Shoshannah Stern — Ready for Prime Time

Circa 2006

I was reclined, watching this show on cable just to wallow in entertainment, taking it in for white noise or a lullaby. Then a captivating girl, deaf like me, appeared on screen, rebuking the clumsy advances of a high school boy and bringing looks that kill to uncharted brazenness.

The show airing was Showtime’s Weeds, featuring Shoshannah Stern as Megan, a deaf high schooler and a certifiable cutie. Picked up for a second season, Weeds chronicles the struggles of recently widowed mother Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) and her adolescent sons Silas and Shane (Hunter Parrish and Alexander Gould). Thrown into emotional and financial turbulence, Nancy starts dealing marijuana to make ends meet and soon finds herself in a social network quite different from her former life, with repercussions for the entire family.

The twist here is that Weeds is no inner-city tale. Opening credits show the fictitious city of Agrestic, a suburbia generica populated by conformists—morning commuters pulling out identical black SUVs from their driveways onto a winding street of McMansions, white oxfords-and-black-tie types sipping lattes, and trophy housewives jogging with iPods latched to their waistbands. In short, Agrestic is one of those planned townships that suffocate.

Megan, as played by Stern, is the girlfriend of Silas, the elder son, who at the same time contends with the loss of his father and the small-but-magnified hazards of high school and puberty. In episode three, he meets Megan, who paints him for an idiot in more ways than one. Over the remainder of the season they come to better terms and fumble with a relationship, battling hormones, communication issues and the permeation of marijuana. As Megan, Stern delivers her lines in several ways: through expression, via pager or instant messaging, in sign language and with her voice.

Along with Stern, Parker, Parrish and Gould, the superior cast includes Elizabeth Perkins as Celia Hodes, Nancy’s friend/nemesis, and Kevin Nealon as Doug Wilson, Nancy’s perpetually stoned accountant and business advisor.

Shoshannah Stern as Megan
Shoshannah Stern as Megan

I was hooked. I ate up the show, watching it until the season closed and waiting in eager anticipation for the next chapter.

Like Megan, Stern herself is a compelling character, and she is no stranger to acting. She got her break with a guest role on the cable show Off Centre and subsequently appeared as a regular on the short-lived network TV show Threat Matrix. Additionally, she joined Matthew Broderick for a cameo in the feature film “The Last Shot” and has garnered guest roles on Providence, Boston Public, ER and The Division, in which she was excited to act opposite Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actress to have won an Oscar. This fall Stern will also appear on the CBS pilot Jericho, making her the only deaf actor in American TV history to simultaneously carry regular roles on two prime-time shows.

A long way to Hollywood for a girl from…well, okay, only 357 miles away. But her route was as roundabout as travel can go: Stern grew up in Fremont, California, where she attended the California School for the Deaf and was a mainstay in the school theater, then defected to the East Coast (Washington DC) to attend Gallaudet University, the world’s only four-year liberal arts university for the deaf, where she was critically celebrated on stage.

As it turned out, that stage was her launchpad. Straight from the Gallaudet University campus, she ascended to the screen.

Recently, Ms. Stern sat down with me in Los Angeles to recount for ABILITY Magazine her meteoric path from suburban Fremont to Hollywood.

Glenn Lockhart: You took the Hollywood plunge by leaving college weeks away from graduation. How did you decide to take that risk?

Shoshannah Stern: I left halfway through the spring semester of my senior year, approximately five years ago. Over winter break, I got an opportunity from Warner Brothers to audition for a guest-starring role on one of their sitcoms. I’d knocked on doors when I’d gone to theater school in Los Angeles the summer of my junior year, trying to find an agent and submitting headshots, but nobody would see me and I knew it was virtually impossible to get an audition if you didn’t have an agent. So when the Warner Brothers opportunity came up, I wanted to just go and get the experience of a professional audition under my belt. I never thought I’d even get called back, much less book the role.

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After the role filmed, I thought that was it—a one shot thing. So I went back to college. But then an agent heard about my work on the show and flew me back to book me. Then a couple weeks later I had another audition lined up, so I flew back for that. At that point I just commited myself to going full-steam into acting. So I moved to Los Angeles in time to shoot my second television show.

GL: You eventually got your degree, but weren’t you busy with one or two pilots in the duration?

SS: I finished my degree a year ago, in English with a focus on writing and literature. I finished by correspondence thanks to a special agreement with Gallaudet University, for which I’ll never stop being grateful. I had some down time because my show, Threat Matrix, had just ended and pilot season was slow for me that year. So I decided to use the time to my advantage. The timing was really perfect, because I think not even a month after I finished, the audition came for Weeds.

GL: How did it go when you read for the character?

SS: From the moment I got the materials, I just thought to myself, “Oh my God, oh my God, I just HAVE to do this.” I showed my brother, who was staying with me at the time, and he was like, “Are you kidding? This role is yours.” But I’m really superstitious, so I thought he’d upset the cosmos by saying that, and I got really angry with him for potentially jinxing me.

I loved the audition because much of the time in the scene I got to fill out the character without even saying anything. Most of the time I get auditions for deaf characters where the scene has them communicating in really convoluted ways, like reading lips from across the room when the other person’s back is turned or having other people parrot what they say. I loved that I got to portray Megan without saying anything. It brought so much more depth to her character, because the scene was focused on who she was and not how she communicated.

I got called back on the spot, which is always such a great feeling. Then my agent told me I was the only one they called back.

GL: How do you like Megan? She’s a firecracker, and a huge dimension of her character is nonverbal.

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SS: I love Megan. She has so much spunk and personality, and she doesn’t take anything lying down. She has so much confidence and really knows who she is, even though she’s so young. I love that she’s smart and unafraid to make fun of herself.

GL: Does anything in the character remind you of yourself at that age?

SS: I grew up in the suburbs of Fremont, in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is kind of reminiscent of Agrestic. I was there when I was in high school, and Megan is in high school now, so I can totally relate to how she feels growing up in a place like that, safe and reasonably well-to-do, but where there’s nothing around except a Starbucks on every corner. It can sometimes feel claustrophobic— you just want to go crazy and bounce off the walls.

GL: (laughs) That’s probably why you live in a big city now. It’s about stimulation for some people. What was it like to work on the first season of the show?

SS: It was amazing. I went to the table read, and there were all these great actors— I couldn’t believe I was sitting there with them. I felt like I was Shoshannah Squarepants, just soaking up everything I could from them like a huge human sponge. And it’s not just the actors—don’t even get me started on the writers.

GL: Okay, so you love the writers, but they probably don’t have the intimate understanding of living deaf that you do. How much input do you have about Megan’s character—what happens to her, how it happens, how she communicates, etc.?

SS: I’m an actor, not a writer. I’d be pretty annoyed if the writers tried to come in and hang over my shoulder telling me how to act, so I don’t go in and tell them how to write. I feel I should defer to the writers and the directors because they’re the ones who have the complete vision. They see things through from the beginning to the end. I’m responsible for one small part, so my scope is much more limited than theirs.

With that said, the writers and directors really make themselves available to me. If I ever have questions or suggestions, they’re always open to discussing them. I think Megan communicates in the most organic way I’ve seen. In the beginning, when she had just met Silas, she talked with him a lot via pagers and two-way messaging because she wasn’t comfortable enough with him yet to speak. As you see their relationship becoming closer and more serious, she gains confidence, so she speaks more and more. I think that adds so much depth to their connection.

If Megan communicated the same way I do, since I basically sign almost all the time in my personal life, I wouldn’t be acting. I’d just be playing myself, which would be much less interesting.

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GL: What have you heard from deaf people who have seen you on the show?

SS: Most of them just want to see more of Megan. They love that a show of that caliber has a deaf character, and they just want to know more about her and what makes her tick. They’re curious about how she feels about apparently being the only deaf person in Agrestic. A lot of my friends have ordered Showtime just because of the show. In general, though, I think the show has kind of flown under the radar with the deaf community.

GL: Has you had people recognize you when you’re out in public?

SS: That happens at least once a week, believe it or not. I think it’s kind of hard to miss me because I’m always signing. People say they love the show and ask if Megan’s coming back. I had one woman act out the spray-painting scene I did in the first episode I was in, and that was a keeper. They really like how Megan doesn’t take any crap—that’s the response I get the most. I’ve also had people ask me if I am deaf in real life! That makes me laugh, but I think I’d probably ask the same question if I didn’t know anything about deaf people myself.

GL: What response have you gotten from your family about the career path you’ve chosen?

SS: They’ve been unbelievably supportive. I think I’ve wanted to be an actress since the day I was born. I even asked my parents for an agent for my seventh birthday! I have no idea how I knew what an agent was, but I guess I’d figured out that I needed one. Of course they said no, so I had one of my well-practiced tantrums. That scene repeated itself in some way basically every year, but they just wanted me to have a normal life and have the time to make a good decision on my own. They really did the right thing for me.

I have a feeling that if I’d started when I was younger, it would probably have been too overwhelming for me. Plus, my parents were afraid about the ups and downs of the business. But when I made up my mind about moving to Los Angeles they were nothing but supportive. My older sister has been working in the art world in London for the past five years, writing about art and now creating art of her own, so there’s a lot of similarity and support there.

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GL: Your deafness is hereditary, going back several generations, but hearing loss comes in many shades, doesn’t it? You’ve leapt from an environment surrounded by sign language to the mainstream of Los Angeles, where networking and first impressions are survival tools for any actor. Have you had to make any adjustments?

SS: Well, this is kind of a funny story. I am fourthgeneration deaf, which means everyone in my immediate family is deaf. So I grew up always having 100 percent accessibility to language and communication, which was wonderful and something so many deaf people don’t have. On the flip side, even though I had some hearing, I wore hearing aids only when watching movies, because hearing was really more of a distraction than a benefit for me. I had no reason to hear since everyone in my world was deaf and I went to a university for the deaf.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I decided I should probably start talking to people. I’d had some speech training when I was a kid but I hadn’t really kept up with it. So I kind of re-trained myself by watching movies and reading the captions. I could match the words to the sound I picked up, and then rewind to hear again how the word was spoken. Now I always have an interpreter on set with me, but I’m basically okay with one-on-one conversations without an interpreter. I’m grateful for that because situations come up where, unfortunately, an interpreter can’t always be present.

GL: Just as your deafness is an inheritance, so is your Jewish heritage. Your last name, Stern is Hebrew for star, which I hope will prove prophetic. What about the rest of your name—any story of intrigue there?

SS: Shoshannah means rose in Hebrew. My younger brother and older sister also have Hebrew names. We always had two birth certificates, one Hebrew and one American. I decided to adopt my Hebrew name when I was eleven. I just felt a deeper connection to it. My parents were completely supportive—in fact, they wished they had gone with the Hebrew name from the get-go. They’re both children of Holocaust survivors, and I think there might have been a subconscious need to assimilate by giving their children non-Hebrew names.

My middle name is Oppenheimer, which is the maiden name of my paternal grandmother. She was born in Berlin and lived through the Holocaust, and the deafness in my family extends past her, to her husband’s mother, my great-grandmother.

GL: Deafness must add another layer to the immigration experience. How did your family come to America? How did they get established—communicating, finding employment, getting an education?

SS: My grandmother came from Berlin to New York when she was 12 and lived in the Bronx in a German speaking ghetto. She went to P.S. 47, a school for the deaf on 23rd Street, and learned sign language. She also had a deaf friend through the temple who went to the Lexington School for the Deaf, also located in New York City, and through that friend she met other deaf people.

GL: Have other members of your family been involved in theater and acting?

SS: My mother was quite the actress back in the day. She’s on the cover of the first play written about, by and for deaf people. It was called Sign Me Alice, a variation on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. She was the original Alice, and people still remember her from that play. When I was acting in plays in college, I’d always kiss my hand and then put it on the picture of her that’s hanging in the Gallaudet University archives. I have pictures of her from that play on the wall of my bedroom as well, and sometimes before I go to auditions I still do the same thing.

GL: Despite your busy schedule, I understand you’ve managed to remain involved in the deaf community and often give time to causes you feel are important.

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SS: Yes, I just hosted a brunch at the House of Blues for GLAD (the Greater Los Angeles Association for the Deaf), and I’m involved with Glimmer of Hope, a charity that helps deaf women who have been victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

I’ve also done two benefit performances of the Vagina Monologues and hosted another fundraiser for them. It’s a very important production—it’s so crucial for women to know that even though they live in a small community, there should not be any stigma attached to anyone who’s been abused.

Additionally, I work when I can with Los Angeles’ Deaf West Theatre. I tell stories in American Sign Language on Saturday mornings for their Storytime program. Literacy among deaf children is so important, and it’s another passion of mine.

GL: Have you met any of your Hollywood heroes yet— the performers who ignited your passion for acting?

SS: Yes, I’ve been very lucky. I remember one time there was a huge movie coming out that had a deaf character, a really plum role. They were searching all over America for a deaf actor for it, but they decided to give the part to a hearing actor instead—I was really upset about that but felt my hands were tied.

In any case, Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to the movie at first, although he later dropped out. But I happened to see him out, and I can sometimes be really spontaneous and act without thinking, so I stepped up to him and said, “Can I ask you a question?”…And then I realized who I was talking to! Staring into his face, I totally lost my nerve and apologized for interrupting him. But he was unbelievably decent and said, “No, no, what did you want to ask me?” So we talked about the movie and how disappointing it was for the deaf community that the role wasn’t given to a deaf actor. He was very attentive and supportive and really listened to me. He was intuitive about how he needed to communicate with me and gave me really good advice. It was one of the most inspiring things ever to happen to me.

GL: What about Marlee Matlin? There were other deaf actors before her, but she has probably been the best known deaf face since her Oscar in 1986— when you undoubtedly were an impressionable four- or five-year-old.

SS: I had the opportunity to work with Marlee on a television show, and I was unbelievably star-struck when I saw her. She’s so highly decorated and she never stops working. She makes work happen for her, and she takes only the parts she wants to do. That gives me so much hope.

I really think she is responsible for bringing the world’s attention to the possibilities of using deaf characters in film and television. Many of her roles, like her recent movie What the Bleep Do We Know?, weren’t even written with a deaf character in mind—but look what she brought to the movie! It’s just beautiful when people choose to look at things a little bit differently. That’s when magic happens.

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GL: Marlee has been leveraging her celebrity in getting legislation passed for captioning on TV, movies and other video materials. How important is captioning for you?

SS: It’s totally important—I can’t watch anything if it’s not captioned. I don’t even like going to movie theaters if the movies aren’t captioned. It’s like watching a television program or a movie with the sound off—what’s the point, really?

Individual captioning devices, called Rear Window, are now available in some theaters for specific movies, but they require you to keep looking up and down to catch both the captions and the image. It’s not as natural as having the captions on the screen. By the end of the movie, my eyes are worn out. It’s just easier for me to wait for the DVD to come out and then watch the movie at home.

Of course, I’d love for everything to be as accessible as possible. For example, I’d love for all theaters to have all their movies available for Rear Window. I think things are getting a lot better, though. There are a lot more places where real-time captioning and sign language interpreters are available. Many more television programs are captioned now as well. We just can’t rest on our laurels; we always have to try to make things better. I talk about it with people in the industry—that’s the best thing you can do. Most people are used to seeing things one way. You just have to tell things in your voice and be who you are—that’s how you educate people. You can’t sit them down and give them a lecture. Instead, have a conversation, and then people learn without being forced.

GL: How do you work it when you audition? Do you bring your own interpreter or do you just work through the communication issues on your own?

SS: I don’t audition with interpreters. Sometimes they already have interpreters present if the role is for a deaf person, and that’s great. But otherwise I choose not to bring an interpreter, because auditioning is a very special situation. To audition means you’re supposed to come in and read with the casting director—that’s where your energy is supposed to go. If the interpreter is in the room, your attention is usually diverted from the casting director, so your energy is diverted as well. The casting director has the script, so they know what you’re saying, and you know what they’re saying as well. I think acting is all about connecting with your character and with the other characters. In most cases, there wouldn’t be an interpreter in the scene when it’s actually being performed, so I like to keep it as real as possible for the audition.

GL: How do you train? Do you participate in workshops?

SS: I used to go to workshops, but it was the hardest thing in the world because theater institutes are privately owned, so they’re not required to provide interpreters. If I wanted an interpreter, I had to pay for one myself. But the reason I was going to workshops was that I needed to book roles because I needed money! Of course, I didn’t have enough money to afford the interpreter’s fee plus my own. Most of the time, if I got the interpreter’s fee waived it was because the interpreters who went were actors themselves. So they were trying to learn and interpret at the same time— which I completely understood—but I wasn’t getting 100 percent of the message.

After a while you just have to go with what you feel is right for you. I’m always learning from actors I see in movies and on stage and from those I work with. At the risk of sounding like a total cliché, I learn from everything I see in life. I think that when you go to workshops, you get one person’s idea of what you should do. That’s great, but it’s not absolute. The best way to learn is to actually do something and then learn from the entire process.

GL: How do you communicate with your agent, and with the director and crew?

SS: I’m at an agency where I’m the only deaf client, but they just get it. They know what they need to do to communicate with me. They know to look directly at me when they’re talking to me and to enunciate a little bit more clearly and slowly than they normally would. We also communicate through e-mail. They know I don’t have a phone, so they send every e-mail to my pager as well, and they text me if it’s an emergency.

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With directors, they e-mail me, too. I also have an interpreter with me when I’m on set, so communication isn’t a problem. And after you’ve been on the same set for a while, working with the same crew, people just naturally pick up things. The interpreter almost becomes one of the crew. People know my interpreter, Ramon, by name, and of course everyone loves him.

GL: Describe for me your dream role.

SS: I would really love to have my grandmother’s story told. She was the only deaf member of her affluent family in pre-war Vienna, but she was the only one who survived the Holocaust, and she was alone for some time. Would you understand the Holocaust as a child if it was happening around you with nobody to explain it? If the sound was on mute?

GL: Thanks so much. You’ve been incredible.

SS: Absolutely. My pleasure.

by Glenn Lockhart

Weeds (Showtime)

Jericho (CBS)

Deaf West Theatre

Glenn Lockhart describes himself as deaf as can be. He works at Verizon in business development for the relay service unit and is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He jokes that he doesn’t like writing much, but there’s no way to get sign language down on paper.

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