Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin is back in the spotlight on ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth,” which will have its winter premiere on Tuesday.
The hour-long drama, about two teenage girls who discover they were accidentally switched at birth, finds Matlin, who is deaf, in good company with a new crop of young and talented deaf actors. Katie Leclerc plays Daphne, one of the teens, who is deaf. Leclerc, who is hard of hearing, can speak and is fluent in American Sign Language. Sean Berdy, a deaf actor, plays Emmett, Daphne’s best friend. Matlin, in a recurring role, plays Emmett’s mom. The show’s other major characters learned sign language, which figures prominently in the story lines.
The show made ABC Family’s No. 1 series debut of all time in June 2011 with over three million in total viewers, according to the network. Matlin, who at age 21 became the youngest actress to win an Oscar for Best Actress when she made her film debut “In “Children of a Lesser God,” isn’t surprised by the show’s popularity. “It adds a great deal of dimension to the public’s perception of what deaf people are like,” says the 46-year-old Matlin. “Because you really understand that there’s more than just a deaf person who happens to move their hands…. there’s a language, there’s a culture, there’s relationships between deaf people, deaf people and hearing people, there are obstacles, there is happiness and joy, and people are watching this all flow into their living rooms.”
How did you get involved in “Switched at Birth”?
My agents had told me that the producers wanted me to see the pilot. They were very thorough. They wanted to see if they got it “right” with the pilot and seeing as I was experienced in playing deaf characters and with story lines involving deaf characters, I, along with my producing partner, Jack Jason, went to see it. I was very impressed with how they wove the elements of the deaf community into the pilot so well, how they were able to subtitle scenes that had sign language. I had tried many times in the past to get deaf characters on screen without having translated/spoken dialogue with no luck, so I was very impressed they were able to do it. By the end of that first meeting, I told them “If you’ll have me, I’d love to be part of the show!”
“Switched” is one of the first TV shows to have deaf and hard-of-hearing actors in lead roles. Why do you think it has taken this long for a show like this to happen?
It’s not exactly true that “Switched at Birth” is the first to have deaf and hard of hearing actors in the lead. I did my first series lead back in 1991 on a show called “Reasonable Doubts” and have done many shows with other actors who are deaf. But “Switched at Birth” is the first TV show where there is more than one actor who is deaf or hard of hearing and who are series regulars. And the show is the first I can recall that allows them to communicate in their language–American Sign Language– much as it’s been done on other shows like “Lost” or “Heroes” where actors who speak in a foreign language are subtitled. I think those shows and the large number of reality shows with subtitling [when it's difficult to hear people on screen] have made the landscape more welcoming to subtitles. I think it’s way overdue and very welcome. It allows deaf actors to stand on equal footing with their hearing peers.
Why do you think studio executives green-lighted the show? Is it a question of them finally being comfortable with it — or thinking viewers would be comfortable with it?
I think it’s just a matter of expanding notions of diversity. There have been so many shows done so many different ways but were basically reinventions of the same wheel. I have tried for a number of years to encourage expanding ideas of what a show could benefit from by having a deaf character, simply because it’s just different and interesting. The producers clearly had the clout to suggest the idea, they made it happen and they did it well. I’ve always said, you can write for any character, any type of character in a teleplay as long as it’s written well, people will watch. That’s what the producers of “Switched at Birth” did; they wrote it well and they did it seamlessly. It’s a simple formula–a teen drama–just done from an entirely new and fresh perspective! And look, people don’t have to always hear characters talk. Look at the new feature film “The Artist” –it’s done entirely without dialogue and is a hit; it might even win the Academy Award for Best Picture. At the end of the day it’s about stories—good stories. Written well and you can show anything!
In one scene, your character questions the wisdom of your TV deaf son, Emmett, becoming involved with a non-deaf girl. Your husband and your four children are all hearing. Would you have similar reservations for your own children?
No, as we all know it’s a TV drama and an exaggerated version of what goes on in real life. In my case, I wouldn’t mind whom my children married as long as they were happy. But the statistics my character quoted are true; the divorce rate between deaf and hearing couples is high. And there are many deaf people who couldn’t imagine living in a marriage without someone who doesn’t speak their language. For me, I believe that hearing or deaf is fine as long as both parties are willing to communicate in each other’s language. But if there’s no communication, then the marriage, I believe, will be difficult if not doomed.
Despite all the technological advances that now make it much easier for deaf people to communicate–via email and text and Twitter and Facebook and video–is there still a feeling of isolation among the deaf?
Oh absolutely. I’m the only one in my family who is deaf and there are still conversations that go around me that I miss out on. And I ask what’s going on and I have to ask to be included. But I’m not going to be sad about it. I don’t live in sad isolation. It’s just a situation I’m used to. I don’t like to be left out in conversations. And yet, the truth is, if I’m with a bunch of deaf friends who are signing I feel 100% at home because everybody’s speaking the same language.
What other projects do you have, on top of your recurring role in “Switched”?
I am currently producing an app for Apple platforms called “Marlee Signs” that teaches sign language. Since “Switched at Birth,” so many young people and adults have asked me to teach them a few signs so I thought, why not do an app? I’m also producing a number of projects, some already in script stage some in development. And my plate is full with motivational appearances, speaking on topics such as diversity in the work place, importance of philanthropy, advocating for children with disabilities as well as working on behalf of my charities. I’m particularly proud of my work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation for whom I raised a million dollars in one day on “Celebrity Apprentice.” They do great work around the world helping deaf children in developing countries get proper attention and free hearing aids. And I’m still working on making sure broadband and Internet content is closed captioned [just as she did with broadcast TV] as well as work on behalf of advocating for expanded Text to 911 capabilities for millions of people who are unable to call into 911.
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
The Wall Street Journal. (Switched at Birth will return Jan. 3.)
Posted by BA Haller at 12:01 PM