“What?” — An interview with John Maucere

John Maucere deaf actor, comedian and film maker, known for “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie”, just celebrated his latest project called “What?” This is Maucere’s latest movie! Wait, what? Yes, “What?” The name of the movie. The movie is modeled after the slapstick silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. “What?” takes us where? Into Maucere’s own life as a deaf actor in a funny and engaging story. ABILITY Magazine’s George Kaplan spoke with Maucere following the premier at the Chinese Theatre… or the premier of “What?” You know, the movie.

John Maucere interview

George Kaplan: It’s great getting to speak to you today, John! I really loved the film.

John Maucere: Oh, thank you! So, you saw it on Thursday’s premier?

Kaplan: I saw it through the private screening link. How was the premier? Did you have a good time?

Maucere: Yes. It was great! It’s really good. It was a great crowd. There were about 400 folks there, even though, you know, COVID and pandemic and all those things, people came out, because it was a good opportunity to laugh and just have a good time after a year and a half.

Kaplan: Especially, yeah, I totally understand that. So why don’t we get right into it? How did this film come about? How did everybody get together?

Maucere: Well, my first film was “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie”. I made that about eight years ago. I got really positive reviews, and it was seen by a lot of people. It was seen especially by deaf and hard-of-hearing people all over the world because they often don’t get that kind of entertainment focused on them. And I thought, “Let’s make another one!” And that took another, I guess, about six years to come to fruition.

I met Alek Lev, who is the writer. And my brother, Paul, and I founded our own company, The Maucere Brothers. We liked Alek, and we said we wanted to develop a story about my journey as an actor and my struggles. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was coming of age in Hollywood. So, I’ve been doing this a long time. We wanted to talk about that and for it not to be some sympathetic, heart-wrenching, “look-at-this-poor-guy in deaf Hollywood”. We wanted it to be fun and funny and entertaining, but at the same time have a message. Alek is a silent film aficionado, and that really opened us up to a lot of different storytelling ideas. And from there it came together.

Kaplan: That’s amazing! This movie not only features ASL but also Catalan and German sign language. What inspired that?

Maucere: (laughs) Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve traveled all over the world doing my stand-up show. I’ve been to 40 countries. And a lot of people think that there is one universal sign language, and that’s not true. Every country has their own sign language. So, as I’ve traveled, I thought, “You know, I would love to be able to include some other sign languages in this film.” Since we’re all deaf, we have a similar experience. And regardless of where we go, we are manual communicators. And there’s a very, very rich audience all around the world. So, I decided that I would include some of that.

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Kaplan: That was amazing! It was great to see that side of it, and to see the cultural differences while having a big universal commonality, like being deaf, see how different that could be through the different variants. I know we talked about the premier that you had last week. Could you tell me more about it, how the audience reacted? Was it your first time seeing the film?

Maucere: Yeah! Yeah! It was my first time seeing it on the big screen at the Chinese Theater! It seemed huge! I sat pretty close, and I kind of had to (laughs) lean back to take myself in completely. It’s nice. I really do—I don’t like looking at myself on-screen, everybody hates that. But it was good to see it on the big screen. I’d been working with the director and the editor, and we’d seen a lot of versions on the small screen. I noticed that the energy from the audience with it on the big screen really changes things. It was a great experience. I love that feeling.

The audience reaction was very positive. I have to admit, I was nervous. Because I’d seen it so many times, I had become numb to it. But for the audience to experience it for the first time–My friend who is hearing said, “Oh, people laughed, people were awed, they were touched and moved! They really did go on the ride with you.” So, my hearing friend was telling me about the things that he was hearing in the audience. And then they were saying, “Make more! Make more!” (laughs)
Kaplan: That’s amazing!

Maucere: It’s a lot of work, more than you would think.

Kaplan: Oh, I’m sure. And in this business, I’m sure you’re not the only deaf person on-set many times. What did it feel like to be working with a majority deaf cast this time around?

John Maucere

Maucere: You know, I’ve been in a few television programs through the years. You go away on a six-week shoot or a two-week shoot or even a one-week shoot, and you’re there. And the only other person you can sign with is the interpreter. Everybody else is hearing. It’s just you and your interpreter, usually killing time in the trailer, spending a lot of time with your interpreter. They become your best friend on-set. And even though the cast is perfectly nice to us, compared to filming “What?”, nearly everyone, I would say 85% of the folks on the cast and crew and on-set were deaf. The chef, the lighting folks, the production assistants, the hair and makeup, deaf cast. We had deaf mentors all around the set as well. And when you see that ratio slip to the highest ratio of deaf people, I wasn’t quite used to that.

Maucere: I also wanted those hearing people on our set to feel comfortable and to have access, so we provided interpreters, and a lot of the hearing people were a little unsure about being in the direction, that it was all being run by deaf, produced by deaf people. And in the end, they were like, “Wow! It’s like being part of a family! Everybody just works together.” There was so much love and emotion when it was over, it was really good. Just a great experience.

Kaplan: In a previous issue, we had your former collaborator Marlee Matlin with us, and we talked about accessibility and representation in Hollywood, something this film critiques as well. What would you like to see change personally for you?

Maucere: Well, first of all, Marlee Matlin is one of my greatest friends. She has opened many, many doors for us. In 1985, I believe, she came on the scene, and over the years, she has done so much to help improve things for us in the industry. Now, what I’ve noticed, because you did ask what I’ve seen change myself, was that the question?

Kaplan: It could be both. I was asking to clarify what you would like to see change, but if you’ve seen some changes that you are happy with or you think there’s a shift, I would love to know about it.

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Maucere: Oh, OK. I know you saw the movie and you know it’s called “What?” It’s not an indictment of anyone. Through the years, people have tried to hire deaf people, tried to tell our stories and include deaf people, but those writers are not—It’s not written by deaf people. It would be nice if there were persons who were part of the creative teams that when they’re going to have a deaf storyline, they have a deaf consultant. If there are scenes with deaf people in them and there’s conversation, a deaf person can help structure that culturally and linguistically for the production. That’s what I’d really like to see.

In the movie, “What?”, we found a hearing director—The storyline of the movie is that the hearing director finds a hearing guy to play the role and then has a deaf guy try to teach him sign language. That is actually very common and has been. I’ve been asked by many, many productions to teach hearing people to sign. And I’ve turned it down because they’re playing deaf roles. I can’t do that. So, if the storyline of the movie mirrors real-life storylines, I would like to see deaf people included as part of the creative team, to help develop the storyline, the dialogue for those deaf characters. That would be more authentic. That would bring authenticity. That’s what I’d like to see.

Often, we’ll go to an audition and meet numerous people in the room. There could be 30 people waiting who are all hearing and they’ll ask me, hey, how do you sign this? How do you sign that? And I’m like, “It’s a role for a deaf person, and the hearing person is asking me at the audition how to sign this?” So that happens. For directors, writers, producers in the audition room, when they’re watching people audition in sign language, they typically don’t know sign language themselves, so they don’t know if it’s being done correctly. And sometimes they’re looking at the person and they go, “Yeah, that one!” But they’re not signing with authenticity.

Now, if you had a deaf person sitting on your creative team or if you had a person who was a master signer, who could sit on the team and say, “This person is not signing with authenticity.” If you are hiring someone to speak in a role that’s written in Spanish, and no one on your creative team speaks Spanish, zero, like Catalan, and that person comes in and they’re just learning how to do it phonetically and they’re acting it, you can tell. You’re not going to pick a person who’s just learned it the day before.

Kaplan: That’s interesting. I know that interpreting, too, is its own skill and it takes a while to find an interpreter who matches your energy and who lines up exactly with how you’re signing. I know that’s a struggle as well. Can you tell me how long it took you to find interpreters who work well with you?

Maucere: That’s a good question, a really good question. And an important one as well. My interpreter here is Jon Wolfe. We’ve been working together on publicity for this film, and Jon knows my sign style. He knows my expression. We have a great relationship. We work well together. It’s a good interpretation. I can’t just—I don’t want to pull just any interpreter off the street who doesn’t know my entertainment, hasn’t seen my films, who doesn’t know or understand technical signs from the industry. That’s an important part for the interpreter to be able to convey for a deaf actor. It makes it more awkward if you don’t have the right interpreter.

Now, Jon Wolfe, he is an actor and also an interpreter, and he knows how to sign technically according to the things that are required by the industry. He knows how to be on-set, where to stand to stay out of the way, get off-camera, make sure that the director and producers feel like the interpreter is present and creating that smooth, accessible experience for the talent. And it is very important. Like Jack Jason has done with Marlee for years and years and years. They’re always together. He knows her, and that’s important.

Kaplan: Yes, very in sync, those two. I saw it in person, and it was amazing, almost like siblings.

John Maucere
A scene with John Maucere in “What?”

Maucere: (laughs) Yes, exactly!

Kaplan: You’re a notable alumnus of Gallaudet. What is it about the experience there that prepared you for going on to the real world? What was that like, going back to school there? We’ve worked with them several times.

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Maucere: Oh, gosh. I was at Gallaudet University ages ago. I learned a lot there. It gave me a lot more confidence in having a future, it gave me confidence in my abilities. The education they gave us that we should stand up for ourselves with confidence and move forward makes Gallaudet, I think, probably the best place for a deaf person to go to college because it is the only liberal arts college in the world for the deaf. It’s like the Harvard of the deaf world. It just is. What they modeled for us there, the professors and the faculty and the administration, all deaf. All of those folks were deaf, and they were role models for us that we can step up and take positions of leadership as well. I have many friends who graduated from Gallaudet who have gone on to be great successes in their fields. It’s because they have confidence, and they have direct communication at Gallaudet in our native language.

There’s RIT, too, the Rochester Institute of Technology. There’s CSUN in Northridge. I left Gallaudet when I was a junior—I did not graduate from Gallaudet—right after the Deaf President. I left Gallaudet to pursue my acting career. I did that for five years, and then I went back to school at CSUN to finish my degree in Deaf Studies. Then I began working as a certified deaf interpreter in the court system and then did my acting.

Kaplan: That’s really cool. What draws you to make your own projects? Is it the frustration with Hollywood itself that brings out this creativity? What makes you seek out to make these kinds of projects and reach out to the community?

Maucere: OK. I’m probably one of the few folks in Hollywood who actually was born here in Hollywood and became an actor. I have been struggling in Hollywood for many years. One thing is, I don’t speak. I am a third-generation deaf family. I speak very little. I mostly sign. My acting talent is through my body and my hands and my face. So many roles in Hollywood, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, required a deaf person to speak. They wanted that person to be able to speak, and that’s really frustrating. It’s hard to sit around and wait for the right role to come along.

With the advent of YouTube, it became easier for folks to create content. And I found my passion there creating content, and I had a deaf audience. That helped me to find the motivation for my first film, which was “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie.” I probably should send you a DVD so you can watch that one, too. That was the beginning of my journey in filmmaking. Basically, I thought, “Let me create a story so that I can be a hero, do the lead, and not sit around and wait for folks to bring a role to me.” And after that one was done, I knew that I wanted to make another, and now I’m working on my third.

Kaplan: Oh! I’d love to hear more about the third one, too. We love “What?”, but we’d love to hear more about the third one, too.

Maucere: I wish I could tell you!

Kaplan: (laughs)

Maucere: But it’s one of those things. It’s already scripted, things are ready to go. We’re waiting for this one to be bought, and then, hopefully, we’ll be able to increase the size and scope of our project. We have to start and then grow. We founded our own company. It’s called The Maucere Brothers. The goal of my brother Paul and me is to make more films. Also, I want to mention–I was going to also say about that what makes “What?” the movie unique is that all of the investors were also deaf. All of the funds were raised from deaf people. There was one donor who was hearing, but a person who has a deaf heart for sure. We had deaf folks from Germany and Spain and all over putting money into the film because they want to see deaf people in film.

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Kaplan: That’s great! What about “SuperDeafy” prepared you for “What?”? Were there any lessons you learned along the way?

Maucere: “SuperDeafy” was a great, great film. I had a great director, Troy Kotsur, who is now the star of the movie “CODA” Marlee Matlin was in the film as well, one of the stars of “CODA” Shoshannah Stern, who is a star in her own right. I had a great cast. What I learned from “SuperDeafy” that I brought to “What?” was to hire PR. You have to have good publicity. I thought, “Oh, we can do it ourselves.” And you can’t. We want our films to be mainstream for a hearing audience to enjoy them, and so for this film, we have hired David Roberson, who made this interview happen for us. What we learned from “No Ordinary Hero” was that some things you can’t do on your own. We wanted to work with a hearing publicist who could help us access that part of the world, people who had open hearts and open minds and wanted to learn with us what we had learned on “No Ordinary Hero” and that we could do better on “What?.”

Kaplan: Great. Going it alone is never—I feel like in independent filmmaking every step of the way you learn that you can’t do it yourself and that it takes a team. What lessons did you learn from “What?” that you’ll apply to this next film? Because I know that “What?” was a huge undertaking. And you shot for two weeks, which must have been something.

Maucere: On Thursday, at the world premier, what was the world premier, and we have now been selected for 13 other film festivals, “No Ordinary Hero” was in three, “What?” is in 13, which is very nice. What I see that we learned from “No Ordinary Hero” to be “What?” and now to our future projects will be—that’s a good question. Let me think about that. Ask me something else. We’ll come back to it.

Kaplan: (laughs) No worries.

Maucere: To be honest with you, I feel like “What?”, everything has fallen into place as we made the path, and then it makes me thing, to your question, what have I learned for the next film, OK. We are working on our next project, and all that we hope for is a little more money, which will give us a little more time. And “What?” was a movie about the problem of not having enough great roles played by Deaf people. The next movie will have… lots of great roles that will be played by Deaf people! Other than that, the movie “What?” is just really great, fantastic. You saw it. What did you think? You tell me.

Kaplan: I thought it was a great way to bring a community together. You start from the experience of this actor. You have beautiful communities of artists who support each other spring up. I thought that was a beautiful aspect to the film.

Did your community show up for you last week? How was that experience of everybody showing up for that premier? Four hundred people, that’s pretty wild.

Maucere: Before we were chosen to be in Dances with Films, the film festival, and way before COVID, after the pandemic began to make a resurgence, we were a little concerned. And that was way before we were chosen for the film festival. Would people come out and see the movie? I think it’s a testament to those who desire to see films that are in their native language, in their native culture. It really brought folks out. There was an actor party, of course. We were there until 1 a.m. last Friday morning just talking about how much we enjoyed the film, people talking about it, asking us if we were going to make more—such a great, fun experience. They were so good to us. They’re our biggest fans, and they’re our community. And you’re right, it takes a community to make things grow.

Kaplan: Talking about community, what would you say to an up-and-coming deaf actor, someone who’s walking in your footsteps right now and looking at the challenges ahead?

Maucere: When I travel, and I travel all over the world performing–Before I do my performance, I go to schools for the deaf and I talk to the students. I talk about how I got into entertainment. I always say that the number one thing is passion. You’ve got to have passion. That’s number one. You’ve got to have the dream that you chase after and reach. Don’t sit around and wait for folks to hire you. Be on the move. In the movie “No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie” it took about 15 years for that to come together. Fifteen years. It’s a tough business to get into. It is. But why do I persist? Passion.

Secondly, don’t be alone. Have a team. Work with others. Have a similar goal. What’s best about working with a team. I used to work alone, and then I started to gather my cohorts. And I realized that it takes a lot of people. And not just in the movie world or the entertainment business, in any business. First you have to have passion for what you want to do and you have to have consistency. It’s hard because you know that a lot of doors are out there, but they may not be open to you. When one does open, an open door begets other open door and those doors you continue to follow because you bring your passion. I’ve been doing that for nearly 25 years. Now I’m seeing those young people as they grow up, and they are succeeding in their careers. They do that because I’ve helped to remind them to always bring their passion.

I tell them that I struggled for many years, but I persist because I kept doing things on my own, having passion.

Kaplan: That’s great! I love that! Is there any other project coming up? You talked about the third film, are there any other things that we should be aware of? Besides “What?”, hopefully we’ll have more answers about distribution and things like that.

Maucere: Yes, there’s that, hopefully someone will be interested in buying it. There are several projects percolating now. A number of people have asked me to be part of a project that they’re working on. Again, I’m not standing around waiting for them to come to me. I’m working on other things, moving forward with creative ideas and collaboration. I want more deaf and hearing people to work together. Of course, it has to be good. We want good content, always. In my third film, it has nothing to do with being deaf. The story itself could be anyone. Any actor could play this role, hearing, deaf, any ethnicity. It’s not about being deaf. My first film was about deafness, my second film was about me being deaf in Hollywood, so this third film I’m really excited about.

"What?" movie poster

Also, I was a Deaf Studies major, so I have a B.A. in Deaf Studies. I’ve been very involved with deaf advocacy, deaf rights, linguistics, access to ASL for years. And doing that, I realized how hard it is to get through. When I made “No Ordinary Hero”, that was about schooling. When people watched it—about the boy who goes into public school with no interpreter and struggles trying to read speech. Then when he goes to the right school with the right deaf teachers, surrounded by other deaf students, he begins to learn. I found that storyline through my advocacy for deaf rights, and I was able to put that in the film that people could enjoy. At the same time, understand that—What do you think is the best school for a deaf person? It’s a school for the deaf! Instead of me painting signs and standing on a picket line and having folks march around, the best way is to make a film that’s entertaining and that contains a message. Again, we did that with “What?” in a way.

We’ve fought for years for deaf people to play deaf roles, deaf characters. The best way to do that is to make a film where all the characters or most of them are deaf, and then that is the message.

Kaplan: What would be the biggest takeaway that you hope that people have from launching “What?”?

Maucere: I think the goal of the film, or the goal of any film, is that there’s a message that one gets and that it’s important that actors are tasked for authenticity and that they have laughed and that they have had heartfelt moments and that they’re not left with some heavy, foreboding sense of, “Oh, that poor guy.” That they laughed and it was funny and that they had a great experience, regardless of whether they were deaf or hearing. By the way, on Thursday, probably we had about 75% of the audience deaf and 25% hearing, and I wanted the deaf and hearing people to sit side by side in the theater and laugh together. And “Aw!” together, and have that experience together and be able to leave and talk about the film. We typically don’t have that experience.

“What?” is a black-and-white silent film. The information is given to the audience in various ways, so everyone has access to the story, and it’s all there in one place. For years, I’ve been watching stuff and trying to figure out what’s going on and who would laugh and find things funny, always trying to figure out what was going on. In this film, everybody leaves having a simultaneous experience.

Kaplan: That’s beautiful, I love that! Also, as a side note, how did you get Keaton Talmadge in those scenes, the painting scene?

Maucere: Oh, the actor! The interpreter didn’t recognize the name.

Kaplan: The great-granddaughter of Buster Keaton. I thought that was such a cool ode to silent films and a great part to have for her.

Maucere: Oh, yes, yeah. Thank you to Alek Lev. Alek is really a silent film aficionado. He’s a big fan of Chaplin, Buster Keaton. He was a Vice President of the International Buster Keaton Society. He even named his own kid Chaplin, he has a son named Chaplin. So to say he’s a diehard fan. He’s connected to that network with folks, and he knew Buster Keaton’s great-granddaughter. And he was honored that she was able to be in the film. It was awesome that we were able to include those actual locations where Buster Keaton performed. You saw the film and you saw the outtakes at the end where we showed you the actual path trodden by Buster Keaton for those specific scenes. It was nice to have her on board. We were thrilled.

Kaplan: That’s amazing. I’ve had a great time speaking with you. I don’t know if there’s anything else you would like to put out there.

Maucere: I was just going to say one more thing before we close. You know, hearing people also of course are auditorily triggered to emotions in music and sound and stuff like that. Deaf people are attuned to facial expressions and body language. So in this film, “What?”, deaf and hearing people have a similar experience together. As the film open, we see the film open in color. And then as we get into the story of Don, it becomes black and white, where we see Don struggle and throughout the film he finds resolution and it becomes color again. That’s what’s music to our eyes, to see those changes, to help us connect with the story, the same way that music would give a hearing person access. Because we’re deaf, we’re so visual that color helps us feel the connection to the film in a way as it transitions.

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Kaplan: I really loved the film. I thought it was a great ode to silent film and an ingenious way to have a movie with mostly deaf characters in that silent genre. I thought that was such a smart move.

Have you been able to travel during COVID with your stand-up?

Maucere: No. I canceled probably 20 shows. I stayed home. I’ve had the itch to perform! I’ve done—it’s good to have a little break, but it’s an itch that needs to be scratched. I’m going to France. Oh, I went to France to perform, and then things got bad again and I’ve been stuck at home. It’s tough.

Kaplan: What about masks? Do you read lips?

Maucere: You know what’s great about ASL. People think it’s all about the hands, but it includes the face and expression and all of the grammar that we have is in our facial expressions. And half of that is muffled. You’re really missing a lot of information. It’s hard to understand when you’re masked. And it can be very frustrating. Hearing people can hear what’s being said, but half of your expression is being thwarted by wearing a mask, so it’s really tough.

People are so visually attuned that half the information is going, you can see a person’s eyes and that’s all you’ve got.


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