Marlee Matlin – An Interview

Circa 2006

Marlee Matlin has received many important awards and has had many laurels bestowed upon her over the years, but here’s an honor that’s a little out of the norm: This year, she was named the godmother of a cruise ship-specifically, the Ms Noordam, the newest luxury vessel in the Holland America cruise line.

Recently, the onboard ceremony launching the Noordam on its maiden voyage provided Matlin an exciting opportunity to check out the accessibility features the cruise line offers and to sit down for an interview with ABILITY Magazine. “This ship has been made very accommodating for someone like me,” she explains via her sign language interpreter. “They have a TDD device for phone calls, doorbells that display flashing lights, closed captioning on the television sets, a vibrating bed alarm-I don’t need an alarm because with four kids I have an internal alarm, but it’s nice all the same.” Interpreters are available free of charge for passengers who are deaf, she notes, and many other features make setting sail with Holland America comfortable for all types of passengers.

As it turns out, the actress says the cruise honor is fitting. She’s a foodie, you see, and cruises are always filled to the gills with lavish cuisine. “This cruise line is famous for having wonderful food, so they couldn’t have asked for a more perfect godmother,” she declares.

The Los Angeles-area resident also has a large appetite for life. A zestful woman, she overflows with creative talent and energy and has long been involved in a broad range of activities and activism. Matlin’s jam-packed resume presents an illustrious 20-year career in film and television, in which her presence and performances have helped to shatter stereotypes and rip down barriers for actors who are deaf or hard of hearing-and for people with disabilities in general. Additionally, she has her own film-production company, Solo One Productions, and has been the executive producer for several TV movies.

The petite 40-year-old has been a strong advocate for the deaf community, and she regularly gives her time to charitable organizations of all kinds. A mother of four small children, she has performed in educational, music and kids’ videos, and has authored several works of fiction for young readers.

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Rashmi Turner of The Baby Einstein Company, a producer of children’s learning products, has worked closely with Matlin on a couple of projects. Baby Einstein, which produces a popular series of videos for infants, toddlers and young children, recruited Matlin last year to star in Baby Wordsworth. Making the point that communication can come in many different forms, the DVD features the actress showing sign language to infants and toddlers. Baby Einstein is releasing a new DVD this year called Baby’s Favorite Places, in which Matlin uses sign language to demonstrate an expanded set of words for children ages one and older.

“We’ve had a wonderful time working with Marlee on both Baby Wordsworth and Baby’s Favorite Places,” says Turner, vice president of marketing communications and educational production for the company. “Since Marlee is both a mother and a professional actress, the work she did for the Baby Einstein videos came easily to her.”

America first glimpsed Matlin’s talent and intensity when she blazed onto the big screen 20 years ago in Children of a Lesser God, starring opposite William Hurt. Her explosive portrayal of a conflicted young deaf woman earned her glowing reviews-and the Academy Award for Best Actress. At 21, she became the youngest actress ever to win the Best Actress Oscar (and one of only four actresses to receive it for a film debut). In the following years, she made a diverse string of movies, ranging from Robert Altman’s classic Hollywood satire The Player to the AIDS drama It’s My Party to the New Age-flavored What the Bleep Do We Know? in 2004.

Strikingly attractive, Matlin quickly became a familiar figure in American pop culture. In the same year she snared the Oscar, she was cited by Harper’s Bazaar Magazine as one of the Ten Most Beautiful Women, and Esquire Magazine included her in its annual “Women We Love” issue.

From the beginning of her career, Matlin’s prominence and high visibility have raised the public’s awareness of actors who are deaf. For a number of filmgoers and TV audiences, she was the first deaf actor they had ever watched perform, perhaps the first person to bring to their attention that an actor with a disability could play mainstream roles.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is certainly the next. Perhaps Matlin’s fame as a trail blazer was best reflected by a guest-starring turn on Seinfeld, in which she played herself; her ability to read lips provided the key story line (and punch lines), as bumbling George Costanza displayed his typical lack of social grace and sensitivity.

The humorous treatment of her disability might have struck some viewers as taboo, but she believes strongly that for people with disabilities it’s important at times to approach situations with a sense of humor. “I like to play around with people who don’t know me,” says Matlin, who speaks vocally to others although she generally has her interpreter on hand. “Often I’m talking to people through my speaker phone. and after 10 minutes or so they say, ‘Wait at minute, Marlee, how can you hear me? They forget I have an interpreter there who is signing to me as they talk. So I say, ‘You know what? I can hear on Wednesdays.”

Sometimes all Matlin can do is laugh when she thinks of some of the unwitting things people have said. She tells a story, for example, from the first TV series she was on, NBC’s Reasonable Doubts. “It was a Warner Brothers-produced show, and one day during the first season an executive from Warner Brothers happened to show up and was watching us at work. He said to the executive producer, ‘You know, Marlee Matlin is great. Is she going to be deaf for the entire series?””

Then there was this bizarre incident: “Once I was doing an interview with CNN and the interviewer who was extremely nice-leaned over to me while we were getting made up, just before the camera was ready to shoot live in front of millions of people, and with about three seconds left she said, ‘Marlee…my dog is deaf.’ Then suddenly the light came on and there I was looking at her, reacting to this comment, thinking, Does she want to throw me a bone? I had no idea what she wanted.”

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But Matlin has also felt the piercing hurt of people’s mockery-although she notes that fortunately it has occurred rarely. She vividly describes an incident that took place recently when she attended the Sundance Film Festival. She was eating with a group of friends at a Park City restaurant, chatting away, when she sudden ly noticed a man on the street looking in at them through the window; he was with three buddies and was making gestures with his hands clearly meant to mock her use of sign language.

Animatedly, she details the burning intensity of her response: “I thought I must be dreaming because I hadn’t seen that sort of thing in at least a couple of decades. I looked at my friend and asked, ‘Did you see that?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I did see that.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go.”” Compelled to confront the man, despite what she says felt like “20-degree-below-zero weather” outside, Matlin and her girlfriend tore out of the restaurant.

“I think he saw me running after him, because he was walking very quickly, and I went right up to him and his three friends and I said, ‘What’s that about?”” she recalls. “And they said, ‘No, no, that was nothing.”” But Matlin didn’t let them off the hook so easily. “I said. ‘You know what? He was making fun of me.’ And in the back of my mind, I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I felt like I was a little kid all over again. standing up for what I believe in and who I am-and I don’t need to see that kind of stuff any longer.

“What he did was so passé, so childish, so amateurish. Obviously he wasn’t educated, and his friends realized as much and said, ‘Oh gosh, we just wanted to get your attention.’ I told them, ‘Well, you got it, because I’m standing right here telling you that you can never do again.

In the end, the men apologized, and Matlin says she walked back into the restaurant extremely satisfied. The rest of the evening turned out to be very good, but she is still rattled as she remembers the encounter. “I mean, even my kids, my little kids, don’t do that,” she states emphatically. “That was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve had in a long time.”

More pleasant experiences relate to her family and her kids and her belief in the potential that children bring. “It’s all about starting with people at a younger age, talking about how we have shared values and shared cultures, learning together to accept who we are,” she says. In the past several years, she has built a strong audience base among children. Besides popping up in the Baby Einstein DVDs, she also hosted Disney’s award-winning series Adventures in Wonderland and performed in numerous episodes of Nickelodeon’s popular program Blues Clues, playing Marlee the Librarian. In addition, in 2002 she penned a novel for children entitled Deaf Child Crossing, published by Aladdin Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Recently she has released the sequel. Nobody’s Perfect.

As for the adult crowd. Matlin has probably been most familiar lately as a recurring character in NBC’s long running series The West Wing. For seven seasons, she played Joey Lucas, a tough, aggressive pollster who was very good at her job. Like many characters Matlin has played. Lucas defied the vulnerable and powerless stereotype Hollywood often paints for characters with disabilities. Her pollster was tenacious and politically savvy.

“Working on The West Wing as a person who happens to be deaf was a tremendous experience,” she says. “It wasn’t an easy show to work on, period, because I played a character who had a great deal of numbers to remember-Joey Lucas was the one reporting all the polls to the president detailing how people were voting.” But as usual, Matlin thrived in the task and loved the ensemble. “I was fortunate to work with a wonderful cast and crew who were extremely professional and a lot of fun-people who worked bravely 18 hours a day. I’ve been fortunate that they always treated me just like any other actor-I just happened to have an interpreter on the set-and everyone had a great sense of humor.”

The West Wing has now finished its final season, but Matlin has already landed a part on another TV series and added to her gallery of challenging and distinct roles. She will be playing a hot-blooded artist who sparks romantic chemistry with Jennifer Beals’ character in The L Word on Showtime. The series, whose fourth season begins early next year, centers on the lives of a group of women in Los Angeles’ lesbian community.

Indeed, it seems Matlin moves from one winning performance to the next. Since her first speaking role in the 1989 TV movie Bridge to Silence, she has earned four Emmy Award nominations: one for the Seinfeld turn, one for a character she played on the popular series Picket Fences, and the other two for guest-star ring roles on The Practice and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Those who have worked with the actress in different capacities through the years praise her as a caring and charismatic woman. “Marlee is extremely passionate and dedicated to helping others-particularly children,” says Julie Thurmond Whitmer, director of celebrity and entertainment outreach for the American Red Cross. Matlin is a charter member of the American Red Cross National Celebrity Cabinet, which was started in 2002. Cabinet members make financial contributions, promote donating blood and visit disaster sites, where they feed and comfort the survivors. “Whenever a major disaster strikes, Marlee is one of the first to respond to see how she can get involved to help those in need.” Thurmond Whitmer notes.

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Matlin’s commitment to volunteering is an ethic she learned while growing up. “When I was younger, my mother always went to my school to help out,” she recalls, “and I knew that wasn’t her job, that she was giving her time separate from her work. She took sign language; she understood about communicating with deaf children. I remember looking up to my mother and seeing that she had made this commitment of her time. So as I then became older, I understood the value of such commitment. In particular, because of my name and my position in the deaf community, I understood how important it was to volunteer and serve as a model for others, working for causes that I believed in.”

Matlin has worked hard to increase access to closed captioning on TV. In 1990 she was instrumental in getting Congress to pass a law requiring that all TVs made in the U.S. have closed captioning technology. She has also met with deaf children throughout the world, in places such as Russia, Croatia, Australia, Germany, Italy, Mexico and Canada, showing them that a person who is deaf can be successful. Addition ally, she serves on the boards of a wide range of charitable organizations, including Easter Seals, VSA arts. the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. In the wake of 9/11, the performer was one of a host of celebrities who urged Ameri cans to donate blood to the Red Cross, and she has also done a number of public service announcements for the organization-in sign language-on infant/child CPR. “Marlee is a strong advocate for those in need,” says Thurmond Whitmer of the Red Cross. “She’s just that special kind of per son-thoughtful, caring and one who has a genuine desire to make a difference.”

Matlin remarks that she helps charitable groups because of the inner satisfaction it gives her. “Whatever I do to assist, in terms of the time that I give, I know I get back in gratitude from those in need who are helped. And that’s enough for me.” She says she has always been welcomed in the volunteer world as readily as she has been in her acting career, but she can believe reports that people with disabilities may inadvertently be looked at only as the recipients of charitable services, rather than as a group with the potential themselves to volunteer.

“All that we individuals who are disabled can say is, ‘Can we help?”” she asserts. “I think it’s important for us to take the initiative-to say that we can help. We need to teach people, because they will probably be very surprised how talented individuals with disabilities are with their hands and their minds. I think it’s important that all people whether they have a disability or not-have the opportunity to help. each other.”

And then there’s the problem of overcoming the unconscious discomfort people have with people or situations that are unfamiliar. When it comes to how hearing people go about communicating with those who can’t hear, a lot still needs to be learned. But most people are well-meaning, Matlin believes.

“I can understand that some people might be intimidated, thinking they’re going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. Or thinking they’ve made fools of themselves by talking louder than they need to, for example, when talking to someone who is deaf, which happens to me every day-even my mother does that,” she says. adding quickly. “And I love you, Mother!”

Things have a way of working themselves out, she explains. “It’s okay-individuals may be misinformed, or they just need a gentle reminder not to do this or not to do that. I try to pass along a thing or two that helps them get more comfortable with us.”

She says sometimes hearing people don’t understand they should speak directly to people who are deaf, even if an interpreter is present, not just out of respect but also because those individuals may be reading their lips. “I just tell them to ignore Jack, my interpreter. Sometimes they laugh and think I’m joking, but I say, ‘No, look at me directly. At times there is an uncomfortable moment, but often they’ll say, ‘Oh good-you’re prettier than Jack is anyway, so that’s fine.’ There’s no judgment being made of them. These things happen, and you just have to learn to deal with what occurs.”

When in doubt, she adds, people should feel comfortable to be direct in asking her questions about what’s best. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘Do I need to talk loud?’ or, “Do you want to write?’ Or flight attendants, in particular, when they see Jack and me talking and they don’t know who I am which is great-will say, ‘Would you like to have a special booklet we have for individuals with disabilities that deals with safety procedures?’ I think these questions indicate that people are caring and they’re not necessarily intimidated by new situations. I could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ regarding the airplane booklet. It’s up to me to decide, and that’s the best we can do.

“I want people to understand that they should talk to me as normally as possible, not treat me any differently,” she says. “And if worst comes to worst and there’s no way we can communicate, then I’ll find another means. But it’s up to me to do that. You know what? It works one way or another.”

There is much that is working for Matlin these days. Her career continues to flourish as she takes on one new challenge after another. There are more books to write, more children’s videos to shoot, another TV series to work on. It’s all part of a passionate journey she’s taking as wife, actor, author, advocate and tireless volunteer.

“I meet a lot of people who are excited to talk to me, who respect my work and what I’ve been able to do and the barriers I’ve been able to break, not only for people who are deaf but for all people with disabilities. And I say to them, ‘You know, the only thing deaf people can’t do is hear.’ So it’s been a good ride and I’m looking forward to many, many more wonderful years.”

by Paul Sterman

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