In 1948, The Sign of The Ram made Susan Peters the first actress and wheelchair user to star in a mainstream Hollywood thriller. More than 70 years later, Kiera Allen has become the second.
Allen plays Chloe, a homeschooled high school senior who starts to get the uneasy feeling that her mother, Diane (Paulson), has been hiding something from her. Set almost entirely in a house full of stairs, Run emphasizes the precariousness of the trust between mother and daughter, and how central that bond is to Chloe’s well-being. Once Diane decides to make spaces inaccessible to her daughter, Chloe struggles to move around freely in a place that she thought of as her own.
“As a disabled young woman, it isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen on screen before,” Allen told Refinery29 on a phone call ahead of the movie’s release.
The less said about the twists and turns the better — Run is the kind of movie that you want to go into knowing next to nothing about. All you really need to remember is Allen’s name. She’s an absolute scene-stealer, no small feat when you’re a first-time film actor and your co-star is Sarah freaking Paulson.
The 22-year-old native New Yorker was a freshman studying creative writing at Columbia University when her agent sent her the script, co-written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. (She’s still attending school.) Allen instantly connected with the character, whom she saw as an extension of herself: A wheelchair user, yes, but also driven, passionate, resourceful, and physically resilient. In one memorable scene, Chloe is forced to drag herself across an entire rooftop, battling gravity, terror, and time. It’s that fully-fledged narrative arc, still all-too-rare for on-screen portrayals of disability, that drew Allen in.
“Chloe is a burgeoning engineer and very talented at sciences, which is something that has never been my foremost strength,” she said. “But it’s her drive that I really connected with. None of the parts of her are compromised to make room for the other. She’s allowed to be a fully dimensional human being.”
“Like Chloe, I am so many things,” Allen added. “Disability is a part of who I am, and not a part of myself I’d ever want to reduce or hide, but at the same time, it’s not all of who I am.”
Refinery29: A lot is being made about you being the first wheelchair-user to star in a major thriller in over 70 years. What was your reaction when you found out?
Kiera Allen: “It’s pretty crazy, but also pretty exciting! There was a time when I didn’t know about The Sign of the Ram, and I was under the impression that Run is the first thriller ever starring a wheelchair user. It was honestly kind of a relief to find out that wasn’t the case because it is a lot of pressure to be first. I’m very grateful for the groundwork that has been laid by prior disabled actors and the people that I’ve worked with. I’ve worked in theatre in New York with a lot of disabled actors whom I really looked up to, and who have paved the way for me to do something like this. It’s really an honour to represent the community in a way that hasn’t happened before, but of course I’m only one person and I can only represent and speak for myself.”
The set of Run is almost its own character — did you have a say in how things were laid out?
“I was so comfortable on set because of all the effort towards accessibility. It was a great team. They always listened to me and asked my input when they were building the set, or building ramps. As soon as I was cast, I was getting on phone calls with people. Te put together a memo to send out to the whole crew, a one-sheet of things to keep in mind that are helpful for me. Like, it’s not helpful to push my chair without asking or without warning, and it’s very helpful if you can move things out of the way so there’s a clear path for a chair to come through. I always felt like everyone had my back in the building of things and in the setup of things but also in practice, in the day to day.”
You said you were drawn to Chloe almost instantly. How did you make her your own?
“What was really cool is that Aneesh and I worked together so much on the character and on how her surroundings would reflect who she was. We had a lot of conversations about what would be in her room, and he actually had me put together a whole list of things I would find in her room. What kind of music would she be listening to? What things would she be doing in her spare time? What books would she have on her nightstand? The credit goes to the whole artistic team, but it’s very rare as an actor that you have the opportunity to give your own input and say what I feel like home would be like for this character. That collaboration was definitely a highlight of pre-production for me.”
What was it like acting opposite Sarah Paulson in your very first movie? Were you already a fan?
“I still don’t know how to put into words how lucky I feel that I got the opportunity to act opposite someone of her caliber, and someone who was so supportive to me. This was my first feature film, and to do that opposite one of our greatest living actors is not for the faint of heart. So the fact that she encouraged me all the way through made a huge difference in the whole experience.
“I was actually in the middle of the latest season of American Horror Story when I got the call saying they’d cast Sarah Paulson as the mother and they’d like me to come out and do a chemistry read with her. It was something like Wednesday, I watched the new episode of Apocalypse, and Thursday I got the call. Everyone already knows how amazing she is, all I have to do is say: Yes, she really is that good. Seeing her on set, watching her work is everything you think and hope it would be from watching her on your screen at home.”
Has this experience inspired you to write roles for yourself, and maybe get more involved behind the scenes?
“Absolutely! I’m actually studying creative writing in college right now. Being able to spend that kind of time with such incredible minds when it comes to storytelling, and to be able to see how things come together, was a really formative and educational experience for me. Obviously as an actor, but also as a writer. To have their ear when I want to talk about things related to writing, or related to storytelling, has been hugely important in my growth as a writer since then.”
Do you remember the first movie or performance that made you feel acting was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
“I was really into movies, really into theatre. For my early childhood, I so admired people who did that but I never thought I could do it. I remember watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with my family and being so in awe and so in love with this movie. And my dad asked me: ‘Would you want to do something like that, like what those kids are doing?’ I got so upset because I thought, Yes, but I can’t, because I can’t memorize all those words and I don’t know how to read yet! As I got older, doing summer camp productions, local productions and things like that, acting made me feel so alive. I knew on some level from there, there’s nothing else I can chase and love in the way that I love this.”