Thomas Ellenson is rolling through life. The actor hasn’t let his wheelchair or cerebral-palsy diagnosis dampen his aspirations. He’s writing and producing his own shows and acted in the breakthrough television series Speechless.
After seeing Tom’s show It Is What It Is, CONVICTS got the chance to sit down with Tom. Speaking through an app on his iPad, Tom told us about the origins of his love for all things theatrical, his dating struggles, and the importance of drinking beer.
Hey Tom, how’s it going mate? To start, can you tell us a little about the device you’re using to chat with us?
The way I talk is with an iPad, using an app called Total Talk. I create words by spelling or choosing them and then put sentences together. Since that takes a long time and I don’t think people like to wait, I often put sentences together ahead of time and then say the full sentences by just pushing a button where I’ve stored it. It’s cool. Not being able to use my voice is tough enough, but I can’t imagine if I wasn’t able to have a voice at all.
Well, you’ve certainly found a voice in your acting career. Tell us how you got into drama?
When I was born, I spent ten days in the neonatal intensive care unit. My parents watched over me, hoping I would live. It wasn’t a sure thing. My dad sat by me and sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables ten times a day. My mom told my dad I would think my life is a musical. She was right. I love to tell that story cause it’s funny, but actually everything changed when I saw my first show ever. I saw Beauty and the Beast with my mom at three. I still remember when the beast turned into a man because it was totally magical. That’s when I turned into someone who loved musicals. Ever since then musicals have been a gigantic part of my life because they help me to escape from reality.
Can you talk about some of the unique hardships you face in this often problematic reality?
When I wheel down the street, people actually stop me and touch my head because they think that god did this to me. Really? Why would he do that? I was just born with CP. I don’t love it, but my close friends don’t care about it and how many friends do people really need? Anyway, the hardest thing is that CP affects dating.
Hear that, man. Let’s talk a bit about your own acting career. What’s the feeling like when you’re on stage?
Being in front of a crowd is a totally unique feeling because I feel like that I’m in a completely different world. That’s why I love theater.
Talk a bit about your experiences in acting. We understand you’ve enjoyed some serious success already.
I’ve only been acting for five years and so I feel really good about where I have gotten. I belonged to a theater group, Creative Arts Team, that writes and performs a show every year. They’re incredibly talented people and this year I got my first TV role on Speechless. I have to say that TV is totally different from theater. I like the TV, but I love audiences.
Can you talk about how you prepare for the roles?
Usually, I create my own characters because they are original shows, so I have done the character exploration already. On stage I use Alexander Technique, which means I just embody the character. It is a bit different for TV because they shoot the show in smaller scenes and you know there are cameras right in your face, but it’s the same idea.
Tell me about your own show It Is What It Is.
I first started thinking about my show after I saw 700 Sundays by Billy Crystal. I thought “Wow, he’s such a famous guy and yet he told a story that everyone could relate to.” I thought I should write a story about myself. I’m another person with a bit of a unique life so I wanted to see if I could make it a story everyone could relate to.
Your show features Tinder rather prominently. Can you talk about that decision?
My show includes a lot of Tinder screens, but I must give all of the credit there to my brilliant director and co-writer Christopher Hanke. It was his idea. When we were talking about the initial version of my play, we both thought it wasn’t a fully realized play because it didn’t have any conflict. It is just my story and the show’s conflict is me trying to find people on Tinder. It really creates a great dramatic structure.
The show was excellent. Moving onto some easier questions, we hear you’re a beer drinker. What’s your favorite kind of beer?
My favorite is Goose Ale. The good thing is that drinking isn’t expensive for me because I get drunk on just one can.
When was the last time you got into trouble?
Because of my chair, I’m a pretty conservative guy. I don’t usually get into trouble and when I do I never talk about it.
If you had to eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My favorite food is a burger. I love all kinds of burgers, but Bareburger the best and I also love steak.
Who’s your celebrity crush?
I’ve been lucky that I’ve met so many celebrities. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daniel Radcliffe, Jefferson Mays, and so many other Broadway actors. One I haven’t met is the one I have a huge crush on, Lea Michele.
We’ll be sure to put in a good word if we ever cross paths. Thanks for the chat Tom, best of luck with everything.