By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
“Name an actress who is deaf.”
If it were a Hollywood trivia question, it’d be a no-brainer — Marlee Matlin, of course. And for the actress who bemoans Hollywood’s disenfranchisement of the disabled, the fact that she’s the only one who leaps so immediately to mind is something of a double-edged sword.
Nonetheless, Matlin, who arrived Wednesday (Feb. 6) for the Broward College Speaker Series, is perhaps America’s most famous celebrity with a disability.
One thing about that, though: Don’t refer to her that way.
“I don’t like to think of myself as a celebrity with a disability,” says Matlin, who lost her hearing when she was 18 months old. “I prefer to refer to myself as an actor who happens to communicate in American Sign Language and who happens to be deaf.”
That attitude says much about how the 53-year-old actress has not only remained successful in an industry not terribly welcoming to people with disabilities, but also why she’s been such a fierce advocate both for them and marginalized people in general.
For example, listen to the way she closed her Spotlight Award acceptance speech at last year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival:
“Because I’m deaf, some may think I live in a world of silence. But believe me, silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me. We are here, we are loud and we will make a change.”
Matlin has long shepherded such change as an activist for children, for diversity and LGBT rights, and for victims of domestic abuse and addiction — two battles about which she speaks from painful experience. And, not surprisingly, she’s also worked for better hearing health for millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing children and adults in developing countries. Then there’s “Marlee Signs,” which she developed a few years ago. It’s the first celebrity-driven app that teaches American Sign Language.
These endeavors complement an expansive IMDB roster of roles, beginning with her shooting-star debut in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar at age 21 and remains the youngest actress to have done so. In the three-decade-plus career that’s followed, she’s worked primarily in television, where her guest or recurring appearances have ranged from Seinfeld to The West Wing, Law & Order to The L Word, Dancing With the Stars to Celebrity Apprentice — not to mention signing the National Anthem at three Super Bowls.
Last year alone, a trio of TV credits was highlighted by a starring role on the ABC thriller Quantico as ex-FBI agent Jocelyn Turner, who is deaf and takes advantage of what Matlin calls “visual superpowers.” She also is starring in two yet-to-be released dramas, Run and Entangled, and is executive producer of Born This Way Presents: Deaf Out Loud, a documentary on A&E Network that follows three predominantly deaf families as they raise their children in a hearing world.
In a recent interview with City & Shore, Matlin shared her thoughts on topics ranging from the current American landscape to closed doors in Hollywood.
In your speech early last year at the ReelAbilities Film Festival, you spoke compellingly about Hollywood’s exclusion of disabled actors. Have you noticed any progress since?
I haven’t noticed much in terms of the current political climate undermining goals of disenfranchisement and lack of diversity as it pertains to actors and people with disabilities, as well as deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and general community. In fact, the political climate has seemed to energize the discussion and brought further activism and awareness.
The title of your speech here — “Nobody’s Perfect: Achieving Inclusion, Diversity and Access” — almost sounds like a how-to. Could you give us a peek at a ‘trailer,’ so to speak?
I always fold aspects of diversity, inclusion and people with disabilities and the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities into my remarks, and like to speak to a general audience so as not to have anyone feel left out. My presentation is normally described as an overview of my life’s journey, how my parents and mentors helped me to realize that no obstacle was too big to tackle and how it can serve as a template for anyone — disabled, deaf or not — for overcoming barriers. Also, I will be sharing some anecdotes, both light and serious, to outline how much work is still needed out there if we are to achieve parity with people and the community that is not disabled.
What do you feel is your most important role in working for that parity?
Just lending my voice. It’s all about speaking up and giving my truth.
Could you imagine yourself becoming an advocate for humanitarian causes had you not been deaf?
I try not to indulge in ‘what ifs’ only because they only serve to frustrate and/or speculate. I’d rather focus on ‘I am,’ ‘it is,’ and ‘what can I do to make things better’ scenarios.
Then, if you had the power, what’s the one thing you would do to make things better in America right now?
Alter the landscape so that people are willing to communicate, come to a meeting of the minds, agree and/or disagree. After all, that’s what democracy is all about — freedom of speech. And do it without rancor, anger or name-calling. Most importantly, have an open mind and willingness to pay attention to the facts.
What has been the most important factor that’s enabled you, against the odds, to maintain a successful Hollywood career?
The advice, love and support of my family, my parents and my mentor, Henry Winkler.
[The actor discovered her in children’s theater performances at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Illinois, where she made her stage debut at age 7. It was at his home that she married Burbank police officer Kevin Grandalski in 1993. They have four children.]
Do you believe deafness has kept you from winning movie roles that you were qualified for?
There have been instances where being deaf, though not any barrier for me, appeared to be a barrier for casting directors, producers or filmmakers in general, unable to think outside the box, so to speak, and adapt roles not originally written as deaf. In the same way that an actor who may not have the same hair color as the script indicates, or might be of a different skin color or gender, roles are often changed to fit a particular actor. But for some reason, there have been many times where being deaf seems to be an insurmountable barrier in the minds making the final decision for casting.
Apparently, that was not the case with your Quantico character, who’d lost her hearing on the job. How much fun was it to play the role of an ex-FBI agent brought back for a special assignment?
It was a great deal of fun. I enjoyed the actors, I enjoyed the challenges of playing a role that no one had even thought of offering me, and I enjoyed the opportunity to work on network TV again. It was definitely an item to check off on my bucket list.
What is the most exciting thing that you are doing now?
Every day is exciting when I can wake up, see my family and have the opportunity to work. I’ve recently gotten very much into producing and creating material specifically for myself and that’s very exciting.
What’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been to the movies lately because I’ve been working a great deal. I’m anxiously waiting to watch the Academy Award screeners — the copies of this year’s current crop of films that are sent to Academy members for Oscar consideration. They’re piling up on my desk and I’m going to have to watch them soon if I’m going to vote early next year.
For information about the 2019 Broward College Speaker Series, which continues with Terry Bradshaw on March 11 and concludes with Hill Harper on April 24, both at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, see BrowardCollegeSpeakerSeries.com