DANVILLE — A Danville woman and Down-syndrome advocate realized one of her dreams recently when she guest-starred on NBC’s medical drama “New Amsterdam.”
Ghaliyah “Gigi” Cunningham, 21, plays a young woman named Chante in an episode set to air Oct. 29.
“I have a disability, but it doesn’t stop me from doing anything I want,” the 2018 Danville High School graduate said, breaking into a grin.
Shortly after returning from a whirlwind trip to New York City where she filmed the episode, Cunningham and her mother, Erica Taylor, sat down over cocoa and smoothies at Mad Goat Coffee to talk about the aspiring model and actress’ first acting job.
Cunningham began gaining a following on social media in 2015 after walking the runway in the Be Beautiful Be Yourself fashion show at the Colorado Convention Center.
The show is the Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s largest fundraiser in the U.S. and has raised millions for research, medical care, advocacy, education and “widespread awareness for the alarming disparity of funding for people with Down syndrome while successfully emphasizing their abilities.”
The next year, she was featured in a documentary by Attitude Pictures Ltd., a New Zealand-based TV production company specializing in programs relating to disability. The documentary follows the then-17-year-old demonstrating her modeling skills, eating dinner with her family, going to school and on a date and taking some test shots at the Helen Wells Agency in Indianapolis.
In August, Taylor received an email out of the blue from a casting director in Los Angeles. Would Cunningham be interested in auditioning for a role, and could she send them a script?
Upon receiving it, Cunningham memorized the lines, then performed them while her mom took a video on her phone. Then Taylor emailed the video to the casting director.
A couple of days later, Taylor received another email — this one from Caparelliotis Casting in New York City, followed by a call from agency President David Caparelliotis.
“He said he watched the documentary and showed everybody on the set, and they just fell in love with her,” Taylor said.
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Now in its second season, the hit show follows the lives of Dr. Max Goodwin, played by Ryan Eggold, and his colleagues at New Amsterdam, the oldest public hospital in the U.S.
To prepare for her role, Cunningham caught up on the Season 1 episodes, and she practiced lines with 14-year-old brother Mekhi Taylor, a DHS freshman; stepdad Michael Taylor; and other relatives reading the other parts.
“He really liked her personality, and he wanted her to be as natural as possible,” Taylor said of Caparelliotis. “He even allowed her to critique the script and portray her character in a way that reflected her own words and emotions.”
Cunningham met executive producer and director Peter Horton, of “Thirtysomething” fame, and the regular cast and guest actors at a table read. That’s when the cast reads through the entire script together.
“Gigi was able to read all of her lines,” Taylor said.
The filming took place over several days in a studio and at other locations. The show put Cunningham up in a nice hotel and sent a car to take her to and from the set. She also had a personal assistant and acting coach, whose siblings have Down syndrome, plus a wardrobe stylist, hairdresser and make-up artist.
On the days Cunningham reported to the set, she had a short rehearsal.
“Once they got everything down, they would roll film,” Taylor said, adding that they filmed until they got the shots they needed, which made for some very long days.
“It was very interesting to see,” she continued of filming. “They make it look so easy. But there are many people, and everyone’s got a job to do.”
When Cunningham wasn’t needed, she and her mom could kick back in her own trailer or dressing room. And while in the Big Apple, they, along with one of Cunningham’s personal support workers from home, got to take in some of the sights, including Times Square, Chinatown, the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower.
A self-proclaimed fashionista, Cunningham also did some shopping, though mainly to get souvenirs for everyone back home, including a Brooklyn T-shirt for Mekhi, one of her biggest supporters.
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No one is allowed to discuss the plot until it airs. However, on Sept. 25, Horton tweeted a photo of himself and Cunningham with this caption: “The fabulous Gigi Cunningham who plays Chante. This girl is talented. Will break your heart.”
Diana Elizabeth Jordon tweeted back: “So excited to see this episode for very special reasons. Appreciate New Amsterdam’s commitment to authentic casting of artists with disabilities Stocking up on the tissues already.”
Taylor was proud of her daughter’s performance and the way she interacted with the cast and crew.
“Before she left the taping, everyone knew who she was,” Taylor said. “She’d say ‘hello, how are you’ to everyone. Everyone said they were touched by her presence.
“And Peter was amazing,” she continued. “He was very welcoming and patient with her. He didn’t treat her any differently. She was one of the cast members. That’s what I loved about him the most.”
Taylor’s not sure whether this will lead to more acting opportunities.
“For her personally, it was a great experience, and we feel very grateful and blessed for her to have this opportunity,” she said. “She really enjoys acting and would like to challenge herself more. She can follow scripts well, and she has a sharp memory. The way I look at it is if God blesses her with something else, we’ll take a look at it and evaluate it to see if it’s something that would be good for her to pursue.”
Back home, Cunningham is planning a viewing party at Danville’s Palmer Arena, which is open to the public. A meet-and-greet will be held at 8 p.m. ahead of the viewing at 9.
Cunningham continues to work on various life skills, such as getting around town and trying out different recipes. She’s also working on her many other goals.
“I want to go to college. I want to get my driver’s license. I want to be a fashion designer. I want to get my own house. I want to be a model. I want to be a (musical) artist,” said Cunningham, who also speaks out against bullying on social media.
“She wants to do everything,” Taylor said with a laugh, “and I encourage her to try everything. Ultimately, it’s about what makes her happy. She pretty much can do anything she puts her mind to, and I’ll support her. She inspires a lot of people by just being herself and touches them in a way that’s indescribable, and that makes me happy.”