The moment that Lenny Rush found out he was in the running for a Bafta, he was in a hospital bed, recovering from spinal surgery. “That wasn’t a good mix,” he says, “because my mum went, ‘You’ve been nominated’ and I went …” He pretends to punch the air in triumph, then mimics extreme pain. “Aargh!” He laughs. In May, he won the TV Bafta for best male comedy performance for his role as Ollie in the BBC series Am I Being Unreasonable? as well as two Royal Television Society Programme awards in March. The show has, says Rush, “changed my life”.
Rush, 14, is about to be one of the presenters of Children in Need. He doesn’t know what he will be doing yet; last year, he overshadowed everyone in a sketch as the hapless manager of a celebrity call centre, but this time he will be presenting live. Is he nervous? “I am, but I think the excitement outweighs the nervousness. If I’d said no, and then I watched it that night, I would be gutted I wasn’t there.” He has watched it for years. “It means a lot to everyone,” he says. “It can be such a mix of emotions – watching the appeals can be quite emotional, and then you’ve got funny, uplifting sketches. It’s just a great night in general.”
We are speaking over Zoom – Rush is at home in Essex, where he lives with his parents and younger brother, Bobby. His mum, Lisa, is just off-camera. Rush has an easy confidence, blazing charisma, and is possibly the politest teenager you will ever come across.
It was Lisa who applied to be part of the BBC children’s channel CBeebies’ Our Family series, which looks at different types of families, when Lenny was seven. Rush, who has spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, a form of dwarfism, realised he enjoyed being in front of the camera and was fascinated by the TV process. Around the same time, he started going to a Saturday morning club run by the Pauline Quirke Academy of Performing Arts. He hadn’t done much acting before – school nativity plays were it, he says. “I never got Joseph. I remember the teacher giving someone else the part and I was really annoyed.” He ended up playing a sheep.
The more he did drama, the more he thought he would like to have a career in acting. “But I never thought it would get to this stage. I’ve been so honoured and so lucky.” He performed for two years running at London’s Old Vic, playing Tiny Tim in its production of A Christmas Carol, and also starred in the BBC adaptation with Guy Pearce. He has been in TV shows including the children’s drama The Dumping Ground, and this year had a part in Best Interests, the drama starring Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen. He will be in the new series of Doctor Who next year and is increasingly laden with awards. He seems to have done it all, already. “Thank you,” he says, politely.
Has it been hard to switch between work and school? The longest time he was off was about three months, for Am I Being Unreasonable?, though he had a few days back at school during breaks in filming. When he is away, he and his friends message each other a lot, or play video games online together and chat, “so that’s helped me keep up with them”.
They don’t treat him any differently, says Lisa. She and her husband are adamant that Rush experiences a “normal” life away from work. “We go back to the every day,” she says. “It’s a fine balance, because Lenny would do this full-time if he could – he absolutely loves it and he’s living the dream at the moment – but he is young, and he needs to have that time where he keeps his feet on the ground.” There are strict rules about being on set, he says. “Which I understand – there have got to be.” He loved the day he got to swear on Am I Being Unreasonable? In the car on the way to filming, he was practising his line over and over, just for the fun of it. “I turn up and my swear word has been crossed out on the script. They went: ‘You can still say it.’” He just couldn’t read it.
He is, he says, “very lucky with my friends – they are all lovely, very supportive” but they’re not overimpressed. “I remember saying: ‘I’ve been filming for Doctor Who.’ I’ve got a friend who’s a big fan of it. He went: ‘Oh, wow. Now, what do you want to play?’” Has there been any jealousy? “There is definitely a little bit of jealousy; it’s one kid in particular and you can’t do anything to stop that,” says Rush. “This is really ironic coming from someone with dwarfism, but you’ve got to be the bigger person.” He laughs. It’s better now, he says.
He enjoyed filming the BBC show Dodger because there are a lot of other children and young people in it. Rush plays a road sweeper, Morgan – a cheeky, cheerful boy who is, says Rush, probably the closest character to himself that he has played.
The audition for Am I Being Unreasonable?, the dark comedy co-written by and starring Daisy May Cooper, came up during the filming of Dodger. Rush was encouraged to improvise with the rest of the cast, and turned out to be brilliant at it. “I think improv is what made it look more natural and I think it made it funnier.”
His character, Ollie – funny, sensible, but multilayered and with possibly a very dark side by the end of the series – wasn’t written as a child with a disability at first. “Nothing is ever really stated about my disability in the show either – it’s sort of just there.” When they were casting, his agent had asked if a disabled child could audition. “I think it made them think: ‘Why not?’”
Rush was able to bring his lived experience to it – small but authentic things such as the Segway he often uses, or the extenders fitted to light switches so he could reach them. “Not that anyone has noticed, but it’s a clever little touch,” he says.
When Rush was growing up, the only actor he saw with his condition was Warwick Davis. “Dwarfism covers a large scale and he has got the exact same type as me. There weren’t too many people out there. There is Warwick, and I remember Verne Troyer, and there’s Peter Dinklage, but they are the only actors I know, which is a shame. There should be more.” Perhaps, he says, “that is one of the reasons why I do acting – to get a bit of representation out there and hopefully encourage people.” He hopes to inspire children with dwarfism, but also their parents. “I didn’t realise how tough it was,” he says of his own parents’ experience when he was much younger (when Rush was born, he was in hospital for four months). “I think it is good for parents to see me, to know that you’ll make it out at the end and it will be the best life ever.”
Dinklage, the Game of Thrones star, has criticised harmful portrayals of people with dwarfism and has turned down stereotyped roles. Davis has acknowledged that he has been typecast, with many of his roles in the fantasy genre. How does Rush feel about the work on offer? “I think about that sometimes,” he says. “I can easily play child roles but when I’m an adult … I don’t know if I will be playing your average adult, or if it will be … magical creatures, do you know what I mean? I don’t think I would love that.” He would love, and rightly thinks there should be, a wide range of roles open to disabled actors. “You don’t want to get typecast as something because of your disability.”
He always, he says, knew that he was different from average-height children, though he noticed it more as he got older. His family were a part of Little People UK, the charity and community set up by Davis and his wife, Samantha. “Sometimes, with dwarfism, you feel as if you are the only one, and when you go there, there are so many other people. It’s lovely to see. You don’t realise how many people are living life the same way as you.”
When his role in Doctor Who was announced – he plays a new character, Morris – he saw comments online that his casting was “woke”. “That’s annoying. If they actually take the time to have a little watch, hopefully they will realise that I’m an actor.” It’s a very small minority of people who say negative things, his mum points out. “Oh yeah. I get more positive comments,” says Rush.
In the past, he had to get used to people staring at him. “Now I tell myself, if someone is staring, it’s all right because they might know me off the telly.” Has it got him down at times? “I don’t think so. Otherwise you will go through life being miserable and there’s no point. I love being little – it’s a part of me. I’m lucky to have it.” When he gets messages from disabled children or their parents, he says, “It really makes my day. One lady, her son has dwarfism and he is primary school age, and finding it tricky, realising he is a bit different. She was asking me for advice. I think what I said was: ‘Disability is your superpower.’ I really think it is.”
When he was born, Lisa gave up her job as a dental nurse to care for him (his dad, Steve, runs a kitchen design business). Rush has had operations on his legs and to close a cleft palate. Most recently, he had spinal surgery. “So I’ve got two rods in my back. My doctor, he’s amazing – Dr Tucker at Great Ormond Street hospital, he has changed my life.” Rush’s condition, he says, “can affect your sight, walking, stamina, balance and hearing.” He smiles and with perfect timing adds, “I’m like an old man.”
Rush has been through a lot for his age, but seems so confident. Has he always been like that? “Have I, Mum?” he asks, looking off-screen. I can hear his mum, her voice full of pride. “You’re happy, you’re content, you make the best out of everything and you’ve always been very positive.” “Thank you,” he says – have you ever heard a 14-year-old speak so nicely to his mum? Then, to me, looking only slightly embarrassed, “That’s where I get my confidence from.” Lisa adds, “You are a ray of sunshine, Lenny Rush.” I know she’s biased, but she couldn’t be more right.