Meet Micah Fowler, ABC’s Newest Star‘Speechless’ Could Make Barnegat Teen a Household Name
It’s time to add a new – and big – name to the list of notables who have attended Southern Regional High School. Meet Micah Fowler:
Fowler isn’t an alumnus quite yet – the 18-year-old is a senior who will graduate next spring.
“Our mailing address is Barnegat,” said his mother, Tammy Fowler, “but we’re actually just over the line in Ocean Township” (a Southern Regional sending district).
Micah and Tammy spend most of their time in California these days. That’s because Micah is busy playing J.J. DiMeo, the character who gives the new ABC drama-sitcom “Speechless” its name.
“Speechless,” which had its premier on Sept. 21, tells the story of the DiMeo family as they face the challenges that spring from the fact that J.J. has cerebral palsy. Fowler, in real life, also has that movement disorder. In the TV show he is totally unable to speak – thus its title – and has to rely on a communication board, along with an incredible range of facial expressions, to communicate. In reality, Fowler can speak, although it is difficult for an untrained ear to understand him. His character is confined to a wheelchair, but Fowler can actually transverse short distances using a walker.
“Speechless” also stars Academy Award nominee Minnie Driver as J.J.’s protective, perhaps overprotective, mom; John Ross Bowie, who played Barry Kripke on “The Big Bang Theory,” as his dad; Mason Cook and Kyla Kennedy, who play J.J.’s siblings; and comedian Cedric Yarbrough, who starred on Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” and now plays J.J.’s aide.
The show has earned almost universal acclaim from critics who have praised its warmth, intelligence and, especially, humor. They have written that a message is being sent, but that it is not a “message,” preachy TV show. It also has had solid if not spectacular ratings. It attracted 6.10 million viewers on Oct. 5, far more than NBC’s “Blindspot” and especially The CW’s “Arrow,” which had 5.61 million and 1.89 million respectively, and narrowly behind its lead-in show on ABC, “The Goldbergs” (6.33 million), and FOX’s “Lethal Weapon (6.48 million).
The only broadcast show that beat it in terms of viewers between 8 and 9 p.m. on Wednesday was CBS’s long-running reality show “Survivor.” Indeed, it tied “Survivor” and “The Goldbergs” in the crucial ratings among adults 18 to 49 years of age (advertisers love members of that age group because of their disposable incomes) with a 1.8, beating out not only “Blindspot” and “Arrow” but also “Lethal Weapon.” It was one of the few Wednesday night broadcast network shows that didn’t slip in the ratings from the previous week, suggesting it was building a loyal following.
The critics have spilled a good amount of ink over Fowler’s performance. Here’s a SandPaper prediction – look for Fowler to earn an Emmy Award nomination come the summer of 2017.
Fowler still isn’t a household name. But he may be getting there. He’s starting to be recognized in public in places such as airports.
“People think it’s me, but are not sure,” he said, “because I am in a different wheelchair, so they usually ask, ‘Are you the kid from Speechless?’”
If the show continues to be successful and, especially, if he were to earn an Emmy nomination, Fowler should expect much more of that type of attention thanks to the recognition factor a wheelchair and his unforgettable smile provide.
His friends, he added, haven’t been blown away by his new fame. He hasn’t seen them, being on the West Coast, but he has been communicating.
“I do text my friends and so far they are treating me the same.”
Good friends! He also enjoys the perks of his gig.
“When we arrived on the (20th Century) Fox lot, I was so excited to see they had an amazing full-size trailer with a large ramp on the back end for wheelchair accessibility. They even set up a hair and makeup station on the back patio of the trailer, and makeup came to me, as I could not access the hair and makeup trailer easily. I also have a tutoring room on set.”
“During the shooting of the pilot episode, production provided two adjoining hotel rooms,” said Tammy Fowler. “Since we have been back in Los Angeles shooting episodes 2-22 we are living in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment.”
Fowler’s mom is never far away.
“It was very important to my husband, David, and I that one of us was on set with Micah at all times, so we made it part of the negotiation process,” said Tammy.
Which means they both have very long days. Rehearsal and shooting takes place five days a week, 10 to 14 hours a day! And don’t forget, Micah is still a high school student, which means he’s being tutored to keep up with his studies so he can return to Southern when the season’s shooting is completed in late winter and graduate with his class in June.
“I have a private tutor with me on set,” said Fowler. “He tutors me 15 hours a week. We fit most of my tutoring in during our 10- to 14-hour workdays. I am in a lot of scenes, though, so I usually tutor on Saturday mornings as well, for a few hours.”
“Speechless” is a “one camera” show. That means that each scene is sort of a production unto itself.
“Rehearsal is usually a few minutes right before we shoot each scene,” explained Fowler. “Filming depends on the scene and what’s involved. I think it ranges from an hour to three hours for each minute of film. We work about 60 hours a week to film a 22-minute show.”
The cast and crew do get weekends and holidays off and, after three weeks of shooting, a week of vacation. That’s when Micah and Tammy fly home to visit David, who is holding down the fort in Barnegat/Ocean Township, and try to catch up on much needed rest.
Remember, Fowler plays a character that can’t talk, yet he, in person, actually can. Has he ever, in the excitement of the moment, blurted out an exclamation, thus ruining a shot?
“No,” he said, “but I have busted out laughing several times when my fellow cast members decide to improv hysterical lines. When you’re not expecting it, sometimes you just can’t help but lose it when somebody improvs a really funny line.”
What is the most difficult thing about playing J.J.?
“My goal is to make sure the viewers know what J.J. is thinking and feeling at all times. Since J.J. uses a laser point and aide to communicate, I have to compensate physically by being extremely expressive with my facial expressions and body movements. It’s challenging, but I think the most difficult thing is restraining my hand and arm movements to match J.J.’s severity level.”
One thing you can’t teach is chemistry; Fowler and Yarbrough definitely have it. As stated earlier, it can be difficult to understand Fowler when he is speaking (much of this interview was conducted by email) but it was as if you could see his smile through a communications tower phone line when he was asked about his coworkers.
“I interact differently with each member of the cast,” said Fowler. “It’s really incredible, though. I really do have great chemistry with each of my fellow cast members. We all have become super close. We have a lot of fun together in between scenes, and we laugh a lot!”
“Every cast member clicks,” Tammy Fowler agreed. “It is just like a family.”
Both mom and son had a last thought they wanted to express.
Micah, like his older sister Kelsey, who went on to star on Broadway in shows such as “Grey Gardens,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Mary Poppins” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” got his “show business” start with the Our Gang Players, Southern Ocean County’s longest-running community theater troupe which has launched many a theatrical career.
“He was a munchkin in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” said Tammy. “I’ll never forget him being pushed across the stage in a wagon. I love Our Gang. Say hello to Sherry (Schnepp, Our Gang’s cofounder and artistic director) for me.”
As for Micah, he realizes he’s playing a groundbreaking character.
“I hope that as people watch ‘Speechless,’ they get to know J.J.’s character is a very typical person, to the point that they don’t even see J.J.’s wheelchair and disability, but they just see his heart, humor and big personality. Just maybe ‘Speechless’ will even encourage viewers to look beyond the physical or other limitations of special-needs people in their own lives and discover their love, personality, and, yes, even their humor.”