Keep the Change
From writer and director Rachel Israel, Keep the Change is an independent romantic comedy about two New Yorkers who meet in a support group for adults with developmental disabilities. Featuring a groundbreaking cast, the film stars Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon and Jessica Walter. The film won Best U.S. Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Israel won Best New Narrative Director.
Writer and director Rachel Israel is an adjunct professor of Film at Rhode Island School of Design and has directed numerous short films which have screened at festivals worldwide. Her first feature length film is Keep the Change (2018).
Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, actor and singer Samantha Elisofon debuted in this year’s award-winning film Keep the Change after being discovered singing at her local Jewish Community Center. Elisofon received a nomination for Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival for her portrayal. She performs with DreamStreet Theatre Company and E.P.I.C. Players, an inclusive theater company for performers with and without disabilities. Her childhood and upbringing is also the subject of a memoir written by her mother, Marguerite Elisofon.
Marguerite Elisofon is a New York City based writer and author of My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism, a memoir about how her family navigated life before the internet and support groups existed for families with children on the autism spectrum.
At a time when filmmakers and moviegoers demand a diverse industry, Rachel Israel’s directorial debut Keep the Change offers an intimate portrait of a community seldom represented on screen, unfolding as a love story between two New Yorkers who meet in a support group for adults with developmental disabilities. Starring a vibrant cast with actors on the autism spectrum, the film is an expanded version of Israel’s 2013 short of the same name and portrays the universal desire for attention, acceptance and love. Newcomer Brandon Polansky plays David, a self-conscious aspiring filmmaker whose greatest desire is to be “normal,” alongside burgeoning actor Samantha Elisofon who portrays Sarah, a bubbly performer with a big heart and unfailing smile.
Israel was inspired to make Keep the Change after witnessing Polansky blossom in a romantic relationship, but she struggled to cast his love interest. After auditioning hundreds of neurotypical actresses, Israel finally discovered Elisofon, a young woman with autism “who had been there all along at the community center.” Together, they created a character that was an extension of Elisofon’s real-life personality—naturally magnetic and unapologetically confident.
Elisofon is the subject of her mother, Marguerite Elisofon’s, memoir My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism, which chronicles her experience of raising a child on the autism spectrum. One of every 45 children lands within the autism spectrum, yet the disorder remains largely misunderstood and even misrepresented. Bonded by their passion for autism awareness and social reform, Rachel Israel joined Samantha and her mother Marguerite to discuss the making of Keep the Change and how they hope to alter the perception of autism through the film.
Rachel Israel: I want to start by asking you, Samantha, about how you first came to work on the project?
Samantha Elisofon: You discovered me singing at the JCC and asked me to audition. There were a hundred neurotypical actresses who were definitely not happy campers, but you wanted me for the part. I was like, “Mama, Mama, Rachel wants me for the part!” My mom was like, “That’s nice, dear. But wait and see if she calls you.”
Marguerite Elisofon: I’d always encouraged Samantha to try out for everything, but usually she didn’t get much of anything. I tried to keep it level. Shock of shocks—I got the phone call from Rachel asking if Samantha could be the lead in her short film.
RI: I was working on the project with the other lead for about a year before meeting Samantha. I had auditioned literally a hundred neurotypical actresses for the role of his love interest, and it felt very wrong. It felt manipulative for the casting not to be 100% authentic. Then I opened my eyes and saw Samantha, who had been there all along at the community center. Samantha is absolutely luminous. It would not have been the same film without her.
ME: What many reviewers are surprised by is that people with autism can act, perform, and take directions and be warm and outgoing. I keep thinking about young neurotypical actors who have successful debuts in film. They were equally untrained or unprofessional, but you don’t read about how “surprising” it is that they did a good job. I hope we’ll evolve to looking at actors with autism and other disabilities as equal newcomers to the scene, instead of saying, “Wow, they made a good film in spite of their disabilities.” Nobody’s a professional actor until they’ve proven their metal.
RI: Hopefully, there will be more opportunities in the future, and we’ll stop feeling like authentic casting is a novelty. To me, making the short film was an acting boot camp. How was making the feature different from the short film for you?
SE: I didn’t feel as confident when we were filming the short. I was worried something would go wrong, and I would flop. I feel like my performing grew tremendously when we did the feature because I had a lot of guidance and coaching from Rachel, which made a big difference in me shaking off my nerves.
“Paraphrasing my lines in my own words,
saying them the way I would say them in real life,
was a long thought process.”
— Samantha Elisofon
RI: It took complete collaboration. Between making the short and making the feature, you built confidence and put in a ton of work. You put yourself in a vulnerable position by trusting the filmmaking process during our two years working together. We discussed things that make you anxious and built them into the character because we wanted you to relate to Sarah emotionally.
SE: I relate very much to my character. I’m very sensitive, just like she is.
ME: Rachel, you were able to go deeper into the love story and the lives of this community. Whether they want to be with a man or a woman, they all want that connection. And whether that connection expresses itself exactly the way a neurotypical would doesn’t even matter.
RI: I was taking the easy route, comparatively. I would have been terrified to make a film about these characters without the participation of a cast who is on the spectrum. I would have felt like I was writing something blind.
Marlee Matlin is an American actor, author, and activist. After losing nearly all of her hearing as an infant, she went on to become a successful film and television actress, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her film debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986), the only deaf performer to have won the award to date. She is active in a number of charitable organizations, advocating or disability rights and inclusion.
E.P.I.C. Players is a nonprofit, neuro-inclusive theatre company in New York City dedicated to creating professional performing arts opportunities for artists living with developmental disabilities.
ME: As a mother, it’s thrilling that my daughter is breaking down doors so people with disabilities aren’t just working jobs at Walmart or doing the things nobody else wants to do. When Samantha first started acting, I thought a lot about Marlee Matlin. Maybe Samantha could be the Marlee Matlin of autism.
We created a theater group for talented actors with disabilities. It’s a neuro-diverse group called E.P.I.C. Players, which stands for empower, perform, include, and create. We’ve done a couple cabarets and plays, and we have The Tempest coming up in June.
“It felt manipulative for the casting
not to be 100% authentic.”
— Rachel Israel
RI: There’s a quote that goes something like, “Acting is seeing yourself under imaginary circumstances.” It takes a tremendous amount of skill to be yourself under imaginary circumstances with a camera in your face. When people see the film, they sometimes think it’s a documentary because the acting is so superb. I think it’s because they’re not used to seeing actors on the spectrum in a fiction film. Samantha, was there anything that was difficult for you about the acting?
SE: It was definitely not easy-peasy. I have a tendency to use a lot of rote memorization, so I struggled when Rachel would ask me not to look at my script and make something up on the spot. The improv exercises were not the easy-peasiest. Paraphrasing my lines in my own words, saying them the way I would say them in real life, was a long thought process. It wouldn’t have been possible to overcome these challenges without Rachel’s coaching and support.
RI: I’ve done some improvisational acting, and I totally get the anxiety that it produces. You’re a natural at acting and improvisation. You listen and respond honestly. It’s not easy to do.
ME: To parents that are raising kids on this spectrum, I would say go with the skills and the interests of that child. Work on the strengths at the same time you’re working on the challenges. For Samantha, as challenging as we both found her childhood, she always gave 110%. Not everybody has that level of motivation. If you’re willing to work really hard, and you have some talent, the sky’s the limit.
RI: Heading into production, some concern was expressed about whether the cast would be able to keep up with the marathon hours of a professional film shoot. This was absolutely never a problem. Our cast worked harder than anyone else to be a part of this.
“When you feel that somebody respects you
and treats you as an equal,
you’re willing to go out on a limb for them…
When you create that bridge of trust,
people will walk over it.”
— Marguerite Elisofon
ME: Some of these actors had been dismissed for most of their lives. This opportunity was a tremendous motivation in itself for getting through the fatigue and the long hours. Also, when you feel that somebody respects you and treats you as an equal, you’re willing to go out on a limb for them. All of Samantha’s life, when she had a teacher that didn’t respond to her or didn’t expect anything from her, that became self-fulfilling. But when you tune in to who they are and what they can do, what results is something wonderful. When you create that bridge of trust, people will walk over it.
SE: They are capable. I’m ready for the next step. Ready-spaghetti.
ME: How excited are you both about the film opening?
SE: I’m so excited! This is a tremendous breakthrough, and I feel over the moon and overjoyed just to be here and be able to spread the word.
RI: I never thought of this film as a niche concept but as something that would be universally received. So it is very gratifying that we made it here, that we won those awards at Tribeca and now it’s coming to theaters.
ME: I didn’t know whether the film would translate in other cultures. There’s so much about it that’s New York. There’s parts of it that relate to the Jewish community. But so far, it does seem to be universal. Really, the things this film explores are universal, and why shouldn’t they be universal? It’s about human feelings, the desire that we all have to be loved. Right, Samantha?
SE: That’s right, Mama. The love and attention.
“I relate very much to my character.
I’m very sensitive, just like she is.”
— Samantha Elisofon
RI: Marguerite, do you want to talk a little bit about your book and how that flows into this experience?
Autism Speaks is an autism advocacy organization founded in 2005 by Bob Wright, vice-chairman of General Electric. The organization sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities aimed at both families with autism and the public.
Geraldo Rivera is an American attorney, reporter, author and talk show host. Rivera garnered national attention and won a Peabody Award for his reporting on the neglect and abuse of patients with intellectual disabilities at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School in 1972. His exposé led to a class action lawsuit against the state of New York.
ME: I raised Samantha at a time when there was no Autism Speaks, no Internet. People were not particularly compassionate. People with autism lived in Geraldo Rivera-type scary institutions that nobody talks about anymore. Samantha spent her whole life in Special Ed until she reached college. The last two and half years of college, she was in a mainstream classroom with the same academic expectations as anybody else, and she not only managed to meet them, but graduated with honors.
I wanted to show what it was like with Samantha having a neurotypical twin brother, and how to stay united as a family. It was particularly poignant to have a set of twins that were so dramatically different from one another, and who, because of their differences, had a really hard time connecting throughout their childhood.
I also wanted to give hope to families that are starting out on the journey with their children on the spectrum because there isn’t a lot out there, other than the discovery that early ABA intervention can help some children enormously. But a lot of kids don’t respond to ABA. I was fumbling in the dark, grasping at straws and whatever was out there that wasn’t invasive.