn’t suffer fools too often…She fights for her children. She’s not so sure if Kenneth is the guy for JJ. I know JJ loves Kenneth, but she’s not so sure about the guy. So I can’t tell you too much. I just hope you guys are watching it and going on the ride with us. Maybe Kenneth stays, but maybe he has to leave.
For sure we’re along for the ride with the progression of this show. I read that your dream role is to act in Shakespeare’s Othello. Is there a backstory as to why that is your dream role?
It’s not particularly a dream role, but it is something I would love to do. I trained in a lot of dramatic theater. I did a lot of Shakespeare going through college and a lot of musical theater. I love drama; I love those characters. It’s something that once you have, it’s like your baby. It would also be very challenging as well; I’d be up for that. Othello would be a cool kind of tackle. There’re so many great theater pieces that I’d love to do. Hopefully, this show will go on forever, but in the meantime, I still have that hunger and passion for live stage shows.
A lot of the shows you’ve been on or guest starred on have been comedies. Is comedy your go-to or something you’ve always been passionate about? Or just something you’re familiar with and naturally good at?
(laughs) I have to tell you, when you come to Los Angeles, a lot of times the acting community can tell you who you are. Like I said, I grew up doing a lot of drama, but I also did musical theater, and I danced, and I did improv. I always wanted to be working so I learned as much as I could, so I learned all of it. When I got to Los Angeles, I booked a lot of comedies because it’s where they saw me.
Now I still have my dancing card with me, so if they ever need me to do a little two-step or some opera or musical theater, I got that (laughs). If they need me to cry on cue, I can pull that drama card out. LA sometimes dictates what you do and who you become. They can maybe shift things around; I may be able to do a dramatic role sometime.
Well, we hope you do! This show has a great cast. So what is it like to work with actors such as Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie?
John Ross Bowie and I have worked together before. We did Reno 911 together. He and his wife Jamie are hilarious. They’re outstanding improv comedy actors. So we had them on Reno 911, and they were a couple who had lost their daughter. I think they had a daughter who was in the pageant circuit. I worked with them before, so I knew John, but I did not know Minnie. I didn’t know how quick, fast and brilliant she was.
I’m familiar with what she’s done; I’ve always watched her work, but I didn’t know how much of a great improviser she is. Having the three of us improvise together, not to take away from the writing because the writing is brilliant. But if we get off the rails a little bit, they let us go. It’s such a fun time. And not just John and Minnie, but our young actors are the best young actors I’ve ever worked with. Micah Fowler is outstanding as JJ. Mason Cook; you can see the world through his eyes and he’s great.
I’m excited for people to see Kyla Kenedy blossom into this role as Dylan. She’s a mini Minnie, and I can’t wait for people to see what she does with it. It’s really, really fun. I feel very fortunate to find a home and to have it be Speechless. It’s definitely a blessing.
It’s apparent, as a viewer, that all the actor’s chemistry together just works as an ensemble cast. My last question for you is, here at Talk Nerdy With Us, we have a lot of things we nerd out over. Is there something you nerd out over?
(laughs) That question was so nerdy I couldn’t even understand!
Let me think about that! Specifically what comes to mind right now is Goodfellas. I’m a real geek about that. I love that movie. If that movie comes on, if it’s a Saturday morning or afternoon, I’ve got to watch it (laughs). I’ve got to put down my laundry or my vacuum or my lines. I’ve got to watch Goodfellas. I love that movie!
TV shows…I’m a Game of Thrones nerd. Breaking Bad…I was such a nerd about that. I was screaming every time. I do geek out on the animated series, Bojack Horseman. Like sometimes Eric Powell will come in, and I’ll be like ‘OH!’. And he’ll be like ‘calm down; it’s just me.’ (laughs)
Speechless is on air Tuesdays at 8:30 pm Eastern Time!