As one of the few actors with Down’s syndrome on our screens, Sarah Gordy is blazing a trail for people with learning disabilities in the profession.

The Lewes-based performer spoke to Your County about her life on and off screen and how she hopes to inspire others (originally shared in the print version of Your County in spring 2018).

'This Is Me' by Rankin

‘This Is Me’ by Rankin

For Sarah Gordy, the acting bug bit early. Now 39, she was encouraged in what would prove to be her chosen career by mum Jane, who now also works as her personal assistant and acting coach.

“When we were little, my mum would start a story, we would play with it and sometimes act it out just for fun, so I’ve acted all my life,” she says. “I didn’t plan to be professional – they found me, and that was it.”

‘They’ were the producers of long-running ITV medical drama Peak Practice, who gave Sarah her first break by casting her in the part of a teenage girl with Down’s syndrome. Eighteen years later, she remains one of the rare prominent actors with the condition on our screens but, she says, things are changing.

“It is increasing and there is a real push in the industry to encourage all diversity,” she says. “The world is full of diversity so drama should reflect that.  Audiences enjoy a character who is different and the producers are getting the message.”

Being an actor with Down’s syndrome does, however, place some limitations when it comes to casting, according to Sarah.

“There are a lot of characters I cannot play with truth,” she says. “In a period drama it is difficult to have a Down’s syndrome character as people with Down’s syndrome either died or were hidden away.

“However, where I can be used it would be something new and fresh. I can’t play an aristocrat in Shakespeare, but I can truthfully play a shepherdess as I am strong and bright enough to do the job.”

The grim fate of people with Down’s syndrome as recently as the 1930s was highlighted in one of Sarah’s most prominent roles to date, that of Lady Pamela Holland – confined to an asylum because her condition would bring ‘shame’ upon the family – in the BBC’s 2010 revival of Upstairs Downstairs.

Other TV roles followed, including an appearance in Call The Midwife in 2014 and, more recently, a role in Strike – The Silkworm, the BBC’s adaptation of the JK Rowling novel which offered her the chance to meet the Harry Potter author – ‘down-to-earth, hard-working and kind’ according to Sarah.

She broke new ground when she played a central character without a disability in the dark comedy Crocodiles at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, and says the platforms of stage and screen present differing challenges.

“On stage you have the time to deeply understand the character, working with your director and other actors,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, but you also have so many pages of lines to learn.

“On screen, the camera sees into your head and can watch as unspoken ideas travel through.  The camera sees your soul.”

By Zuzia Zawada for the Radical Beauty Project

By Zuzia Zawada for the Radical Beauty Project

Born in London, Sarah grew up in Kent and lived in the United States following a move prompted by her American father’s work, before returning to the UK as a teenager and settling in Lewes, where she still lives.

“I like the people, the history, the buildings, the good food in the markets, independent bakeries and restaurants,” she says. “I love the Runaway Cafe on platform two of Lewes railway station and the great people behind the counter – it’s like another home for me.”

As well as being an actor, dancer and model, Sarah volunteers in the Lewes British Heart Foundation shop and is a member of the East Sussex Learning Disability Partnership Board, which works with the county council to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities.

She also became the first celebrity ambassador with a learning disability for the charity Mencap, in which role she was portrayed by star photographer Rankin as part of the charity’s ‘Here I Am’ campaign, highlighting the person behind the disability.

Sarah, a former pupil of Sussex Downs College, in Lewes, hopes her success will inspire others with learning disabilities.

“I want to be a good role model for kids,” she says. “Eat well, exercise, use those little grey cells. For parents I want them to have as much fun as my parents have had.

“It’s extra work, but it’s extra laughs too. Be ambitious, encourage the development of muscles, play around, have fun – laughing is a habit.”

She’d advise aspiring actors to ‘do it for the joy of it’ and, for her own part, would always be driven to act, whether she’s getting paid for it or not.

“For a few people, acting is a good living, but for most, it doesn’t pay the rent,” she says. “For me, if I don’t share my head with another character, I’m lonely. I act because I need to live more than one life.”