As star of the ABC Family series Switched at Birth, actress Katie Leclerc calls upon her own fluctuating hearing loss to infuse her role with a dash of reality. She plays Daphne Vasquez, a deaf teen who meets the family she never knew she had, and gets to share the screen with Lea Thompson and Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with the starlet to discuss her career, life with Ménière’s disease, and how not to trip on the red carpet.
Chet Cooper: Tell me about Switched at Birth. How did that opportunity come about?
Leclerc: My agent submitted me for a nationwide casting call for the roles of Emma and Daphne. I ended up getting a call back, and that’s when I was asked to try a “deaf accent.” It’s something we discussed in depth. We wanted to make sure my portrayal was respectful and done correctly. At the same time, we felt that using a deaf accent would be a really strong choice for the character.
Cooper: I’ve heard the term “speech pattern” before, but not “accent.” When you were cast, did they know that you had some hearing loss?
Leclerc: They did. Hearing loss is one of the symptoms of Ménière’s, as are attacks of vertigo. I get fluctuating hearing loss and pressure in the ears. I get ringing in the ears. I get headaches. Some of the symptoms come and go as they please.
Last night, for example, I was giving an interview on the red carpet when my vertigo kicked in. I couldn’t tell the reporter, “Oh, my God. I’m sorry, I don’t know where your face is right now, because I don’t know where I am right now.” I just powered through the conversation and put a smile on. It’s really hard for me to complain about Ménière’s disease because without it I wouldn’t have this job. So I’m thankful.
Cooper: Do you know what triggers your periods of vertigo? Do they happen when you move your head a certain way?
Leclerc: The symptoms are sporadic. If I get up too fast, I sometimes get dizzy. One day on the set I did a stunt that involved my character dodging a car. Someone grabbed my shoulders and pulled me out of the way. That day was especially rough on me, because there was so much jostling and movement. But, really, there are only a few preventive measures I can take right now.
Cooper: Can the symptoms be triggered by diving into deep water? If you jumped in and got water in your ear, could that trigger—
Leclerc: It might. I haven’t done that sort of thing since I was little, and I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 20. When Ménière’s is triggered, I hear a weird, whooshing kind of sound. It’s a feeling I can’t describe very well. It feels as if the air evaporates out of my head. It’s different for everyone, I guess. My sister has it, as well, and hers is different from mine.
Cooper: How so?
Leclerc: Well, she’s older than I am, and her disease has grown progressively worse. She’s 40, and I’m 24, but we have the same parents. My sister’s disease is far more progressed than mine, so it’s nice that I am almost getting a warning of what my own future might hold. My longest Ménière’s attack has been three or four hours. Her longest attack was six days.
Cooper: Really? What happened during those six days? Was she able to function and go to work?
Leclerc: Not really. But she has to be there for her family. She’s got two kids, and she just puts a smile on and makes the best of the situation. You can’t make your kids suffer because you’re in pain.
Cooper: But what if the kid’s are a pain?
Leclerc: (laughs) Sometimes I get attacks where only two of the four symptoms will show up, sometimes I get all four.
Cooper: And they show up whenever they want? Is there ever a time when only one shows up?
Leclerc: Yeah. Sometimes my hearing drops out, and that’s it. I’ll be totally fine, nothing else is wrong, except that I can’t really hear.
Cooper: That sounds pretty convenient if you want to tune out your boyfriend. “Sorry, Hon, can’t hear you!”
Leclerc (laughs): “Sorry!”
Cooper: Is there any treatment or medication for the condition?
Leclerc: I’m on a low-sodium diet, because there can be a problem with fluid retention in the inner ear. Reducing my salt helps keep that fluid problem under control. I’m also on a diuretic, a water pill, to help with water retention.
Within the next five years or so, there may be a cochlear implant specifically designed for Ménière’s patients. If you get that whooshing sound, you can push a button and the implant will stop the symptoms from progressing.
Cooper: That’s an invasive procedure for something that, at least in your case, doesn’t sound that bad. Do you think it would be worth it for your sister?
Leclerc: Yeah. If you have attacks that last for six days, it completely makes sense.
Cooper: Do you know about the controversy surrounding cochlear implants?
Leclerc: Oh, yeah. I’m well aware of that.
Cooper: We did a piece about a stand-up comic who got a cochlear implant. When performing she would normally feel the vibration from the laughter in her feet through the stage floor—the first time she did her act and could hear the laughter, she said she almost broke down.
Leclerc: Did she hate it?
Cooper: No, she loved it.
Leclerc: Oh, that’s awesome! We have an American Sign Language (ASL) master on the Switched set at all times. He has a cochlear implant, and he said when he chose to get it, five or six years ago, half of his friends disowned him. They no longer speak to him. I can understand that portion of the Deaf community that worries maybe a way of life is going by the wayside because of technology. I completely understand that. But at the same time, I feel like it’s a very personal decision, whether to use that technology. Whatever makes a person comfortable, whatever that decision is, cannot be decided by somebody else.
Cooper: How did you find out you had Ménière’s?
Leclerc: I was helping out on a documentary four years ago, and the documentarian needed footage of someone getting her hearing tested. I was like, “Well, I’ve never had my hearing tested. You guys can test mine.” They tested it and said, “Are you aware you’re eligible for hearing aids right now?” When we investigated further, we discovered my sister has the same condition. It’s kind of a genetic trait.
Cooper: Your father has it as well?
Leclerc: We suspect he does. He’s never officially been diagnosed, but he shows symptoms of it, and my sister and I are both pretty convinced that old pop passed it on to us.
Cooper: He just doesn’t listen to you guys.
Leclerc: I know! That’s the problem! (laughs)
Cooper: “You kids are making me dizzy!”
Leclerc: Dizzy with excitement, yeah. (laughs)
Cooper: How did your career get started?
Leclerc: I was Annie in my junior high school production of Annie, and that was when I sort of got the bug. My family ended up moving to California from Utah, because there was this group of girls at school who were just really miserable and who made fun of me a whole lot.
Leclerc: Because kids are mean.
Cooper: It couldn’t be you? Because when I first met you, you kicked me in the shins, and I thought, “That’s just not right.”
Leclerc: Kick and scrape down, that’s the trick, you’ve got to scrape down the shin. (laughs) But no, so these girls weren’t very nice, and we moved from Lakewood, CO, to San Diego and I just did high school theater at Valley Center High School there.
Cooper: I’m missing how the girls not being nice, relates to your moving to San Diego.
Leclerc: My family moved because they were so threatening.
Cooper: So there was a bully situation?
Leclerc: Absolutely. They threatened to kill me; they ruined my reputation completely.
Cooper: You should thank them, because you got a career out of it—
Leclerc: But you didn’t let me finish my story, because I was getting to that. (laughs)
Cooper: I stepped on your line.
Leclerc: So we moved to San Diego, and I begged my mom to let me be an actor, so my incredibly supportive parents drove me from San Diego for as many auditions as I needed them to. I wouldn’t be here without their support.
Cooper: And without the support of those bullies.
Leclerc: They actually sent me “friend” requests on Facebook! I don’t have Facebook anymore, but I did for a while, and I was friends with them on there. I don’t want to be judged by my behavior when I was 13, and I don’t think anybody else should be either.
Cooper: I can’t begin to tell you the number of people I’ve talked to who have had adversity that has caused them to look at life differently. Sometimes it’s a tragedy or the person loses something. An experience shifts them, and without that experience they wouldn’t be where they are today. But during that moment in time—
Leclerc: —it was hard. I use some of that for my character on the show. Daphne was bullied and made fun of because she’s different, and I think everyone’s a little afraid of the unfamiliar. I feel excited to be part of a project that can potentially open people’s minds. The deaf and hearing worlds are so separate right now. They’re completely different. ASL is the third most common language in the United States, but if you don’t know a deaf person, you would never know that. You don’t see it in your everyday life.
Cooper: I didn’t know that.
Leclerc: It’s English, Spanish, and then ASL. I think that’s a really cool fact because, again, the deaf and hearing worlds are so separate, and they don’t have to be. The fact that there’s a show in which multiple deaf characters can come into your home, every week—
Cooper: How many?
Leclerc: Sean Berdy, Marlee Matlin, Constance and myself. Constance plays my mother, but she signs the entire time. I think just exposing the culture as a whole to sign language is really important. In this very serendipitous world we live in, I learned sign language when I was 17, and I was diagnosed with Ménière’s when I was 20. At 24, I got cast in the role of a lifetime.
Cooper: And now you’re playing 16?
Leclerc: I know! Sixteen all over again! (laughs)
Cooper: Your sister’s 40, but she looks 17. And your mother—
Leclerc: She looks 18. I think that’s the Mormon in us. Not so many late-night drinking binges. (laughs)
Cooper: A lot of people who are deaf are connected to the show. You’re quasi-hard of hearing, yourself. Have you gotten any feedback about being cast in this part?
Leclerc: I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback. Everyone is just so excited to have a show that represents the community in such a positive and honest way, and deals with the concerns of the community as a whole. It’s as if everyone is saying, “It’s nice to see one of our own.” I go on Twitter and see comments from kids writing, “I’m deaf. Thank you, Switched at Birth, for making me feel proud to be in my own skin.” Or “Thank you, Switched at Birth, I’m inspired to learn sign language.” I’m really impressed with ABC Family. With the Cyberbully movie they just did, and now with our show, they’re using their power for good. There’s a shift, I think, in television right now. Like Breaking Bad with—
Cooper: R.J. Mitte.
Leclerc: Yeah. He’s great on that. Breaking Bad is one of my favorite shows, anyway. It’s really nice to see so many different people represented. Television, for so long, never reflected that.
Cooper: Have you been to Gallaudet University?
Leclerc: I haven’t. I really want to go. I want to go up to Rochester NIT while I’m out there. There’s a huge deaf community in Rochester. I’ve got to make that East Coast trip.
Cooper: I went to the Kellogg Center at Gallaudet, and I remember attending one of their dances.
Leclerc: Where they turn the speakers on the floor? It’s so fun!
Cooper: It was fun, but I couldn’t stay long, because they cranked up the bass so loud that it was overwhelming.
Cooper: What kind of hobbies are you involved in?
Leclerc: I love to cook. My family owns restaurants. They’ve had restaurants since before I was born. They had one on the West Coast, and now they have a Chinese restaurant in San Antonio called the Fire Wok. They all live in Texas now. I was born in Texas, and I moved around a lot.
Anyway, I like to hike and camp. I’m obsessed with quite a few trails in Los Angeles. My boyfriend and I try to go hiking every weekend, but it doesn’t always happen. I’m a big fan of basketball, too. I play basketball on our show, but I’m also a fan.
Cooper: You don’t use a stunt person to play basketball on the show?
Leclerc: (laughs) No!
Cooper: Even when you’re dunking?
Leclerc: I don’t dunk. I’m not that good! (laughs) Maybe someday they’ll get a trampoline on the set.
Cooper: I know you go to Comic-Con. Is it to promote Switched at Birth?
Leclerc: No, I just go because I’m a nerd and I like comic books and video games. I played Dungeons and Dragons for a while.
Cooper: You’ll notice in this issue that we also have a comic book — Silver Scorpion
Cooper: American and Syrian youths with disabilities participated in the Ability summit in Damascus, and asked, “How do we change attitudes?” So they came up with the idea of a superhero comic book.
Leclerc: Anything that you can participate in that does a little bit of good in this world is great.
Cooper: Your show—does a bit of good. It’s entertaining while also showing a part of life that doesn’t get much exposure.
Leclerc: Right. Exactly. If you have an agenda and you have a way to get there with plot devices like Switched at Birth, you can talk about cochlear implants, and you can talk about issues, and you can create awareness. But at the same time, I don’t think that needs to be every project. Entertainment’s OK, too. People have to escape sometimes.
Photos by Nancy Villere – CrushPhotoStudios.com