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Kurt Yaeger on Standing Up for Actors With Disabilities: ‘I Represent the Tip of a Spear’

Kurt Yaeger has ridden a BMX bike in the X Games and performed all his own stunts on shows like “Sons of Anarchy,” “Lethal Weapon” and “NCIS: Los Angeles.” He’s also a below-the-knee amputee, the result of a 2006 motorcycle crash that tore his pelvis in half, collapsed his lungs and shattered ribs. Despite his accident, Yaeger finds work playing characters with and without disabilities. He’ll soon appear on NBC’s new ensemble drama “The Village.” 

What was your acting career like before the accident versus after it?

Before, a lot of the jobs were related to being able to do stunts, kind of like an action guy who can ride a motorcycle down a flight of stairs and have a line or two. After, it got a little more palpable. The desire to play physically demanding roles is even higher than it was before; I want to prove it more and do everything I can to land more physically demanding roles. I play characters that are both able and disabled because I’m a below-the-knee amputee, so half the roles I’ve done have nothing to do with being an amputee.

What do you call yourself: an actor or an actor with a disability?

Definitely actor, but honestly, you can call me whatever the hell you want. You can call me a stumpy, one-legged actor — if you give me a call, I’ll love you. I’m not very PC. I’m open to you labeling me in whatever box makes you comfortable because I don’t care.

Does being an actor with a disability have more responsibility?

There are definitely expectations from the disabled community. You have to impress everybody, be better than everybody, be happier, more affable on set. Many performers with disabilities feel obligated to not ask for anything because they don’t want to reinforce any potential idea that they’re a problem. I represent the tip of a spear that’s being thrust into Hollywood. You really have to think about all the people that you’re potentially representing, and you have to do right by them. There’s some pressure from that perspective, but it’s more of an honor for me. If I can open the door a little bit, stick my prosthetic leg in there and hold it open for people, then I will.

How underrepresented are actors with disabilities?

It’s ridiculous, mind-boggling really. Nobody is doing it on purpose, but it still is true. I’ve met with showrunners and they’ve created roles after talking to me. It’s the only way for creators to meet performers with disabilities and learn. A lot of performers with disabilities don’t have the same opportunities to meet with executives or show off their talents. There are even physical barriers, like theaters that just have stairs and actors can’t even perform there. There are actors that can read for able-bodied roles and disabled roles when actors with disabilities sometimes only read for disabled roles.

How do people react when they realize you’re an amputee?

I did an episode of “Lethal Weapon” and played an able-bodied villain running full speed on the beach and riding motorcycles. It wasn’t until the seventh day of filming when I had to take off my leg and drain out the sweat that everyone found out I’m an amputee. They were like, “Oh my gosh, can we help?” I was like, “Nope, you’ve seen me do this for seven days, I’m fine.” I did all my stunts on “Tell Me a Story” on CBS. I jumped off a 25-foot building and rappelled down the side by myself. I met with the stunt coordinator and he said, “We don’t usually have actors do this,” and I said, “I rode BMX in the X Games.”

Do you play a person with a disability on “The Village”?

I can’t go into the character yet, but the show is about a hodgepodge of people who come together from different backgrounds and experiences and prove that you don’t need to be blood-related to be family. I play a character in and around a couple characters’ lives. It’s like “This is Us” except better (laughs).

What You Didn’t Know About Kurt Yaeger

Age: 42 Birthplace: San Francisco Pet Peeve: Left-lane drivers Childhood Dream Job: X Games biker Favorite Comedy: “Blazing Saddles” Last Song Listened to: “Waiting Room,” by Fugazi Fastest Speed on a Bike: 165 mph Craziest Stunt: Becoming an actor

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