'Stranger Things' star's new role has sparked an angry backlash

'Stranger Things' star's new role has sparked an angry backlash

Stranger Things has made Charlie Heaton a star, with his popularity skyrocketing since he appeared onscreen in 2016 as Jonathan Byers. However, Heaton's new role has recently divided his legions of fans, completely outraging many people.

Earlier this month, the 24-year-old revealed he was going to be playing Joseph Merrick - otherwise known as the 'Elephant Man' - in the new BBC production about his life. Describing the role as "a challenge for any actor", the actor claimed he was "extremely excited and honoured" to be selected by casting agents. Nonetheless, not everyone was as thrilled as he was, with some blasting the BBC for overlooking actors with disabilities who allegedly didn't even get a chance to audition for the role.

Phil Talbot from UK disabled charity Scope named the decision a "missed opportunity" and claimed "a massive pool of disabled talent had been overlooked".

"It's disappointing that a disabled actor has not been cast in the remake of The Elephant Man, as it's one of the most recognisable films to portray a disabled character," he said. "This is a missed opportunity but sadly, a lack of diversity in the industry is nothing new."

He continued: "Disabled actors still often face huge barriers to break in to the business, not only are the roles few and far between, but castings and locations are often not accessible. The creative industries should be embracing and celebrating difference and diversity, not ignoring it."

Talbot was joined by people online who agreed, insisting that disabled actors should have at least been given the opportunity to audition before the role was handed to an able-bodied performer.

Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis type 1, a condition which was once thought to affect Merrick, claimed he would "have liked to have gotten a phone call" about the role, saying: "The job ultimately should go to the best actor, however, actors with the condition you're trying to portray should absolutely be the first port of call - irrespective of how much extra effort that is."

Twitter user @sweet_est_pea concurred, writing: "The truth is that the #bbc is shameless and doesn't have the guts to audition him for the part, because they'd rather just keep feeding us all commercialised trash than challenging us to think and feel... The 4 year old from Stranger Things is not an exceptional actor. What could he possibly know about living with disfigurement?"

However, others were all for Heaton taking on the part, with Twitter user @JMacDaid suggesting any role should go to the best actor or actress. "But does that mean that actors have to be that role physically / sexually / ethically etc for us to believe they are authentic / good actor? The #BBC may have overlooked in this case, sure it's happened many times before with casting people, but I'm curious about where this ends," he wrote.

A spokesman for the BBC programme responded to the outrage, claiming disabled actors would be cast in a "variety of key roles". "The Elephant Man is an iconic drama that has had an important role to play in highlighting changing attitudes to disability and we are currently in the process of casting disabled actors in a variety of key roles," they said.

Joseph Merrick was born in 1862 and began developing physical deformities on his skin, face, arms and feet when he was five years old, eventually appearing in a 'human oddities show' in London where he was exhibited as 'The Elephant Man'. He died in London Hospital, aged 27.

The latest adaptation of the Elephant Man is due to be screened on the BBC next year.