More than 30 years ago, Marlee Matlin graced the first cover of ABILITY Magazine. Again a decade later, and now for her third interview once again, accompanied by her sign language interpreter and business partner, Jack Jason.
Her successful career as actress, writer, producer, deaf activist and mom of four, spans more than 35 years. Most recently, she plays Jackie Rossi in the film, CODA, streaming on Apple TV+. Seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a CODA, Child of Deaf Adults. Her life revolves around acting as interpreter for her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and working on the family’s fishing boat. When Ruby discovers a gift for singing, she finds herself torn between obligations to her family and the pursuit of her own dreams. (See trailer below)
Matlin sat down with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and George Kaplan. She discusses how great sign language interpreters have more than just knowledge of the signs. Coincidently, Matlin’s newest project as executive producer and starring role in a comedy set in the ‘fast-paced, cutthroat sign language interpreter industry’ is currently in development. Matlin also spoke candidly of her success and struggles of the past and shared her perspective on the current state of diversity in the entertainment industry and what more needs to be done.
Chet Cooper: I recently heard you talk in an interview, about the need for more accessibility within TV and film. Can you talk about that?
Marlee Matlin: Because I’ve been around for 35 years, and I’ve always told the story about the importance of disability, inclusivity, and diversity for the deaf and disabled community, I talk about it. And a lot of times during interviews, they sort of nod in agreement, or they’ll say, “Yes, OK, fine,” and sort of pay lip service to it and say, “Yes, that’s good.” But nothing really ever seems to be done in Hollywood, specifically, and beyond, in general. Every job, every educational setting, every household, hospital, whatever you’re talking about.
Now with CODA coming out, it is bringing home the point once again. And also, we’re talking about other films that came out earlier this year. There are other films with deaf characters in them that are now appearing more frequently. So, the visibility is coming back into focus again, but I still find that I have to talk about it, about how important it is to have what we deserve to have, which is the opportunity to work whatever it is that we want to do in our lives—the opportunity to live equally. A lot of people, I think, are afraid to use actors who are deaf or disabled, or they think that we’re a special case to be included with one character, that we have to handle it with “kid gloves.” It seems to be a constant battle. It shouldn’t have to be, but hey, it is what it is. And we’ll just continue to make noise.
George Kaplan: What do you think are key points that are holding back the real opening?
Matlin: I think it’s a lot of fear. A lot of it is just not having the understanding and exposure to somebody who’s deaf. Maybe it’s people who just aren’t clued in. You can’t really be mad at people who don’t know or who’ve never seen—you can’t really be mad at them. But if there’s an attitude of those who know or who are familiar, that’s something, then, I have to bring out, to shut down if there’s somebody who’s clued in but continues to oppress people who are deaf or disabled.
Cooper: We’ve met at Media Access Awards a few times.
Matlin: Media Access is a great organization. I’m very grateful that they exist. They recognize the work of individuals who have created opportunities, regardless of the disability or whether they’re deaf as well. I am very appreciative of their effort to increase and put us in a better light that most people can view us. The awards that they give out to producers and writers, directors, actors, whoever it is. Again, I think that’s great. But it’s only been a few. You could count on a hand how many have reached out to our community. Most not so much. People in Hollywood, the rosters are constantly changing. Somebody new comes in to take over and they have to start from scratch. It’s always a game of trying to juggle it. Some people are willing to listen, to create. Some people are willing to create with us the products that they eventually come out with and hopefully can sell and get it made. I’m talking specifically about Hollywood. I think there’s some incremental improvement made, but it’s very slow. People who make things happen should understand that there aren’t limits to what we can do. Maybe some person with a disability or somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who might have a visual barrier, they’ll say, “Oh, is that going to be a problem on set?” They just have to be open-minded about it. We all have great stories to tell, to share, to create.
Kaplan: Did you go through a casting process for your new film CODA? Did they know you were the person from the beginning?
Matlin: I had heard about the project ever so briefly and, naturally, I was drawn to it, particularly, because they mentioned that they had a female deaf lead character as one of the characters in the film. And that got my attention. I got the script, read it and I couldn’t put it down. I said to myself, “I feel great in being able to do this project.” That’s what I typically do when I read a script. If it feels good in my gut if it’s something that excites me, then I just hop on board.
So, I met with Sian Heder who wrote and directed film. We had a three-hour lunch, or breakfast. We never even touched our food. And I said, “This is really a great script that needs to be done.” So, we had some discussions about various aspects of film. I had heard that they were making an offer to me, and I said, “Great.” So, then I told them, “Well, when you cast the father character, the husband, he has to be deaf.” And there was only one person I had in mind that I had. It had to be Troy Kotsur. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing that role. I mean, it’s safe to say that I’m one of his biggest fans, too. But it seemed that—I mean, the script said, “three deaf characters.” And I wouldn’t allow a studio to say, “No, bring in a character who is hearing to play deaf.” One studio said, “Yeah, we’ll use somebody famous.” And I said, “No, if that’s the case, I’m out of the movie.” And though I don’t always have the luxury to say that in general, I could in this one. Obviously, they agreed with me that all the characters should be played by deaf actors. So, I was very pleased about that.
Matlin: I did do group book tours. I went to various bookstores. I didn’t do a massive get-in-your-car-and-drive tour, but I got to go home to Chicago. And my friends came to see me there. That was a plus, and I did New York City. And I did Los Angeles and San Francisco. But a lot of it was pretty well received and more positive than I thought it would be. As transparent as I was to talk about my past, hopefully to inspire, to motivate someone who might have identified with some of the struggles that I had in the book domestic violence, my drug addiction, and my sexual molestation, how I got into Hollywood, how I became a mother and all the various chapters of my life. It was important for me to be able to speak out at the time, yes.
Cooper: I know there’s a lot to it.
Matlin: Only this much of my career and my life. (gestures)
Cooper: That’s how you feel about it when you look at the pages?
Matlin: Yeah, I mean, you can only write so much, and then you’ve lived an entire life. How old was I when I wrote the book? I was in my forties. So there’s a lot more that’s happened since then, yet I feel what I wrote was important enough that people would hopefully be able to identify with it.
Cooper: What is the tattoo [on your arm]?
Matlin: They’re my kids’ names: Sarah, Brandon, Tyler, and Isabelle here.
Cooper: You spelled Isabelle wrong.
Matlin: I know (laughter) No! I checked 20, 25 times before he wrote that indelibly on my skin!
Cooper: So, as you continue to have children—
Matlin: (laughs) There are no more children, maybe grandchildren eventually, but I’ll save that for the other arm, for them.
Kaplan: I thought it was an interesting story of how you met your husband. Do you want to share that?
Matlin: So, we met when I was doing my first television series, called Reasonable Doubts, a show I did with Mark Harmon. And on the first day of shooting, we were shooting on location in Burbank. I think it was an old hospital set. I’ve always been interested in law enforcement growing up, and I saw Kevin [Grandalski] standing there because he was one of the off-duty officers doing traffic control. Typical me, I just went right up to him and asked him questions about being a policeman. He was nice enough to listen to me and talk to me ever so briefly, and then I left for the day. And then about four months into working on the series, one morning, I got to work, and I was very tired. We had worked long hours the night before, and I went up to him and I hugged him because I thought he was someone else because he looked just like him, mustache and everything. It was supposed to be Tim, and it was Kevin. And I felt like he stiffened up. And I went, ‘Oh, wait! Oh! Sorry, wrong policeman!” And Tim came, and I said, “Who’s that guy? Who’s this one?” And he goes, “Oh, keep away from this guy!” It was a long story. So, the rest is history.
Cooper: I’m sure he’s happy he took that assignment. I saw where you did an interview with the CEO of Easter Seals.
Matlin: Yes, yes. Angela Williams.
Cooper: We did a feature on her.
Matlin: Oh, she’s a blessing, a great—she’s great.
Kaplan: What are you doing with them?
Matlin: Well, because Easter Seals is probably one of the most premier globally well-known organizations having to do with collaborating with disabled and non-disabled people, and they’re a great conduit for getting our message out there, everywhere out there. They work in a variety of areas and arenas having to do with our communities. They’re a very powerful organization. They get it. They understand where we’re coming from, what we need, and eventually what we’re aiming for. First of all, I was very excited about (my collaboration with Easterseals). Angela has a new and fresh approach. I feel her energy is extremely positive, and her enthusiasm to work out with the community is great.
Kaplan: Do you know about abilityEntertainment?
Matlin: Not, yet.
Kaplan: It’s the first major talent database of actors with disabilities for the entertainment industry. It’s called abilityE.
Matlin: Is it sort of like our own form of IMDb? You know what the IMDb is?
Kaplan: Yeah. It’s a little bit better than that because it’s specifically tailored to authentic disability. I would love to get on a Zoom with you and show you the back end of what abilityE is doing and show you all the talent that is already there. But I also want to talk to you about what we’ve done on the employment side, general workforce employment. We have the first accessible online career fair. Our career fair is built from the bottom up so it has the capability of a screen reader, if you’re blind. It has text-to-speech, and also, it’s face-to-face video, and if a job seeker happens to be deaf, a third video appears and a sign language interpreter communicates between them. We’re the first in the world to do that.
Matlin: When does that take place?
Kaplan: We have one coming up next month.
Matlin: That’s great. How is it promoted?
Cooper: I have a sign, and I walk around. (laughter)
Kaplan: He spins it around.
Matlin: Right here on the corner?
Cooper: You’ve seen me!
Matlin: I won’t tell anybody, sorry, yes, I did.
Cooper: You worked with the National Corporation for Community Service?
Matlin: Yes. That was in 1994, a long time ago, ’94. Wow!
Cooper: Yeah, I know.
Matlin: I’ve done so much that—it’s been a pleasure, absolutely, in my career, to be involved in trying to make a difference, and yet we still have a lot of work to do, regardless of the fact that a lot has been done. Technology has been a big factor to help us, but I still want to bring it down to a level where we’re not just talking about technology but on a human level. Because there’s so much work to do in terms of attitudes. I see a lot of positive results, a lot of positive changes, but I don’t think we can—we can’t sit on our laurels. We can’t complain all the time. We have to make things happen. And in order to want things to happen, you have to work for things to happen. I continually work, and I don’t believe in sitting back and just being a bitter party of one.
Cooper: I wanted to ask the question, when I first met you, Jack was there. How did you two get together?
Matlin: He won’t go away!
Cooper: Did you ever know that this was—either of you, the history of this, that this would happen?
Matlin: No, we did not. I didn’t know what the future would bring. I was very young when we first met. I didn’t know. I was too new in the business to understand that—I didn’t see that far ahead of myself until I really had to take care of myself, get sober at 21. That little light bulb went off on the top of my head saying, “OK, you need to get your life together and get sober.” And that was probably the first time in my life I learned to grow up. Having Jack by my side all those years helped reinforce my desire to be as independent as I can be.
Cooper: What year was this when you met Jack?
Jack Jason: We met in 1985, December 1985. December 2nd, 1985. As you said, “A day that will live in infamy!” (laughter) December 2, 1985. I was supposed to interpret for her—She wanted somebody to keep her company. She had never been in New York before.
Matlin: We met in New York. He was a Ph.D. student at NYU.
Cooper: You were?
Cooper: Did you finish?
Jason: No, I never finished. It was her fault.
Matlin: I didn’t tell him not to.
Jason: Yeah, you did.
Matlin: I didn’t.
Jason: (laughs) I’m kidding. I did not. No. I was getting tired. It was going nowhere.
Cooper: What was it going to be in?
Jason: In educational film and technology.
Cooper: Did you know that?
Matlin: Not really. As I said, I wasn’t—at that young age, I wasn’t really paying attention to career aspirations and goals. That’s why I had to get sober to get clarity in my life, so I could look at life more clearly.
Cooper: But you were already an actress at that point, right?
Matlin: Yes, I was. Children of a Lesser God, the initial photography had been completed, but then I got sober right after that, a year later.
Cooper: So, during that first filming, you were still—?
Matlin: No, I was not sober, no. It didn’t matter, though. I wasn’t—I made sure that I was always sober during work.
Cooper: So, you worked with her during this period?
Matlin: No. He wants me to make sure that I say it right, that he had a part of this shoot. No, he wasn’t there. No, no! Interpret, interpret, interpret, interpret!
Cooper: You’re interpreting the interpreter!
Matlin: I’m interpreting the interpreter. No. During the three months of shooting, Jack wasn’t there. It was August through October. It was only when I had to reshoot, I think, two or three different scenes, that Jack was there as part of the film.
Cooper: You were brought in originally—the company brought you in?
Matlin: Yeah. No. My old boyfriend’s assistant found Jack at NYU. He likes to tell that’s story. That’s fine. He can tell the story. No, no, no, that’s fine. That’s it, that’s the story.
Cooper: The long relationship, what is that, 35 years?
Matlin: Jack’s parents are deaf. Signing is his first language, so that’s one really plus that really was helpful to me. And we—our communication is very rapid and easy.
Cooper: And he adds words that make you sound better. (laughs)
Matlin: Yeah, he does. Of course. Why do you think I’m sitting here with him? (laughter) We work well together. I still watch him. I’m still checking up on him to make sure he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. I mean, I’m entitled to.
Jason: I’m not exactly the best example of a professional interpreter because a professional interpreter would have no personality. (laughter)
Matlin: He’s not!
Jason: I’m not the best example. I am an example of what you call a cultural mediator. Because a lot of interpreters found it really helpful in the Iraq war, they would hire interpreters, but if they had no knowledge of the culture or the ability to be flexible, you don’t get your message across. But a cultural mediator between two languages is helpful because you can put personality into it. Marlee says sometimes when I’m not available, it’s sometimes hard to find an interpreter who expresses her personality.
Matlin: All the time, not sometimes.
Cooper: I’m so glad you added that because I’ve watched you before, and from the little sign that I know, what you’ve said, he’s interpreting beyond that, and it’s in sync with what you’re thinking and saying. I’ve always liked the way you’ve done that.
Matlin: Yes, exactly. He’s the only one who’s able to do that because he’s had the experience of 35 years that he’s gotten better and better. He knows what I’m going to say; he guesses what I’m going to say. A lot of times I bust him, and then he gets caught off-guard, and then we turn that into humor. I trust him very, very explicitly, and vice versa. Working with interpreters—listen, interpreting is not an easy job. I couldn’t even imagine being able to do that. I have a lot of respect for interpreters. Good interpreters who take their job seriously. And they have lots of now deaf interpreters, whom I tip my hat to, too, because they can translate from a sign language interpreter who’s doing English and incorporating deaf culture in their sign language.
Cooper: When we did the deaf-blind connection for our Gallaudet Job Fair, we had two different interpreters to connect with the deaf-blind students. So yeah, absolutely there’s different levels of that ability.
Matlin: You know, they’re called CDIs, certified deaf interpreters, or just DIs, deaf interpreters. A CDI is one you typically see in a court. They’re certified to work in a school, in an academic environment, I’m assuming, Jack, right? Yes. And there are deaf interpreters who work in general in any social situation. I have the most respect for them. Altogether, the interpreters are really—CDIs and deaf interpreters, I’m fascinated by their careers. They really—it’s because we have the same energy being that we’re both deaf, you know?
Cooper: But when you’re doing these interviews (in the job fair), you have these sign language interpreters who come on, and they are so—I’m sorry to say, they’re almost as good as [Jack] in that they take this brand-new person they’ve never met before who’s a job seeker and communicate with the recruiter. It’s done in such a way that you feel like you’re getting to know the job seeker, even though there’s that interpreter in the middle. I’ve been really impressed.
Matlin: I mean, that’s why it’d really hard to find good interpreters, interpreters who take their job seriously, who know their stuff, who understand deaf culture, who can do the language. It’s not just picking up a book and then learning sign language and then taking that and applying it to an interpreter. It’s more than interpreting. And they have so many different specializations, interpreters who are good at—medical interpreters, interpreters who are good at oral interpreting, interpreters who are good in court settings, CDIs who are good at psychiatric evaluations. There are so many levels. If somebody who is black wants a black interpreter it’s really an important thing to increase the diversity of interpreters.
Cooper: Do you remember the deaf cruise that happened? There were about five thousand people who were deaf?
Jack: (laughs) Yes! Marlee goes. Looks at her face!
Cooper: Did you go?
Cooper: You didn’t like it?
Matlin: I liked it until Halloween because the whole week I don’t know if this is the same cruise that you’re talking about. The last one I went to 2017. I think it was 2015. Anyway, so that whole week I was very nice and I was very open and I was very personable, talking to everybody, pictures, sure, autographs, sure. Talking to everybody as much as I could. Until Halloween night, and everyone wore a mask, and they just, like, they just decided to hug me and kiss me. I couldn’t see their faces, and I was like—it was horrible.
Kaplan: What are you working on right now?
Matlin: Right now, I’m working on trying to get work, basically. But I have several projects that I’m producing, that are lined up. But I’d rather—listen, the thing I really look forward to is the next call sheet that tells me what time I have to be on set. But no, seriously, I’m developing projects, true stories, fiction, some that are in the process of development at the studios. I want to be able to write when they’re ready to go. They’re both film and streaming projects. And figuring out what my fourth child needs for college because he’s going through his first year of college. That’s another project of mine.
Cooper: What’s his major?
Kaplan: Oh, nice!
Matlin: —and psychology.
cover image by Jeff Vespa — Vespa Pictures