As a young actor in Chicago, Stephen Wallem used to write and perform cabaret shows about his experiences with Type 1 diabetes—from his diagnosis in 1978 at age 10 to complications that left him without vision in his left eye. But he never imagined he’d have a national platform. Then his sister, Linda, showed him the script for a Showtime pilot she was co-creating called Nurse Jackie. Before long, he had auditioned for and won the role of Nurse Thor, and his diabetes was being written into the show. Starring Edie Falco and Peter Facinelli, Nurse Jackie premiered in the summer of 2009 to critical acclaim, has already nabbed one Emmy for its star, and will return for its third season in March.
Stephen talked to Spry about becoming a famous diabetic and what he hopes people will learn when they tune in.
Spry: How did you feel when were you diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes?
SW: I had never even heard of the condition. No one else in my family that we know of—on either side—has it. It was a mystery for all of us, and we truly didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have any examples of people living with this disease, and it was a lonely place to be.
Spry: Have you found that a lot of people still have misconceptions?
SW: The general public seems to think that diabetics can’t have sugar and you take shots every once in a while. It’s far more complicated than that—and more life-threatening. That’s why I got involved in Novo Nordisk's Picture This campaign (www.eiconline.org/topic-areas/diabetes/), whose mission is to work with the entertainment media, film and TV, to get more information about diabetes and more characters like mine out there. That’s going to get the message across more than just a brochure.
I always say I don’t want to be pitied. I just want to be understood. If I do have an insulin reaction or complication, I want people to be there to support me.
Spry: How did your diabetes become part of Thor’s storyline on Nurse Jackie?
SW: Before the second season, my sister approached me and said, ‘We’re playing with the idea of having Thor be diabetic. How would you feel about us introducing your personal struggles into the character and the story line?’ Immediately, I thought, ‘This is an amazing opportunity!’ One of my biggest frustrations is that I can count on one hand the number of diabetic characters on TV. And even then, you sometimes only get a fleeting reference to it. There was nobody I could ever identify with. And at the same time, diabetes has become an epidemic.
Spry: How much input do you have in the writing process?
SW: All the writers met with me beforehand. Their goal was—and still is—to be as authentic as possible. They were very sensitive to make sure they didn’t show anything I was uncomfortable with, and pass everything by me ahead of time.
Spry: One of the most shocking moments on the show was learning Thor has a glass eye, which is based on your experience.
SW: Yes, it’s actually a shell. My real eye is still there. I had a series of surgeries on both my eyes, and they were able to save the vision in my right eye. But the left eye diminished in size—aesthetically it doesn’t look the same. So this wonderful woman from the suburbs of Chicago, June R.R. Nichols, creates these shells out of ceramic. She paints it based on the appearance of your other eye, and it actually moves naturally. Anybody wants to look normal of course, but as an actor, that is a lifesaver.
Spry: What was it like to remove it on camera, in the episode where Thor shows Jackie?
SW: I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it would be surreal, and emotional. Edie Falco is a textbook example of a pro from top to bottom. She’s also one of the most genuine, sensitive people. I felt very safe to be able to do that scene with her. It was even stranger to watch it later. But I’m proud to have had the courage to do it. I just kept thinking, ‘I’m doing this for a much bigger reason.’
Spry: What was the audience response like?
SW: There was an outpouring after that episode aired from diabetics who were so grateful there was character on TV going through what I’m going through. I got a note from a parent of a very young girl, who was going to lose an eye already. She asked me about the eyepiece, and I shared June’s contact info. That is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping would happen, though I’m still sort of amazed at the power of television—to go out to 3 million people and know you might be helping somebody. As an actor, too, it’s special because it becomes about so much more than your own self-satisfaction.
Spry: Do you know what diabetes-related plotlines may be on the horizon for Thor?
SW: I don’t, but there are endless possibilities. Relationships haven’t really been touched on. With dating, when you start opening up to someone, you have to say, “Diabetes is a huge part of who I am, and are you willing to be a part of it?”
Spry: How do you manage your diabetes on the set?
SW: I’m lucky because everybody is very aware, and my character is not onscreen so much that I work long days every day. If I ever had to stop, they would in a heartbeat. But there is so much food on a set! At home, I have control over what’s in the house, but at work the temptations are endless. The trick is just not to beat myself up. I don’t make the wisest choice every time, but I make plenty of good choices.
Part of my mission is to be honest about my struggles. I used to think, “I’m the worst diabetic in the world!” But my doctor said he hears that from all his diabetic patients. I don’t know anyone who can approach a chronic condition like this with perfection.