After imploring detractors to give her directorial debut Music a chance before criticizing it, Sia has opened up about her decision to cast longtime music dancer Maddie Ziegler in the title role in the film — as opposed to an actor on the autism spectrum.
Speaking to Australia’s The Sunday Project, the singer said the backlash in November that followed the release of the film’s trailer threw her off, though she thinks it was slightly misplaced.
“I realized it wasn’t ableism,” she said of her decision to cast neurotypical Ziegler in the title role (Music) of a non-verbal teen who is suddenly thrown into a relationship with her half-sister (Zu, played by Kate Hudson) who is described as a “newly sober drug dealer and self-saboteur” who is struggling in her new role helping the teenager with special needs.
“I mean, it is ableism I guess as well, but it’s actually nepotism because I can’t do a project without her (Ziegler),” said Sai. “I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”
Sia said that on the first day of rehearsals, Ziegler was very worried that audiences might think she was “making fun” of the autism community, to which Sia replied, “I won’t let that happen. And last week I realized I couldn’t really protect her from that. I thought I could.”
The singer said they sent a preview of the film to the non-profit educational organization the Child Mind Institute, who gave Ziegler a “100% performance accuracy” rating.
“I realized there are some things I can’t protect her from,” she said of the 18-year-old former Dance Moms star who has been the publicity shy singer’s avatar/muse for more than six years, starring in a number of Sia’s most beloved videos and featuring in a number of live performances. She even referred to herself as Maddie’s “bonus mom,” a phrase she just recently discovered and quickly turned into “1,000 t-shirts” she wears all the time now.
Despite making a film that appears to have all the hallmarks of a movie musical, Sia told the show that she “really hate(s) musicals,” explaining that it was originally supposed to be a straight narrative film. “I turned it into what I guess was a musical that I could watch or that I could tolerate,” she said. “Because there’s something that feels so cheesy about musicals that I just couldn’t reconcile.”
Sia had a strong reaction to the criticism that met the first trailer of the long-gestating film, urging her detractors to see it first, then judge her work. “Grrrrrrrrrr. F–kity f–k why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY,” the singer tweeted in November after dropping the minute-long preview that introduced Ziegler’s non-verbal character, who communicates to the world through song and dance.
When Irish actress Bronagh Waugh tweeted, “Hi Sia, can I ask why you didn’t cast a disabled actor for this part? It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character. People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing. Many of my friends have different disabilities and they are some of the…Coolest, most talented, funny, kind, intelligent people I know. They are also the most under-represented and inaccurately represented group in our society. This kind of inaccurate, offensive representation causes so much pain.”
Sia responded, “I agree. I’ve never referred to music as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said, and casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.”
Sia wrote the script and 10 original songs for the accompanying album and told commenters that she spent three years doing research and revealing that Music is based on an unnamed friend on the spectrum who “found it too stressful being non verbal, and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother.” She also said there are 13 people on the spectrum cast in the film and that two people on the spectrum were advising her at all times, calling the movie a “love letter to caregivers and to the autism community.”
Watch the interview below.