'Deaf U' EP Nyle DiMarco: Netflix Series Is No "After-School Special"

Deaf U Inset Nyle DiMarco
Netflix; Getty Images

Would one expect the college kids at the center of Netflix's Deaf U, its reality series following a group of students at prestigious Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., to be more or less guarded having come of age in the 21st century? They're used to sharing their lives through social media, but they're also savvy to the manipulation of reality producers.

But the stars of the eight-episode docuseries, which premieres Friday, are charmingly unself-conscious about opening up to TV cameras, much like the young people at the center of early 2020 Netflix hit Cheer. That's due in part, says executive producer Nyle DiMarco, to the fact that they knew this was their chance to show what their lives are like in the non-hearing world.

"Oftentimes, people showed a microcosm of the Deaf community as a monolith," DiMarco tells The Hollywood Reporter, "and we were looking for something different. ... I wanted to invite hearing people into the Deaf world, specifically at the world's only Deaf university, Gallaudet. I think that was really the biggest draw."

DiMarco, a winner of both America's Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars, is also an alum of the school. With five years of experience on reality TV and in the public eye, he says his main goal with the series is to give the world a look inside a part of the Deaf community that many people have never seen before. It's not an after-school special about people learning lessons or experiencing a tragedy; it's about a close-knit group of friends who party and hook up and occasionally go to class — in other words, the near-universal college experience.

Below, the actor and activist discusses why the series is unprecedented, how he thinks the cast members will fare once they become reality TV-famous, and more about the three other projects he's working on as producer (and in one, star as well).

What was your goal for the show?

I wanted to make it anything but a PSA. I didn't want this to be a lecture, an after-school special. I wanted to show this core group of friends through friendships, through romance, through relationships. I wanted to show their journey as college students, and I think that experience is very universal. What I was really inspired by was my own experience. With America's Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars, it was often that I was just portrayed as the deaf man, I was very one-dimensional. There was no real deep dive into my nuance of who I was as a person. I felt like I was kind of left without a personality on the screen. So I wanted to make sure that we were showing these Deaf people as people.

Can you talk a little bit about the casting process in terms of finding these people?

So we did accept some open applications, but also we did a little bit of scouring through social media. I know quite a few people at Gallaudet, even though the Deaf community is quite large, I'm still very well-connected. So once we found a really interesting group of people, we looked at their core friends — who they actually hang out with and and who they were.

What have you told them about reality stardom, having experienced it yourself?

Well, I should be honest, I think my advice was mostly about really riding it out, and just take a beat to really consider the power that you have when you're on screen. That has been such a big part of my own experience over the last five years. But again, this really was about reframing perspectives and starting new, fresh conversation. And I think explaining the power was in their hands, and it was important for them to be authentic in order to go the [farthest], I think they really took a lot of wise approaches.

It's easy to feel very protective watching these kids, much like the experience of watching Cheer earlier this year. Do you worry about the effect that fame will have on them?

Oh, absolutely. Sure, there's a there's a little bit of concern. This is the the first time that a show like this has ever been done that's specific to Deaf people and offers such a deep dive experience. That's a lot. I mean, of course the Deaf community always wants the right spotlight to be placed on them, but we don't always want to live fish out of water in that sense. We have already offered them an open door at any time. They have my contact information. We stay in touch, and I hope that they handle things really well. But I am so, so much looking forward to seeing more representation in this industry. The media really needs that.

When you're part of a group that doesn't have representation in the way that they should, you have a built-in responsibility to portray your community in a good light, but how do you balance that with also wanting to make a fun, soapy reality show where we watch these kids party and hook up and have a good time?

I think the important thing is that really is the formula of a reality TV show. People are not going to be as intrigued by a PSA or an after school special. We didn't want to preach this experience. We really wanted to frame through the lens of their actual life and their actual college journeys. We didn't want to censor them, we wanted to see exactly what they were doing. We really were pushing them to be doing exactly what they were doing and showing who they really were.

When did you start filming? How long did you film? You had the cooperation of the school, but what was it like in terms of getting access to locations on campus and stuff like that?

We were filming far before COVID, thankfully. We were filming last year in the fall, for roughly three months in the fall semester. And we were very lucky to be able to partner with Gallaudet and have their approval to film on campus. Gallaudet is incredibly thrilled about this opportunity as well. From our story crew, to our production, to everyone behind the camera, we had at least 50 percent Deaf people working in every department. That was really critical for us — to see the talent on screen, of course, but we wanted to make sure that we had those numbers behind the camera as well to make sure that their stories were being told in an empowering in an authentic way, and the way that they should be told. Often working in the entertainment industry it's really key to be able to tell an authentic story. And we knew that we couldn't do that without the support of our Deaf crew members. And I would believe that Gallaudet believes so too.

Netflix has added a lot of accessibility features to this show, in addition to comprehensive captions. Was that part of the appeal of doing a project with Netflix and its worldwide reach?

They were open to whether or not we were going to be doing voiceovers or creative captions, in doing audio description. This is the first time in history that we're ever having audio description for blind people specifically on a show that is captioned and made about Deaf people. I mean, that's incredible.Netflix was absolutely the right home for this. And it just it made so much sense given the innovation.

Netflix hired Deaf transcribers as well. We had Deaf people in the editing process who could really bring the cast's essence into those accessibility features. I don't think it could have possibly been done by by a hearing person in any other way. To capture the essence of a Deaf person, you really needed someone with Deaf eyes to do it.

You've been producing recently. What has that allowed you to do that acting or being in front of the camera hasn't?

Producing various shows about Deaf people really gives me the opportunity to develop more talent and more stories specific to the disabled community, which has always been the goal. The goal has been to tell people's stories from their own experience, from their own eyes. Had I grown up seeing those role models on TV, I would have really connected in a way in a way that I wasn't able to, because everyone that I saw on TV was hearing. This is really the first time in history that we actually have Deaf people in front of and behind the camera driving these stories so that later we pave the way for other people in the disability community and other people in the Deaf community to really build their own empire and create their own content, to tell their own stories.

You're also going to star in a comedy based on your life that was announced a few months ago.

I have a scripted series as well that I'm starring in and it's very loosely based on my own life. And that's with Daniel Dae Kim's company, 3AD, which is really fantastic. It's been a wonderful experience to work with him, we're looking forward to seeing that hosted on Spectrum, but to see my experience on the larger screen as if it's real. While working on that, I do have two other projects as well. One is a feature film that's coming up called Deaf President Now! with Concordia Studio. It's a film essentially developed about a protest that happened in 1988, which became the crowning civil rights movement for Deaf people at Gallaudet, which paved the way for the passage of the ADA, which is the Americans with Disabilities Act. And then the third project that I have that I'm currently working on is also with Netflix, which is a docuseries that follows a Deaf boy at a high school in Maryland, actually where I was an alumni as well, so I'm wearing a lot of hats these days.

Deaf U is available to stream on Netflix.