For the past several years, Sia and Maddie Ziegler’s careers have gone hand in hand. The Australian singer and songwriter first discovered Ziegler when she appeared on Dance Moms and made her the subject of several of her music videos and live performances, including “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart.”

Their latest collaboration is Sia’s new movie Music, out February 12, 2021. But Music has been the source of controversy since it was announced, especially with Ziegler cast in its lead role.

Sia has come under fire for her new movie

Music tells the story of a young girl named Music, a non-verbal child on the autism spectrum. Ziegler plays the titular character, despite being a neurotypical person.

Unsurprisingly, Sia faced backlash from the autistic community and several austistic actors. They blasted her for not casting an actual autistic actor in an autistic role and instead choosing a neurotypical person with whom she’s had a longstanding working relationship.

Sia was confronted on Twitter by an autistic actor who said that they would have acted in the movie on a short notice. “These excuses are just that: excuses,” they said. “The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic.”

Sia’s blunt response sparked even more backlash. “F*cking bullsh*t. You have no f*cking idea because you weren’t there and haven’t seen the movie,” she said before finally delivering the gut punch: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.”

In addition, Music has been criticized for Autism Speaks’ role in creating the film and Sia’s partnership with the organization, which has long been regarded as abusive and exploitative. “They’ve got a poor track record of showing respect for autistic people,” Forbes said back in 2013. Among other things, critics of Autism Speaks contend that the organization aims to “cure” autism — often with damaging and abusive techniques — rather than understand it, and speaks about autistic people rather than letting them share their own experiences and needs. 

Maddie Ziegler was Sia’s preferred actor

Sia has been the lightning rod of criticism, but Ziegler has also been criticized for even taking on the role in the first place. Sia actually did audition several non-verbal actors, including her neuroatypical friend who she claimed found acting in the film “too stressful.” Ultimately, she chose Ziegler for the role.

“I did try,” she said. “It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.” She echoed her sentiments in an interview with The Sunday Project in Australia. “I can’t do a project without her. I don’t want to,” the songwriter said. “I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.”

Sia regrets not being able to protect Maddie Ziegler from criticism

For her part, Ziegler was apprehensive to take on the role, both because she had never truly acted before and because she didn’t want to offend anyone on the autism spectrum. Despite her neurotypical status, Sia claimed that she was able to play a non-verbal autistic person perfectly in rehearsals.

The “Cheap Thrills” singer discussed Ziegler’s attitude toward the production on The Sunday Project. “She cried on the first day of rehearsals and she was really scared and said, ‘I don’t want anyone to think that I’m making fun of them.’ I bold-facedly said, ‘I won’t let that happen,’” Sia recalled. 

“Last week I realized I couldn’t really protect her from that, which I thought I could,” she added. “I realize that there are some things I can’t protect her from as much as I try.”

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