Activism and happenstance, Camryn Manheim explains, led her to become a skilled sign language interpreter, accomplished actress, and champion for people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. Manheim is best known for her role as Ellenor Frutt on The Practice and, recently, Lieutenant Cosgrove on Stumptown.
While practicing social distancing with ABILITY’s Shelly Rohe and Chet Cooper via Zoom, Manheim discussed the path that led to her successful acting career and shared valuable advice for burgeoning actors and anyone starting a new career.
Cooper: Nice seeing you the other day. You said to me, “Gosh, you haven’t changed!” You took me by surprise because I was thinking the same thing about you. I think we first met over 15 years ago, could it have been that long?
Manheim: We look exactly the same. I could easily have picked you out of a lineup. (laughter)
Manheim: Which could happen when you don’t age —you’re responsible for all the sins of the past. (laughter)
Cooper: (laughs) It was really great to see you [at the Media Access Awards]. It brought back a lot of memories. I went back into the issue when you were on set with Christopher Reeve during The Practice. It brought back so many memories of that time. I thought we would meet in person, and I was going to bring you a hard copy of the magazine.
We had a great picture we took of the crew with you and the other actors and Christopher. It was a memorable moment for me, and I’m sure for you. Do you have any memories of working with him?
Manheim: I remember being so grateful for what he does for the disabled community, and how gracious he was in the world. He lobbied in congress and got legislation changed. He was able to take his star power and gorgeous spirit and translate that to other people who may be at home and had never seen themselves shown in such a sophisticated and positive light. I had always been such a fan of him and his activism, so to have him there in that capacity working as an amazing actor in a wheelchair doing incredible work was like a trifecta for me.
Cooper: Do you remember how the episode had a twist to it?
Manheim: Oh, God! Did he end up killing his wife? Was that what happened?
Cooper: Yeah, he ended up being the bad guy, which I thought was so great. It twisted that typical mindset.
Manheim: Well, you’ve got to hand it to David Kelly. The wonderful thing about him is that he is not precious, right? He doesn’t say, “Oh, I feel sorry for this person in a wheelchair who used to be Superman” No, he gets everyone, all the viewers, to fall in love with Christopher and feel sympathetic towards him, and then David twists the knife when he tells them Christopher was the villain.” (laughter) That is such a great statement for David to make, that people have flaws, including people with disabilities. We don’t just have to feel sorry for them. No, they have the same needs and desires as everybody else, and if that includes murder, so be it. (laughs)
Cooper: Everyone could be a good murderer. (laughter)…I really liked Christopher. He also became quite aware that there was too much media focus on only finding a cure and not quality of life issues. He was quite open when I talked to him that his foundation moved in both directions, in parallel, both research grant monies and also what they call quality of life grants, where people with a financial condition, whatever it might be, can find some funds to create a different quality of life for them.
They were—the foundation was the second sponsor that we had for the ABILITY House in Washington DC. They were really great. And after some discussions,–because there were some concerns publicly in the advocacy area around too much discussion around the word “cure,”–he modified and said, “I’m trying to get back to who I am because of the energy, but it doesn’t mean I’m not looking at and focusing on other things.” He was quite open to understanding, as he was thrust into this limelight, to start learning about advocacy. The media had grabbed him right away and was saying, “Superman with a disability.”
The foundation was the second sponsor that we had for the ABILITY House in Washington DC. They were really great. And after some discussions around the word “cure,”–he modified and said, “I’m trying to get back to who I am because of the energy, but it doesn’t mean I’m not looking at and focusing on other things.” He was quite open to understanding, as he was thrust into this limelight, to start learning about advocacy. The media had grabbed him right away and was saying, “Superman with a disability.”
Manheim: How is the foundation doing now?
Cooper: It’s moving forward. It’s doing both quality of life grants still and advocacy work around legislation, and research. It’s continuing to put money towards spinal cord research. The legacy is continuing, which is great.
Manheim: He was beloved, and his legacy is so important.
Cooper: The first time I met you was at the Academy of Television Arts & Science for a Special Olympics event. I saw you just signing away. Your hands were flying, speaking, signing to someone. Can you give us a brief background on how you became so proficient in signing?
Manheim: I’m the daughter of two Jewish educators. Their only son went to Harvard, and I was expected to go to a fancy college and get a fancy degree. Unfortunately, you have to have two languages to get into a fancy college, and I just do not have the aptitude for language. I failed French and Spanish twice and ended up having to go to a community college for a short period of time to get my language requirement to go on to university, where I eventually got a master’s degree from NYU.
While I was at community college, I thought, “I’m going to have to take something really out of the box because I’m so bad at this.” I was looking at Chinese and Polish, and then I stumbled on a little notice that said “Sign language taught. One semester only.” That was fantastic and also terrible because I needed two semesters of sign language. Without the registrar’s knowledge, I signed up for beginning and intermediate sign language in the same semester. In a twist of total irony, I took intermediate sign language at 10:00 a.m. and beginning sign language at 1:00 p.m. it was such a mess. (laughter)
I somehow managed to pass both of those classes. And the really crazy thing is I got an A- in intermediate and a B+ in beginning. (laughter) At any other time in my life, I would have 100% protested the ridiculousness of those grades. But because I felt like I had pulled off the crime of the century, I took my A- and B+ and I went off to UC Santa Cruz, where I got my bachelor’s degree in drama.
So, there I was at UC Santa Cruz for four years. I never signed again after I took my one semester with two classes in it. I had just found out that I had gotten into NYU, and I was packing up to leave and sending things at the post office. When I was walking home, I saw a man get hit by a car. This was long before cell phones and computers. I ran to the nearest house and knocked on the door and I said, “We need to call for an ambulance. There’s a man who was hit by a car, and he’s lying in the street.”
So, we called the authorities. They came immediately and surrounded this man and started asking him questions like “What’s your name?”. And he didn’t respond. So, they asked him again, “Sir, can you please tell us your name?” He didn’t respond. I guess they assumed he was in shock, so they yelled at him even louder. “Sir, what is your name?” And he still didn’t respond. There was something gnawing at me–I don’t know where it came from or how I possibly could have been intuitive enough to understand at that moment– But I walked across the street and I tapped a policeman on the shoulder and said, “Is it possible this man is deaf?” he looked at me and said, “Oh, my God, do you know sign language?” I said, “One semester’s worth. Well, it’s two classes. Well, it’s complicated.” (laughter)
There are a few things you never forget when you take a sign language class. You usually remember the alphabet, “Are you deaf? I am hearing.” And of course, you remember, “I’m sorry, can you sign that slower?” Because that’s all you do when you’re a baby sign language learner. So, I leaned over and asked him, “Are you deaf?” And he lifted up his broken arm and signed, “Yes.” I said, “Oh, my God, he said yes!” The policeman said, “Oh, you have to get his phone number!” and I said, “I don’t know numbers!” They’re really hard in sign language and confusing when somebody is upside-down with a broken arm.
After about ten attempts—I don’t think I’m exaggerating here— of trying, I think I’ve got it. When I signed it back to him, he lifted his hand and said, “Yes.” I gave the police the phone number. I remember feeling too inadequate and filled with anxiety that I was being called upon to help in this circumstance—I didn’t have the skills to do it.
They got the phone number. They thanked me. They were putting him in the back of the ambulance, and the policeman said, “Would you come to the hospital with us?” I said, “Honestly, I’m telling you truthfully. I don’t know sign language. You just got all that I know out of me.” And he said, “Well, you know more than we do.”
I joke about this, but I remember this very clearly because I’ve been an activist from way back, and I have been arrested for my activism–I remember the policeman asking me to get in the back of the police car. I had this momentary thought “I have never been asked so nicely to get in the back of the police car before. I think I should go.” (laughter) I thought it never hurts to know a police officer who’s nice to you. So, I went. I didn’t know what I was doing—it was the sheer panic. I was trying to be a good citizen.
I went to the hospital, and, shockingly, I had gotten that phone number right, because his family arrived shortly thereafter– his parents, his wife, and his two children, all of whom were deaf. I had expected to be relieved when his family showed up, but instead, I was terrified. I was still the only one who could attempt to communicate with them. The doctor came out and said, “Could you please tell them that he has a small tear in the lower left ventricle of his heart.” I said, “I don’t know how to sign that.” And he said, “You’re our only hope, can you just do your best?” I literally used a combination of charades, Pictionary, and natural gestures, and I finally got the point across, I think…But what I am most proud of is that I was able to calm his family down and convey that he would be just fine. That he was going to make a full recovery and would be home in two days. That was the best I could give to the family. I felt good about that.
This was a time when I didn’t have a TTY. There was no texting. I didn’t have a computer. There was no way for me to have ever kept in touch with this family. So, when I walked out of the hospital that day, I realized that I was never going to know what happened to that man. But I thought about him all the time. I’m getting emotional as I’m talking about it now.
That experience really changed the trajectory of many things–not just me as a citizen, but somebody who’s an activist. Someone who was able to do something that really matters and makes a difference to other people. It opened up an entirely new world of incredible people and experiences to me.
But I do think it’s important to note that what I did back then was what anyone would do. I was just trying to be helpful, regardless of how unqualified I was for that situation. It’s never a good idea to have someone who doesn’t know a language trying to convey sensitive medical information. Luckily, there are now laws against doing things like that. The ADA stepped in and required that interpreters who are qualified be present in courtrooms and hospitals.
Rohe: Have you kept up with signing?
Manheim: A few days after the accident, I moved to New York. I’m not extremely religious or spiritual. I come from a very scientific family of mathematicians, doctors, and physicists. But this experience really moved me. It stuck with me, in a human way.
Anyway, I was walking down the street, probably in the first week of starting my master’s degree program at NYU. I was looking up at the beautiful buildings, and I saw something carved in the stone. It said, “New York Society for the Deaf.” I was like, “Wow! That feels like a sign.” I mean, it was a sign. (laughter) And again, I’m not one of those people who takes things as signs, but it was weighing heavy on my heart.
I walked in and I said, “I have Monday evening off from school. What do you teach on Monday?” I took a beginning sign language class and I loved it on so many levels. Throughout my three years of graduate school, I took seven levels of sign language, and I became basically fluent.
After I graduated from NYU, I got a job at the Lexington Vocational Center, which was attached to the Lexington School for the Deaf. They were in the same building. I became a job coach, where I would go with deaf people to their new job. I would stay for a week or two weeks or however long it took for them to learn their job, meet their co-workers, teach a little sign language to the people in the office or factory, and get them ready for a very productive role in their new job. I placed many deaf employees at the Essex Hotel. I must have placed 20 people at the Post office, and that was an amazing experience. I’d go with them to their employee training programs and learn how the whole US postal system works, and then I’d literally get to be in the factories with them as they were learning to use the machines. It was such an interesting job. You could also find me in factories in Queens helping teach deaf employees to use their equipment. And I rode my motorcycle to all of these jobs.
And then the ADA passed in 1990, and one of the provisions was if a deaf person wanted to apply for a job and requested an interpreter, you would have to provide that in a certain time frame. Am I getting that right?
Cooper: Yeah, and I’d just add to that, today, the EEOC is suing companies for not don’t allowing a job seeker, during an interview, to have a sign language interpreter. Still today, 30 years later, they’re still suing for reasonable accommodations.
Manheim: Wow! That’s amazing! That was an incredible time in New York. The sign language agencies were blowing up. They asked if they could put me through a program to get certified and become an interpreter. So, I went through a program. I never did the actual certification, but I had all the skills to be an interpreter.
At one point, we had beepers, not cell phones. And I got the coveted job of being the on-call interpreter for seven of the downtown hospitals. Bellevue, St. Vincent, Beekman, all the hospitals downtown. In the middle of the night, I’d get calls. I’d hop on my motorcycle and race over. I’d take off my helmet. I felt like a superhero. I was like, “I’m here!” (laughter) I once got to sign “Congratulations, you have a baby boy!” It was pretty amazing.
I did interpreting for many years until my acting career finally took off, and I just didn’t have the same amount of time. But through the years, I’ve worked with Marlee [Matlin] several times. I did Spring Awakening on Broadway with 10 deaf actors. Every time I do a show, I let them know I’m fluent in sign language and would love for them to hire some wonderful deaf actors.
So that is my story. (laughs) How I ended up learning sign language is complete happenstance. I had that one experience, which moved me to such an extent that it affected my path in life. That one experience made me want to get involved and help the deaf community.
I tell my students all the time that it’s really important that you have a backup plan. And a lot of them feel like that’s a cop-out, that if you really want to be an actor, you should just be an actor and not have a plan B. And I say, “Well, you shouldn’t have a plan B that hurts your soul. You should have a plan B that lifts you up.”
I believe part of the reason I made it as an actor is that I had something that elevated me outside of my acting work. It wasn’t until I was 35 that I finally made a living as an actor. I am who I am because of very significant experiences I’ve had. I would say that single event, where I witnessed that man getting hit by a car, began a chain reaction that has been extremely positive for me. I can only hope in my Agnostic prayers (laughs) that the doctor was correct, and he made a full recovery and went on to live a lovely and prosperous life, as well.
Cooper: I can imagine at some point they’re watching TV or a movie and they’re saying. “That woman looks very familiar.” (laughter)
Manheim: “She looks familiar when I am upside-down.” (laughter)
Rohe: When you presented the award at the Media Access Awards, did you request to do that? How did you get picked?
Manheim: I happen to know Nyle personally. I’ve participated in raising awareness for his foundation. We have many friends in common. We have a lot of connections. He was a math major at school, my dad was a mathematician. He won “Dancing with the Stars,” so did my son…in my mind…Milo actually came in second. (laughter) I think I was a good person to give him the award because we have so much history together. It was an honor to give him this award, which was so well deserved.
Recently, Hollywood has made many strides with inclusivity for actors of all ethnicities, but I feel they have not yet made enough strides to include actors with disabilities
Rohe: Tell us about that.
Manheim: I am noticing that there are a lot of movies and stories about people with disabilities on the big screen, but they’re not featuring actually disabled talent. They’re using able-bodied actors to portray people with disabilities.
Rohe: Is anything changing? I hear people saying things, and I wonder if it’s more noticeable, that there may be more roles being written? I’m just wondering where some of that shift is; the rumblings are getting louder for inclusion.
Manheim: I’d like to give a shout-out to my own show, Stumptown, that has an incredibly diverse cast including Adrian Martinez, Michael Ealy, Tantoo Cardinal, and Cole Sibus, who is a young man with Down syndrome who is so amazing–he’s incredible. You can also look at something like the movie The Peanut Butter Falcon. Everyone is very excited about it, but it’s slow-moving. And I think we’re at the very beginning of a serious awareness about it.
There are people who are doing great work in this area, acting directors like April Webster and the Rudermans, but I’m just saying we seem to applaud able-bodied actors for playing disabled people, whether it’s Eddie Redmayne or Daniel Day Lewis or Andrew Garfield in “Breathe” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Stronger”. And then there was Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck”, that centered on deaf characters, but they were played by hearing people.
And there has been a lot of pushback on that, but we still have really far to go in that department. I had a conversation with the casting director and the producer of Stumptown about a month ago saying, “I think we need to be more inclusive when it comes to our disabled performers.” We don’t have to write stories about disabilities. We just have to cast people in all kinds of roles, whether they’re lawyers or maybe somebody in a wheelchair works in the police department because they were injured on the job. You don’t have to talk about it. Maybe there’s a waitress, somebody who works in a bookstore. We really need to try to reflect what the population is, not just so that actors have work, but because people watching television can see themselves reflected in humanity. I obviously don’t have the exact same issue. But having been a big woman growing up, I was always looking for people like me so that I had role models, people I could see myself in. I still am always looking for sophisticated, wonderful depictions of plus-size people on television. There’s a similarity there. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I get so fired up about it.
Rohe: You said your son, Milo, was home. Where is he home from?
Manheim: My son is at NYU, my alma mater. He’s at the Tisch School of the Arts. It’s so funny. When he left to go to college, it was right after high school. And you know high school kids. They’re not a ton of fun to have around. So, I was so happy for him to leave. (laughter)
Everybody kept asking me, “How are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m doing great! I don’t have anyone arguing with me. The house doesn’t smell like a teenage boy!” (laughter) He went off to college, and I was doing really great. And then he came home for Thanksgiving, and he was so loving and amazing and smart and mature. When I brought him back to the airport a couple of nights ago, I burst into tears because he’s all grown up now, and just when I want to spend time with him, he’s gone. (laughter) I was so emotional, and he was like, “Mom, why are crying?” And I said, “I loved having you home! I don’t want you to leave!” And then he was on a plane, and that was a tough one. But he’s coming home soon, so I’m excited again.
You can find the exciting things Camryn is up to by visiting her website camrynmanheim.com