Suburban actors with Down syndrome featured in 'Star Wars' fan film
A "Star Wars" fan film featuring actors with disabilities from Chicago's suburbs is making a name for itself at film festivals both domestically and in Europe, including fests in Italy and Ireland.
Locally, "No Easy Target" has been an official selection at nine Chicago film festivals, as well as a finalist at three more, including the Chicago Southland International Film Festival, the Cinema Touching Disability film festival and ChangeFest, where it will be screened Friday, Sept. 27.
Orion Couling directed the 16-minute short film. He has directed actors with Down syndrome for more than a dozen years in musicals produced by the Schaumburg-based UPS for DownS, or United Parent Support for Down syndrome.
Now, he is raising their visibility through film.
"No Easy Target" features six actors -- along with their able-bodied peers -- in a film that casts the exceptional actors as members of the Jedi, protecting their colony of people who choose to live outside the mainstream society.
Couling believes it is the first fan film in the science fiction and fantasy genre to feature actors with disabilities in principal roles. The film is the first in a trilogy he plans as part of his EDGE of Orion theater organization, or "Esteem Development through Greater Expectations."
Garrett Anderson of Lake Zurich plays the lead in the film. To prepare for the physical role, he worked for hours with Couling to learn staged light saber combat.
When asked whether he was ready to play a hero, Anderson replied simply, "I'm dying to play a hero."
Bridget Brown of Elmhurst plays his counterpart, adding: "People with disabilities, they're the heroes in this movie."
Other local actors include Allie Reninger of Schaumburg, Lindsey Pazerunas of Inverness, Nate Shapiro of Chicago and Jack Ford of Orland Park.
While Couling grew up loving the "Star Wars" movies, he points to the increasing vitriol from the fan base against people of color, women and nontraditional heroes with motivating him to make the movie.
"Our universe is big enough for all kinds of people," Couling says. "We made this film to challenge the fan base by putting differently-abled actors in front of the story and telling a story of inclusion.
"We wanted our creative work to envision a community of neurodiversity," Couling added, "that reflects a nation we all want to live in."
He worked with professional filmmaker Scott Potter of Naperville to shoot the movie. They posted a trailer last spring when it first came out and it immediately drew more than 12,000 views.
"It's such exciting news for the Down syndrome community," says Sandy Pazerunas, a board member with UPS for DownS.
Selections at film festivals have added up, building to this weekend's screening in Chicago and next month's showing as a finalist at a film festival in Austin, Texas.
Lindsey Pazerunas has performed in countless musicals with Couling on stage at Conant High School, and in April her unified cheerleading team earned a world title. But acting in a movie took her to a new high, she says, and connected her more to her fellow actors.
"We are actors," she says, "and we want to be included in all that theater has to offer."
Learn more about this film, its actors and the theater company behind the production, at https://edgeoforion.com/constellation-project-films.
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"No Easy Target" at ChangeFest Film Festival
When: Being screened from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27
Where: DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place, Chicago