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Welcome to season two of Hollywood Remixed, The Hollywood Reporter‘s podcast about inclusion and representation in entertainment.
Each week, host Rebecca Sun (senior editor of diversity and inclusion) explores a type of identity or story that has traditionally been underrepresented or misrepresented in pop culture, revisiting groundbreaking classics and introducing hidden gems in order to better understand how film and television in the past have informed progress in the present. Every episode features two guests: a subject-matter expert to serve as a thematic guide, and a talent whose latest work exemplifies a new breakthrough in representation.
In the second season premiere, “Amplifying Deaf Representation,” debuting Aug. 18, Marlee Matlin joins the show to share about her unparalleled career as a deaf actor, from her Oscar-winning screen debut in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God to her latest performance as the mother of a hearing daughter in writer-director Sian Heder’s family drama CODA, which was released on Apple TV+ on Aug. 13. Deaf producer and film executive Delbert Whetter also joins Hollywood Remixed to explain how authentic portrayals of deaf characters enhance storytelling and simplify the filmmaking process, as well as to shed some light on some of the cultural nuances and differences among people who are deaf.
In the spirit of true inclusion, Hollywood Remixed is committing to greater accessibility for all by making this episode (embedded below) – and every episode thereafter – available via transcript. Find the one for this week’s episode at the bottom of this story. In addition, because the interviews in this premiere episode were conducted via ASL interpreter, those who are fluent in ASL can choose to view the episode directly in video form at the top of this story. Justin Maurer served as the interpreter for Delbert Whetter, and Marlee Matlin’s ASL interpreter is Jack Jason.
Catch up on all the shows from our first season, where we chatted with Henry Golding, John Boyega, Sterling K. Brown and The L Word: Generation Q showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan, and subscribe now to Hollywood Remixed on the platform of your choice to be alerted to new episodes, which will include chats with Candyman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on Black horror, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu on the Asian masculinity and the martial arts trope and Billions‘ Asia Kate Dillon on non-binary representation.
Listen to this week’s Hollywood Remixed podcast below or watch it in the video above or read the transcript following the audio embed.
Episode 2×1: Marlee Matlin – “Amplifying Deaf Representation”
Intro music: Jaunty, upbeat chords interspersed with the sound of a DJ scratching a record back and forth on a turntable. A voice faintly hollers in the background: “Hollywood Remixed!“
Rebecca Sun: Welcome back to season two of Hollywood Remixed! I’m Rebecca Sun, senior editor of diversity and inclusion at The Hollywood Reporter. It’s been almost two years since our first season premiered in the Before Times, and a lot has changed. Obviously there’s too much to go into, but as far as this show is concerned, the most significant difference of all is that my dear friend and co-host Rebecca Ford – the Gallant to my Goofus, I like to say – is now in a wonderful new position at Vanity Fair. I am as overjoyed for her as I feel bereft for myself and for this show, but still, with her blessing, our show must go on. Until we reach that utopic ideal of equity in entertainment and media, there will always be a reason for Hollywood Remixed to exist.
Now, for those who aren’t familiar with our show, we are a podcast about inclusion and representation in Hollywood, but we take a topical approach. That means each episode is dedicated to a single theme, a trope or an identity that has been underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream culture. And we spend the first half of the episode exploring the historical treatment of that subject in Hollywood, the various factors at play, and why it all matters. Then we chat with an artist whose latest work exemplifies a breakthrough or a new frontier, and the representation of that subject. This season, in Ford’s absence, I’ve decided to change up the format a bit. I think it would be doing these episode themes a disservice if I attempted to be a solo guide through all of their history and their nuances. So I’m excited to be bringing on subject matter experts each week to walk us through the topic at hand.
I am stoked to kick off season two with an episode dedicated to deaf representation in Hollywood. Disability is too often the most invisible identity when it comes to talking about marginalized groups, despite the fact that approximately 19% of the US population lives with a disability. There’s also an enormous range of conditions that fall under the disability banner. So today we’re talking specifically about the deaf experience with Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, one of the stars of the exquisite family drama CODA, which was released on Apple TV+ August 13th. But first, we’re getting a primer about deaf inclusion in Hollywood from producer and film executive Delbert Whetter. Del is COO, and head of business affairs for Exodus Film Group, and also serves on the board of directors of RespectAbility, the nonprofit organization that promotes inclusion and authentic representation of people with disabilities in media.
Marlee and Del are both deaf and have chosen to be interviewed through their respective ASL interpreters, so those will be the voices you hear if you are listening to the audio-only version of this podcast. For those who are fluent in ASL, we’ve made this episode available on video as well, which you can find on hollywoodreporter.com or THR‘s YouTube page. And in the spirit of putting action to our words, this episode, and every subsequent episode of Hollywood Remixed will now also be accessible via transcript on our website.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Rebecca Sun: Del, thank you so much for joining me. It’s a real pleasure to be able to see you again. It’s been a long time! The last time I saw you was before the pandemic – literally I think we were at an event the day that we got the news that the NBA had shut down and that Tom Hanks had COVID.
Delbert Whetter: That’s right! That was the very last in-person event right before COVID shut everything down. It’s really exciting to have another event [in-person soon] – but I think maybe not, maybe we’re going backwards again.
Sun: Exactly. I think that we should favor a slow but steady approach, not be too hasty. Well, I’m really glad that we get to come here today to talk about deaf representation and the history of how Hollywood has portrayed deaf characters or included deaf people in the industry. I wanted to have you on to walk me through some of the highlights and lowlights throughout the history of representation. And maybe we could start at: What is one of the earliest milestones? If you were constructing a museum, an exhibit on deaf representation in Hollywood, what’s one of those first places that you stop at?
Whetter: Sure. I come from a deaf family of three generations. My grandparents, my mother and father, and my brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles are all deaf. My earliest memory of discussing film with my parents was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Sun: Carson McCullers, right?
Whetter: That’s right. There was a deaf character on the show [played by] Alan Arkin. I remember that my family was pretty upset because the performance wasn’t that great, the signing was atrocious with plenty of errors, and it was a very monotonous delivery with no facial expressions. We felt that it really didn’t represent our language appropriately, and it didn’t represent our lives well. There were some signs that even seemed invented or made up. That was the most annoying part. It felt disrespectful. They didn’t even respect us enough to try and get these things right, and made up some signs themselves. It was clear that no one on set knew any better. There was no one monitoring to make sure that the signed lines weren’t screwed up, weren’t messed up because no one knew ASL on set. They thought, “Oh, if we just get the hands on screen, that’s good enough.”
Sun: That really reminds me of something that you shared with Mia Galuppo for our recent cover story on CODA, that one common pitfall or mistake that hearing filmmakers make is they overemphasize just the hand movements when it comes to sign language at the exclusion of everything else that allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate. Can you elaborate more on that?
Whetter: Absolutely. ASL is not only hand movements; it’s facial expressions, eyebrow movements, lip movements, even tilting of the head or body language. And it’s the speed of the signs as well. There’s all of those nuances that add meaning and layers to ASL itself. If someone’s speaking in a monotone voice with monotone delivery with no emotion or no inflection, you might just hear this monotonous delivery. What would it tell you? What emotions can you identify with that spoken language, if it’s delivered in a monotonous way? Signed expression includes all of those things: Body language, facial expressions are so important. You will lose a high percentage of ASL if you don’t include those other means of communication. Filmmakers tend to shoot just the hand movements and they think that that’s satisfactory, but you need someone behind the scenes who’s fluent in ASL, who not only is making sure they’re getting their lines right, but making sure that the facial expressions and the performance match the delivery of the ASL dialogue.
Sun: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter came out in 1968. I want to jump forward and contrast the portrayal of deaf characters in that film to 1986, when we’re talking about Children of a Lesser God. Obviously, that’s the film that earned Marlee Matlin her Academy Award. To date, she is the only deaf actor ever to win an Oscar – although, I would imagine, not the only actor who’s ever been nominated for an Oscar for playing somebody who was disabled. Tell me a little bit about that film and the decision to cast an actor who actually has the same background as her character. What difference does it make in terms of how the audience perceives this portrayal authentically?
Whetter: For the deaf community, it was a breath of fresh air that Marlee was cast for that role because people were aware that they were casting that role, and she was renowned for her stage performances. It was a stage play before it was made into a film, and there was a concern whether they would actually cast an authentic deaf actor to play a role of a deaf character. Her performance in that film and the recognition she got from the Oscar was almost unexpected because our community was so used to the world excluding the deaf perspective and deaf performance. That recognition really meant so much to us. It showed us that the world was ready for our performances and our stories.
Deaf theater itself, especially, has such a rich history in the deaf community because for many years, deaf people were excluded from culture and arts. Radio wasn’t accessible, TV wasn’t accessible, film wasn’t accessible. So as a deaf community, we had to entertain ourselves in deaf clubs, and we performed skits and put on plays onstage. It’s really interesting because we were able to create our own entertainment that was accessible to us. There’s such a rich history, and the deaf community has produced so many amazing stage plays. And so we know what a wonderful performance looks like coming from a deaf actor. A hearing actor playing a deaf character just has no comparison whatsoever.
Sun: I was going to talk about this part at the end, but since you mentioned it: One conversation that often comes up when we talk about inclusion in general is, Who is the intended audience? You spoke about the invention of signs in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The people who are making the film don’t know any better, and they figure the people who are receiving the film won’t know any better. As somebody who is bilingual myself – I speak Chinese – I always know that when I watch a film and the character is supposed to be speaking Chinese but clearly is just making sounds, it’s an instant alienation that tells me, Oh, this movie wasn’t made for me. It’s ignoring the existence of an audience of people who represent this background.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the scope and scale of the artistic deaf community? You mentioned live theater as a place that’s been a rich breeding and training ground. How were deaf performers and deaf artists eventually able to transition back into acting for the screen? You said in our cover story that in the silent film era, there were more opportunities than there were after sound was introduced.
Whetter: Absolutely. Silent film was natural for deaf people because we are masters at the art of visual communication. Charlie Chaplin had a deaf friend who was an extremely close friend, and he hired a number of deaf actors to perform on many of his silent films. Deaf people were extremely involved in Hollywood in the early days. My deaf grandmother used to tell me that deaf people would just flock to the theaters. Every time a new film came out, it was part of our entertainment, and we would go to films on a regular basis. When the talkies came out, deaf people were just frozen out and completely excluded from having that experience. And so one of our main forms of entertainment disappeared overnight.
Deaf filmmakers like myself – and I also have a deaf brother who’s a filmmaker; he went to AFI film school – we discuss this a lot. Deaf people have been trying to break back into Hollywood for years and show our story and our perspective, but we weren’t permitted to. Where were those opportunities? It was just onstage in the theater. [There were] so many films where there weren’t any opportunities given to us in that medium of expression, so we always had to revert back to the stage.
You were talking about Asian representation: There’s a film that was really popular called Bangkok Dangerous from 1999, and the lead role was a deaf person who was Asian. He was a hitman and an assassin. It was a great film. When I found out that they were having a remake, I was really looking forward to it. And I was really disappointed to see that Nicholas Cage was cast and he’s hearing, and they completely erased [his deafness from] that role. It was like that role just was missing in the remake. It was completely erased from the script.
Sun: Wow. That’s really good to point out. I wasn’t aware of the remake. I’ve heard of Bangkok Dangerous, and I knew that there was a deaf character in it. And yeah, I think that the erasure speaks to this common excuse that we often hear in Hollywood – again, in terms of speaking about inclusion in general – that “Oh, it’s too hard to find. There aren’t enough bankable stars for us to finance this film with.” But your pointing to the theater tradition sort of puts the lie to that excuse. Because, for example with CODA, the actor who plays the father, Troy Kotsur, my understanding is that he comes from theater. And so it’s not that they can’t be found. What do you think? Are people not looking? What is the excuse and what is your rebuttal to the excuses against casting deaf talent?
Whetter: I’m on the board of a nonprofit organization called RespectAbility, and they have done some of the earliest research to understand what people’s attitudes are based on regarding people with disabilities. And what they have noticed – and this is just a few years ago; I hope it’s changed today – there was the perception that there wasn’t enough talent out there that were authentically disabled. And for those few that were out there, they weren’t good enough. That was a common misperception. And so we really have to work on changing that and educate people and let them know who’s out there. I can tell you that in the theater world, they all know that deaf actors are amazing and just blow your socks off. We’ve been seen for years. Every time Deaf West Theatre comes out with a new show, they end up getting Tony Awards. And so what does that tell you? What does that say?
Sun: That’s a perfect rebuttal. Deaf West has had shows on Broadway. I think their revival of Spring Awakening really created a lot of waves and was also critically acclaimed, just to give one example. So now, fast forwarding a little bit through the timeline of screen history, I noticed a trend when I was trying to look for examples of deaf representation in movies and TV shows. I saw that there are deaf actors being hired, but that almost consistently across the board, they were playing supporting roles. And then you had the more prominent protagonists. And if the characters were hard of hearing, they were played by hearing actors. Am I right in that observation? And what do you make of that?
Whetter: I think you hit the nail on the head. One of the common tropes that we see are when deaf people are supporting characters in their own stories. We often see that. There’s a friend who doesn’t know ASL and the interpreter speaks for them, and they feed the hearing character all of these lines. And so the deaf character, or the deaf actor, is just left there to react to everyone else’s lines, and it’s not their story anymore. And so – I’m sorry. Did I answer your question?
Sun: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that that’s not your question to answer. It’s the Hollywood decision-makers who need to be held accountable to it. I thought of another common excuse, which is, “We don’t have the resources to accommodate somebody with a hearing disability. We wouldn’t know how to work with them. Nobody else on our set knows sign language. It’s just economical.” Again, we have CODA, which had three deaf actors in major roles and notched Sundance’s highest recorded sale ever. So clearly it’s not that much of an impediment to business. You’re a filmmaker yourself, Del. What do you need on a set in order to do your job? What do deaf actors need on sets in order to do their job, and in order for everybody to make the film?
Whetter: As a filmmaker and a producer myself, I’ve worked on the business side of producing for many years. So when they say they’re trying to approach it from a risk management perspective, I understand risk management quite well. That’s part of my job. And it really strikes me because they don’t understand when they’re making inauthentic casting decisions and casting a hearing actor to play a deaf character, you’re actually increasing your risk. You’re not decreasing your risk by casting a well-known name actor. You’re actually really increasing your risks, because first of all, you’re not going to get a great performance. You’re going to spend a lot of time and money training and teaching an actor another language, and that could be months and months to become fully immersed. And they’re still probably going to make a lot of mistakes in their delivery of this new language.
And they’re taking a risk of blowback from social media and the general public and the deaf community and negative PR. A lot of people are going to call them out. The deaf community in America really has a reputation for community activism and having a really strong protest reaction to inauthentic casting. One of the most famous examples was in 1993; the film was called Calendar Girl. That was one of the first times that the deaf community really came together and mobilized to organize a mass protest to explain their displeasure with this inauthentically cast role. This role was given to a hearing actor, and the deaf community wanted to put an end to that. It is a dream to have that type of opportunity for a deaf actor – even a deaf actor cast in a small role really shines, and it leads to more opportunities for that deaf actor playing a supporting character. Even a small breakthrough for a deaf actor is potentially huge in their career, but they’re continually frozen out of the business if they’re not even cast for supporting roles.
Before this discussion of why, the discussion is now the word how. How can we accomplish inclusion? How can we accomplish authenticity? How can we get the best performance? What are the best practices? My brother and I hosted a panel at Sundance called “The Nuts & Bolts of Producing Deaf Content.” We wanted people to understand the process of working with deaf actors, because unlike hearing actors, deaf actors can walk on set and just give a performance quickly. It doesn’t require months and months of teaching them a new language, because it’s their native language. And they’re already trained in facial expressions and reactions, and it’ll look natural, and you’ll get a much more impactful performance.
And using a dialogue coach: A dialogue coach is key – an ASL dialogue coach specifically, because the dialogue coach prepares to work with the deaf actor. Folks have to understand that there can be maybe 25 different ways to translate a specific word from English to ASL, depending on the meaning and the context. Folks who have worked as dialogue coaches for other languages understand the similarities and that principle. You need someone there to work with the actor and make sure that the vision is being accomplished and the actor is providing their best performance possible. At the same time, people tend to forget about needing that person behind the camera when the performance is being shot. Because if no one knows ASL on set, who’s going to know if the person is dropped a line or flubbed it? It’s really important to have someone there who’s able to let them know that this person screwed up their lines and recommend another take, because you don’t want that to be distributed around the world with that flubbed line in the final cut. And also the dialogue coach can let the director know that they can be pushed a little bit more, they can add a bit more emotion, they can really deliver it a bit better. If the director doesn’t know ASL, they’re not going to know how far they can push this actor and when to pull back. So to collaborate and cooperate can really make a wonderful performance.
And a great example of that is CODA, because what happened with CODA with their dialogue coach and the director and how they all work together with the actors was a masterclass on how to work with deaf talent. I just take my hat off to them.
Sun: As the industry as well as our culture get a little bit more sophisticated in thinking about and acting on inclusion, we might see some attempted shortcuts along the way. And speaking of CODA – sorry, speaking of the concept of CODA, not the film CODA – I wasn’t familiar with this acronym before, “Children of Deaf Adults.” People who grow up essentially bilingual because they are hearing and they know ASL. Can you talk to me a little bit about whether or not it is considered authentic to cast CODA as hard of hearing or deaf characters? How does the deaf community feel about that choice?
Whetter: It’s a complicated answer, but I will give it a try. The CODA is not deaf. Maybe they know the culture well, but a CODA is not deaf. They’re hearing. It’s like a white person being adopted by a family of a different race. Do you think it’s okay to cast that person to play a character of their family’s race? No, it wouldn’t be. The family and the folks in the community, how would they feel about that portrayal? The one word would be “betrayal,” to be honest.
CODAs are a part of deaf life, and they’re part of the deaf community. There are many deaf parents who have hearing children, and they really cherish and have a lot of affection for CODAs and their CODA children. The film CODA really touches me, because I have two children themselves who are CODAs. Ironically, we had three generations of deafness in my family. Every single person was deaf for three generations, and my brother and I both had hearing children. So the film really touched me in such an important way.
But you’re right. They grow up bilingual and bicultural. The family environment is tough for CODAs sometimes, because they’re in the middle of two different cultures and two different languages. They also see that the dominant culture often oppresses deaf culture, and they’re witness to that. So they really have to navigate that experience. But at the same time, CODAs are in a position to understand the deaf community and what they need. They’re in a position to provide services, to found businesses and serve the deaf community in that way, which is a really great thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But do they hire deaf people in leadership roles in their businesses? Do they hire deaf people to work within their companies? Most do, but some do not. So the deaf community sometimes looks at the CODA, and if the CODA is a good one, we love them. But if they feel that the CODAs are exploitative, then that’s a different feeling.
Sun: Thank you so much for sharing that. That’s really helpful. When I was watching CODA, I did not expect to also have such a sort of personal response to the film. I don’t have anybody who’s deaf in my family, but I found that growing up in an immigrant family, there were certain resonances, being an interpreter for my parents. It’s not the same thing: My mother speaks a little bit of English, but that dynamic felt so familiar to me, and I was so thankful for a film like CODA that could allow me to relate to this family’s dynamic and to realize that there are connections there, emotional similarities, which is one of the things that films can best do.
Whetter: I really applaud the director, Sian, for pulling that off, because it would be so easy for folks to to go for the low-hanging fruits. She didn’t do that. She mined for authentic jokes and got rid of tropes. She instantly saw that the story is about culture, and someone growing up and living in two different cultures. So you’re right. I noticed that instantly when you mentioned the immigrant family experience as multi-generational or the experience of children growing up in a blended family. She was really smart to see that. She didn’t see it as a disability. She saw it as a story about culture. So I feel like she really gave a lot of respect to the deaf community, because deaf people see ourselves as a linguistic minority in many ways. So that’s how we see ourselves, and that’s how we see our culture.
The deaf community really puts a lot of priority on cultural respect and language fluency. That’s extremely important for us for a lot of reasons, because as a community, our language was oppressed for many years. We weren’t even allowed to have our own self-determination. Even our language was oppressed for many years. It was banned from schools for a long time, and children had their hands tied to their chairs to prevent them from using sign language. There was a belief that ASL would inhibit their learning because they needed to learn orally to learn English, and speaking was a sign of intelligence. In my mother’s time at the school for the deaf, they split the kids up based on their ability to speak. The children that were able to speak well were considered the more intelligent kids, and the children that couldn’t speak well – because you can’t hear your own voice – they put in the remedial classes. So deaf people are extremely sensitive about how we’re represented onscreen and demand respect for our culture, and we demand respect for our language. With that comes wanting to see someone onscreen who’s fluent in ASL.
Sun: That reminds me of the first time I learned that there was a difference of opinion among the deaf community about choosing to speak versus not. I actually learned about that maybe 10 years ago through this drama on ABC Family, kind of for high schoolers, called Switched at Birth. I was already an adult by the time that show came out, but it was really the first time that I had seen characters that were deaf and learned a little bit about the issues, the politics behind choosing to speak and opting against that. I don’t know how the community feels about that show. I do know that actor Sean Berdy is deaf, and I think Katie Leclerc, who played the protagonist, has some sort of hearing impairment as well. But tell me about using that show as an example and also the function of just having a mainstream series that happens to center characters who are hard of hearing. What does that do to promote the public understanding of deaf culture?
Whetter: Switched at Birth was definitely an important TV show, because it showed the diversity of deaf people, and you don’t often see that. Often you see on TV or in film, it’s just one deaf character and that’s it. You see that commonly. It just tends to be one deaf character onscreen over and over again. What that means is you lose a lot of potential stories that come from our community and our culture, because the community and culture means family and friends. [Having] just one character doesn’t leave any room for those stories, so it’s a missed opportunity to tell all types of different stories and perspectives that involve that deaf character. Switched at Birth had quite a few deaf characters and deaf actors, and that really meant a lot. I don’t know if you know this, but right now, ASL is the third-most popular language taught in schools today. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. There are ASL teachers out there that all say that many, many kids were motivated to learn sign because of the show Switched at Birth. So because of the popularity of the show, there was an over 1,000% increase in folks taking ASL classes that year. It was like a boom in folks taking ASL classes. So Switched at Birth did play a role in that.
And you’re right: They’re speaking and signing, and I can explain that a little bit. There’s an issue called SimCom, or simultaneous communication. Often you see that technique being used onscreen, and technically it’s speaking and signing at the same time, but what you’re really doing is communicating in two languages simultaneously. If that sounds hard, it’s because it is really hard. I refuse to speak and sign at length, because what really happens is your signs are actually suffering. It’s not good for deaf people or hearing people. You notice that ASL always tends to be the language that suffers when it comes to SimCom. I understand why they did that on the show, because they wanted to make ASL accessible to the audience members in some way. It’s ironic to help the audience be able to follow the signs, but you don’t really get a great ASL performance that way. You see mistakes commonly being made in the signs, and Switched at Birth developed a reputation for actors that didn’t sign great. People that wanted to learn ASL maybe didn’t know that.
Switched at Birth gave many deaf actors an opportunity for the first time, so it was extremely important for that reason. One thing that didn’t really happen with that show is that a lot of people really wished that the writers’ room had deaf staff writers full-time. They were really missing that perspective that they could have had, and that would have led to a lot more interesting perspectives and storylines. I think that would’ve added a lot more flavor to that show. That’s just one bit of feedback or criticism that I have related to that show.
But fortunately, Switched at Birth led to another TV show with a deaf character and a deaf producer and writer. That was called This Close, with Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. They were writers and producers and actors. I really think that set the standard, moving forward. So Switched at Birth, when a show like that comes up, can lead to something even stronger, like This Close, and you need to have a deaf person in the writers’ room. You must include deaf people in that, because you need us to tell stories about our own community and our own characters. You can’t really do that without the deaf perspective in the room. Again, deaf people see ourselves as a linguistic minority. So all you have to do is a simple substitute test: Would this be acceptable if I did that with a different linguistic minority? If we had an Asian American and white TV show and they were all white folks in the writers’ room, no one would dream of that in today’s world, thank God.
Sun: Unfortunately they do do that, but I completely agree with you. There’s starting to be this forward push towards progress where people realize that superficial representation, just having a character without any authenticity behind it in terms of the performer or the artists, just simply won’t cut it. I think that’s where we’re all pushing now. I’m glad that you brought up Shoshannah Stern, because it really shows, too, that when we talk about deaf inclusion, it’s not just about the actors onscreen. It is about the fact that deaf people can be writers, they can be directors, and they can be producers, as you are. So are there any resources that you can point to, either for people who are deaf and want to know how they can gain industry experience, or conversely from people in the industry who are like, “Okay, I’d like to get better about bringing on deaf people behind the scenes. Where do I look?”
Whetter: From the deaf filmmaker’s perspective or from the Hollywood perspective?
Sun: I was going to ask about both. I can at least say, from my work that covering inclusion, that there are a few fellowships out there. The Center for Cultural Power has a Disruptors Fellowship for TV writers of color who are also either disabled, trans/nonbinary, or undocumented or formerly undocumented. That’s a fellowship specifically for people who are intersectional in that way. I also know that the WGA has a Writers with Disabilities Committee, so there are Guild members who exist who have disabilities. I imagine that some of them are specifically deaf. What about resources, then, from the Hollywood perspective? Where can they find crew members who are deaf?
Whetter: For many years, Hollywood has been a training ground with their various labs and fellowships and workshops. For many years, they have had a goal on diversity, but they haven’t included disability until very recently in that diversity conversation. They realized that, “Oh, diversity also includes disability. Okay, and we can consider disability a diversity.” So one in four people have a disability. It’s one of the largest minorities right now. But we are also the least represented in Hollywood. So it’s extremely important that those training grounds and those opportunities become open to people with disabilities. Thankfully, the organization that I work with, RespectAbility, and other organizations like us, are really bringing folks with disabilities in to try and get them in that training ground so that people with disabilities can start to have those experiences, hence more opportunities.
We really encourage deaf people and deaf writers and directors: “They’re really looking for people like you right now. So apply to those programs. Audition. They want your perspectives. They’re starving for your perspectives and realize that it’s been missing all along, so they’re trying to make that right.” Time will tell whether this will lead to more opportunities for our community. But there’s also organizations like RespectAbility specifically; we have a summer lab for disabled filmmakers with disabilities. We’re now in our third year, and there’s some amazing and talented people that have come from disabled backgrounds. They are early career and mid-level professionals, so some folks who are already trained and ready to work, and they’re looking for opportunities to move up the ladder and move into the pipeline, or they’re looking for a change of careers and they want to pursue another opportunity within Hollywood.
You mentioned WGA, and that’s great. There are writers with disabilities there, and SAG as well. They have a program supporting actors with disabilities. But I don’t know about the Directors Guild. I feel like they have a lot of work to do. I think that’s true for many other minority groups as well.
Sun: Let’s issue a challenge to the DGA to catch up. I’m glad that you accurately understood my question; I wanted you to plug RespectAbility and its programs, particularly the summer lab. I want to reemphasize that what’s unique and what I appreciate about RespectAbility’s lab is that this one isn’t for performers. This is a lab for behind-the scenes-professionals, people who work below-the-line in crew positions or just various executive positions in Hollywood, showing that you absolutely can have a disability and work in this business. One of my former THR colleagues, actually, is in your summer lab. He is an amazing video editor, and he’s actually visually impaired, which shows you that you can do anything, really.
Whetter: I really love the exposure that the lab is starting to be given. I was a co-founder of the lab with Lauren Applebaum at RespectAbility. The idea came up because I was involved in a producing lab at Film Independent for a film called Flash Before the Bang, which by the way has casted Troy Kotsur for one of our lead roles. I’ve been in the business for about 20 years and [while] workshopping that film project at Film Independent I have learned so many new things, such as opportunities to network with people directly from the folks who are making decisions in Hollywood. The decision makers and the gatekeepers were speaking to my group. I got an understanding of the industry and what they’re looking for and what the current trends are. I was learning all of that in real-time and finding myself thinking that I wish I had that when I first started in this business. It would have saved so much headache and heartbreak. So filmmakers with disabilities really need that type of thing, because the networking opportunities don’t always come easy to us, and the networking events are frequently set in inaccessible places. For most of my career, I’ve been really lucky if I go to a networking event and they have an ASL interpreter there maybe once or twice a year. Everyone else is able to go to all these meetups weekly, and hearing from people who really have a vested interest in elevating my career, not competing with others. You have their full attention when they’re speaking to one of those groups.
That type of setup was really powerful, and I was really determined that I needed to create a program like that for filmmakers with disabilities. People working behind the camera especially need that as well, because I really believe that if there’s no inclusion in front of the camera, the reason for that is because there’s no inclusion behind the camera. They don’t understand the push for inclusion, so you have those two perspectives missing.
Sun: What you just said speaks to the idea that progress is a journey. All the brush that you had to clear in your path makes that path a little clearer for the people who follow behind you. In the same way, when we look at projects, I like that you use the illustration of Switched at Birth sort of begetting This Close: the idea that there can be things that are imperfect, but their existence kind of serves as a building block towards refining and getting closer and closer to this idea of true, authentic representation, which is important, because I think as storytellers, you’re ultimately trying to say something real about the human experience.
Whetter: Absolutely, and the value of that. I’ll give you another example: There’s a Hallmark TV movie called Love is Never Silent, and it won an Emmy Award. One of the producers was deaf. There was a full-time deaf producer of that TV movie, and it maybe was the only one this whole time. The impact of that one example, this deaf producer named Julianna Fjeld, she came to my high school. My brother and I met her when we were high school students, and we saw that she had won an Emmy Award. Then at that moment, we knew that we could become filmmakers. So here we are today, my brother and myself, and we’re now working in Hollywood. So the impact of people like her and Marlee Matlin is just indescribable, just breaking those barriers. It’s a ripple effect that continues to this day.
Sun: And people like you, Del, I will add. Now, as we look forward in the future, I think that what we don’t want is for CODA just to be this standalone film that we someday point back to and are like, “Wow, wasn’t that great, that one shiny example of deaf representation?” What can we look forward to in the future, in terms of anything on your radar? You mentioned your own film, Flash Before the Bang. What else? The Ruderman Family Foundation, which recognizes movies and TV shows every year with authentic portrayals, actually recognized quite a few who had deaf actors this past year. So I think there’s a younger generation of artists who are getting that big mainstream experience that they will hopefully be able to parlay into a long career. What are you looking forward to?
Whetter: One thing that I’m really excited by – and I’m noticing that Hollywood today has more projects, whether they’re TV or film, that involve deaf characters and deaf storylines – is they’re now realizing that they need deaf representation behind the camera and more and more deaf producers are being hired. I’m really excited that they’re able to create opportunities for people like myself. I’m here because I was self-motivated and I also want to work on projects like that. Deaf people can create opportunities for other deaf people. We won’t make progress if there’s only one person doing all the work. We really need more. We need more deaf talented people contributing their ideas to stories.
I’d really like to applaud Sian, the director of CODA. She really encouraged people to tell more stories from the deaf community, because there’s more talent out there. I feel like she paved the way for our stories to become told, and she proved to the world that there’s a demand for our stories and there’s marketable potential. There’s profits to be made from folks out there who want to hear our stories be told, and it did pretty well at Sundance. So, it’s really important to make room for people like me and other people out there to tell our own stories from our own perspectives. It’s a perspective that people have not seen.
For example, our film Flash Before the Bang is about a team of all-deaf track athletes who end up overcoming adversity and discrimination to win the state championship. People generally think about people with disabilities as not athletic champions and not at the top of their physical potential and on the state level winning a championship. So, we want to get rid of people’s misconceptions of deaf people and people with disabilities. There’s another story that I’m working on, a documentary project called Live at the Deaf Club. That is about the San Francisco Deaf Club in the late 1970s. That became an extremely popular venue for punk rock performers. There were over a hundred different punk bands that played at the San Francisco Deaf Club, like X, The Germs, Dead Kennedys. All of these major West Coast punk bands at the time played at the San Francisco Deaf Club. It was a 50-50 partnership, and in 1978 and ’79 that had never happened: people with disabilities partnering with people who are not disabled as a team to run a business venture together. They were deaf. They were running a live music venue. That really blows people’s minds when they hear that story. So, I’d like to tell stories like that.
Sun: Those are fascinating stories. I mean, they seem like no-brainers in terms of intrigue and I can’t wait to see those. While we wait for those projects, I always like to ask my guests, is there something in the past, a film or a TV show that represents this subject that we’re talking about, that you would recommend for people to check out? Maybe a hidden gem?
Whetter: Give me a minute to think about it.
Sun: Sure. I’m going to riff a little bit because I wrote down a few things to share with everybody. One – well, this is very mainstream – is in November, the big Marvel movie Eternals is going to have its first deaf superhero in Lauren Ridloff, who some people might’ve seen in Sound of Metal. She played the teacher. She’s basically been supporting characters in other things, but I think Eternals is something that people are excited about. Again, it’s a huge ensemble piece, so I don’t know how big her role is, but the idea of being in a tentpole is exciting.
The other thing I thought of actually doesn’t come from the scripted world. I used to be a big America’s Next Top Model watcher back in the day. One of the winners, Nyle DiMarco, a deaf model, has gone on to produce a number of things. One of the things that I thought was interesting that he produced was the Netflix docuseries Deaf U. It’s an unscripted series. It’s about – I don’t know if I’m pronouncing the name of the university correctly – Gallaudet.
Justin Maurer: Yeah, that’s correct.
Whetter: That’s where I went as an undergrad, by the way.
Sun: Gotcha, your alma mater. So, again, I think that these mainstream pieces are interesting in terms of normalizing the existence and the presence of deaf people in our community. Those are just two examples I thought of, but I’m no expert. That’s why I have you.
Whetter: Those are great examples. I think Deaf U was a really great look at the diversity of deaf life and deaf people aren’t perfect. It’s not a perfect diversity, but it really gives exposure that there isn’t one type of deaf person. There are many different types of deaf people and many different experiences. Some come with a deaf family and sign and some grew up in hearing families and don’t sign very well. Some deaf people are just starting to learn sign. There’s LGBT community members as well. So, I think that intersectionality was extremely important to show. A common mistake that you see out there is just showing people with disabilities as a white male. That’s the only representation you see. Disability is something that happens in every single community and any background in minority or majority communities. It’s really important to show that onscreen. I’d like to applaud Nyle DiMarco for his wonderful talent. He came up with a really creative story, and I’m really excited to see that he’s been developing his project. By the way, he’s also connected to our film Flash Before the Bang. So, I’m really excited and looking forward to working with Nyle on that. Related to Eternals, that’s another one that I’m really, really looking forward to. Marvel really did something huge when they cast Lauren Ridloff to play that role. It shows her as an equal to the other superheroes that were cast. That’s something that we’re all looking forward to. I know that her performance is going to be amazing and I really look forward to it.
There’s another TV show that Marvel is working on that includes a deaf actor, a Native American deaf actor, specifically. It’s an upcoming TV show that I’m really looking forward to as well. I can’t really say too much about that specific show, but I think the level of commitment that they had with authentic storytelling and inclusion and getting it right, I was just so impressed with Marvel for that. It’s really hard to see anyone be their peer, and hopefully that becomes the line moving forward.
Sun: I’m so glad that you specifically mentioned intersectionality when it comes to disability. I think that we’ve been seeing that in some of these [examples]. When I was doing my research, this is so random, but 10 or 15 years ago that Christmas movie The Family Stone, everybody in that movie was a celebrity, but they had an actor, Tyrone Giordano, who played one of the brothers who was deaf. He was in a gay relationship. I don’t remember who wrote the movie and if they know anybody who is deaf, but I remembered there’s a scene in this movie where Sarah Jessica Parker puts her foot in her mouth because she assumes that this brother’s identity is seen as a liability for the family. I think to me that scene really illustrates how able-bodied people sometimes think of the disability experience or straight people think of being LGBTQ as something that’s sort of “lesser than.” In that little scene, they really confronted that misconception head-on.
Whetter: If you don’t tell a story with people with disabilities, you’re missing out on a huge part of American life because these are diverse stories. If you put people into a box and only tell one specific type of story about a specific type of character, then you’re missing out. Hollywood is a creative industry and a creative business. We thrive on creative ideas; why would we limit ourselves? That’s a big mistake to fall this far behind, and this is a competitive world out there. There are other places around the world that are doing a better job and really keeping up with cultural shifts. Bangkok Dangerous was one example where there was a lead character who was deaf. A deaf hitman is awesome. Deaf people can do anything, even kill people.
Oh, I have another great example of the first time that I saw a deaf person on TV. The first time I saw a deaf person on TV was Barney Miller. There was a deaf prostitute that was put into jail in an episode of that cop TV show. That was played by an actual deaf female actor named Phyllis Frelich, and she was the person who broke that barrier. There was another deaf actor [playing a deaf attorney who gets her out of jail] named Seymour Bernstein, who happened to be my uncle, and we were thrilled. I realized that deaf people really can do anything. A deaf person can be the criminal. A deaf person can be the lawyer.
Sun: They can be full-fledged human beings: flawed, heroic, villainous, whatever it is. I think that’s the goal. That’s the ideal. Del, thank you so much for this conversation. Personally, thank you for just being somebody who has consistently and regularly educated me on this space and on this community and the culture. So, thank you again for your time. We’ll look forward to and anticipate your projects. I want to let you have the final word. Please tell us, where can we find more resources for people whose interest is piqued and really want to learn more about deaf culture and what they can do to properly represent the community?
Whetter: RespectAbility has a toolkit for disabled inclusion in Hollywood, and that’s a great resource. I want to mention another resource developed by an organization called FWD, and that’s Documentary Filmmakers With Disabilities. It’s a group of filmmakers with disabilities who have been producing documentary films. They have developed a wonderful resource. So you have those two – RespectAbility’s Hollywood toolkit and the resources for documentary filmmakers. Those are both fantastic resources.
I’d like to ask Hollywood to make space for us. It’s okay if an outsider is telling stories about us and about minority communities. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is room for people like that, but if 100% of the stories are being told from an outsider’s perspective, that leaves no room for us and that doesn’t help build demand for us to tell our stories. That actually oppresses our voice and locks out our perspectives. So, I’d like to ask Hollywood to ask themselves whose perspectives are we missing and not seeing and to take action and make space for those perspectives to share them with the world.
Sun: Delbert Whetter, thank you so much for your time.
Whetter: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me here today. I really enjoyed seeing you and enjoyed our chat.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Marlee Matlin won an Oscar with her very first film role, the 1986 romantic drama Children of a Lesser God. Only 21 at the time, she was and remains the youngest Best Actress ever, as well as the only deaf actor ever to win an Academy award. Over the decades, she’s earned Emmy and SAG nominations for her appearances on Seinfeld, Picket Fences, The Practice and Law & Order: SVU. Her latest film, CODA, is about a family of four with only one member who was hearing. Marlee plays the family matriarch, Jackie Rossi, a practical woman whose sole focus is on the family’s survival and who fears losing a connection with her daughter, who has dreams of going away to college to study music. CODA broke a Sundance record in January with a $25 million sale to Apple, which released the drama on its streaming platform, August 13. Marlee, thank you so much for joining us. It’s a real honor to have you on our show today.
Marlee Matlin: Thank you. Same here. Thank you for having me. It’s really a pleasure. I’m very happy to be here.
Sun: I feel like you’ve answered so many questions about your career, but I wanted to start at the very beginning, if you don’t mind. You began acting I think at age seven, with the children’s theater at the International Center On Deafness and the Arts in Illinois. I’m curious about what drew you to performance.
Matlin: Well, when I first entered the ICODA theater, the International Center On Deafness and the Arts, I had never seen a production being put together. I didn’t really know what they were doing, but naturally I knew what they were putting a play of, and that was The Wizard of Oz. I knew as much as that. But to actually perform in character, in sign language, was just something so new to me. In all honesty, it was all about what I saw and I just thought: I’d just give it a try, whatever it is they were doing. I jumped right in feet-first, and I just fell in love with acting at that very moment, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Sun: I believe it was Henry Winkler who was in the audience on for one of your plays. He saw you, and that sort of set off a chain of events that led to your first movie role, which you coincidentally won an Oscar for. But I’m curious: Before taking on that first big professional acting role, what were your expectations and what were your family’s expectations about your ability to have a career as an actress?
Matlin: My parents were supportive of whatever endeavor I wanted to undertake. They knew how much I loved acting from my days at ICODA. They were always supportive. They always looked into my performances. They always watched me rehearse, whether it was at home or at the theater. They had a lot of patience for all my sign songs that I would do over and over and over again. So, I did have the dreams of being an actor in Hollywood, and they were supportive. They thought, “Okay, fine. That’s good. Okay, if that’s what you want to do.” But I don’t think they anticipated that I would actually do it, that I actually wanted to do it. They knew that if I started, there would be no stopping me from going towards my dreams of being in Hollywood. So, they wouldn’t dare get in my way. They’d never say no to me.
Sun: It sounds like they knew you well.
Matlin: Pretty well.
Sun: After you essentially won an Academy Award on your first try and at the time were the youngest actor in your category to do so –
Matlin: I still am.
Sun: Thank you so much for correcting and clarifying! The youngest actor ever to win in your category. What were your expectations about your career after that happened, and how did that compare to the reality?
Matlin: I mean, we’re talking about a career that’s now been 34 years. At that point 34 years ago, being extremely green in the entertainment business and having done my first show, everyone made a big deal out of it. I said, “Okay, I’ve won the Oscar. I really don’t know what will be happening next.” I really didn’t get clued in. So, I just went with the flow. I was very lucky in the fact that I got representation, that I was able to get a film after the Oscar and I accepted it. But then I wasn’t sure if things would keep moving the way they were moving. Fortunately, I had someone like Henry Winkler, whom we had kept in touch with since I met him at ICODA. He helped guide me through those years in Hollywood when I didn’t quite know how this business worked.
Looking back, I wondered how I was able to even make it through the maze of Hollywood. I was probably the most naïve actor who ever would win an Oscar in this business. I just sort of went with the flow and wherever the wind took me to get to the point where I am today. With all the people who supported me, with the cheerleaders I had behind me, I’m still amazed I’m here. I really am.
Sun: How would you characterize the roles that you’ve been offered throughout your career? I’m curious about what makes you say yes to an opportunity, and also approximately what percentage of opportunities you say no to?
Matlin: I’m not in a position where I am fortunate enough to say, “You know what, I can’t do this well. This doesn’t work for me. Let’s have someone else do it.” Or, “No, this is not something I feel like doing. No, I’m going to choose a different role. This is not the place I want to be right now.” Over the years I did take almost anything that came to me, and most of them were television appearances, episodic television work. I did have some opportunities to get involved in a cast, but I was never the central cortex, except for my first television show, Reasonable Doubts. I was always somewhere down on the cast list, whether we’re talking about The L Word or The West Wing, Picket Fences, many shows I did.
I did a few movies. Again, they weren’t movies that I carried, not like I did with Children of a Lesser God, but I accepted work that I think portrayed me in a way that was respectful. A lot of times the roles that I played at the outset were victim roles. One day I realized, “That’s enough. I can’t be doing this. That’s not who I am. That’s not who we are as a community. We are people who happen to be deaf, and we have a lot more stories to tell than just playing victims or something like that.” That’s the perspective and the change that has happened in my career. I just said enough to those kinds of roles.
Sun: I really respect and admire your candor there; I think that you’ve had a different experience than many other actors who end up winning an Oscar. You’re pretty much unquestionably the most successful deaf actor in Hollywood, but I’m curious, how does that title make you feel? What are your emotions when somebody says that?
Matlin: In all honesty, I’m probably the most humble person you’ll ever meet in Hollywood. I’m not in the Hollywood circles so to speak, if you want to say that. I know a lot of people in the entertainment business; however, I’m not at the point where I could just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, let’s go to dinner” to whomever it may be. I basically see myself as a girl from Chicago… I guess I just want to be as normal as I can be. I know my life isn’t normal, but there’s no pretense and there’s no artifice. I think this is good because it keeps me grounded.
Particularly in my case, for my sanity, there’s a big reason why I got sober at 21. Because I knew that with the drug addiction that I had, that I wouldn’t quite know the next thing that would happen in my life after Children of a Lesser God. So rather than leave that to question, I began to approach life with a clear mind. To get into the Hollywood scene I know can be fun, but at the same time I had to get sober before I really jumped into the entertainment business, into the scene. So, I’m a mom of four. I’m happily married. I like this sort of life that I lead. I try to raise my kids [like] normal. And I go between Hollywood and my home life. But when people say to me that I inspire them, that really makes me happy because I know that I’ve done my job.
Sun: I think your humility is very refreshing in this business, and that you’ve certainly opened doors for others. I’m curious about how you would describe your community. Who is your tribe? Because I’ve spoken to Delbert Whetter for the introduction part of this podcast, and he talked about deaf culture and the community. And I’m curious, do you feel like that is your tribe? Do you feel at all like you have insider access in Hollywood, or if there is a separation there?
Matlin: I’m proud as a person who happens to be deaf, and I am so grateful to be part of my deaf culture community. I’m so proud of the culture that we carry, the language that we share amongst all of us who are deaf. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because it is who I am. It’s how I was raised as a person who happened to be deaf. And I have a lot of deaf friends, and I don’t forget where I’ve come from. At the same time, I don’t forget that I have another aspect of my life – two, actually, three. First is as a deaf person, then as a person who has been raised in the hearing world as the only deaf person in my family. So I vacillate. I go between the two, and then there’s Hollywood. So there’s three communities that I go amongst and I’ve managed to be able to go back and forth between the three. But I never forget where I came from.
Sun: That really reminds me of the themes that I felt when I was watching CODA. Because even though I don’t have any people who are deaf in my family, I’m from an immigrant family, a bilingual family. And I felt like there were so many elements that really resonated. One of the aspects of your character and her storyline was a sense of isolation, right? Isolation and distance from her daughter, as well as maybe from the other wives, the other fishermen’s wives. And so, I’m curious about whether or not any of that resonated with your own experience? Because again, growing up in a hearing family is different from being in a family that’s not hearing.
Matlin: Jackie Rossi has her own story, I have my own story. Jackie perhaps came from a hearing family like I did but wasn’t embraced, wasn’t included in terms of how they communicated with her. She was always praised instead for her beauty and sort of patted on the head and sent away, but they didn’t include her, really, whereas I was praised. I went to schools where I was mainstreamed. I had hearing anchors, I’ve got a hearing family. I had people who signed with me growing up. So it was a very inclusive environment. But I identify as a deaf person. And I’m very aware and clued in to who and what my culture is all about. Jackie and I, in that way, are the same, and we share the same language, the same culture. But our life experiences growing up and associating with the hearing world are different.
I never as a mother thought, “I hope my children will be deaf.” I never thought of it that way. It didn’t matter to me whether they were hearing or deaf. I just wanted babies that were healthy, and my kids all have their own identities. My husband and I just deal with life as we get it. We want the best for our children. So in that scene with Jackie and [her daughter] Ruby, where Ruby says to her mother that she wants to be a singer, and [Jackie replies], “Well, if we were blind, would you want to be a painter?” That was a very tough scene for me to shoot, because I completely disagree with that sentiment. That’s Jackie’s point of view. However, I wouldn’t blame Jackie for feeling that way because knowing she had always been repressed all her life and that she had a fear of separated from her daughter because she was identifying with music, which is something that Jackie didn’t understand. It was just a different world. So it’s completely understandable that she was nervous and scared about the choices that her daughter was making and her newfound love. “Oh, okay, music? All right. We’re a fishing family. How are we going to support you? How are we going to be happy for you? Because we can’t hear the music. How are we going to know you sound great? We can’t hear how you sound.” So I get where Jackie was coming from. That was a difficult scene for me to shoot.
Sun: One of the scenes that really moved me was when the family comes to the concert. Because again, it sort of reminds me of when I bring home an article to show my mom. I decided to be a writer. I write in the English language. My mother doesn’t really know English that well. But that kind of support despite barriers, I found to be deeply moving. And what was so beautiful about the film was to be able to relate to an entirely different family’s experience.
Matlin: It’s part of how a family learns to get along with life, whether you’re in the culture or not. You just do it one way or another.
Sun: You and your castmates spoke to my wonderful colleague Mia for our cover story on CODA. I’m curious about how the experience of shooting this film has compared to the plethora of other projects that you’ve worked on, particularly since your director, Sian Heder, is not herself deaf. What were the elements that made it an inclusive and accessible set, even though much of the crew was hearing?
Matlin: Clearly and obviously, this is a film that felt like it was in my element. Listen, I’ve had great experiences working on sets in the entirety of my career for the last 35 years. You go to work every day. You know what to expect. And in my career before CODA, it was all about, “Okay, I’ll have my interpreter with me.” I always have my interpreter with me. They allow me to have my interpreter with me. And sometimes crew members will come up and learn a few signs here and there, and that’s about it. And my costars, I always look forward to working with them on-set, particularly when we’re shooting. And if we’re at lunch or in between scenes, there’s not really like extensive conversations one-on-one. And no offense to any of the directors that I’ve worked with over the course of my career, most of them have been phenomenal and wonderful, but there really is no in-depth discussion one-on-one. I’m having to depend on the interpreter to say their words.
I don’t recall any director signing except Randa Haines with Children of a Lesser God and Sian Heder in CODA. Both chose to delve into deaf culture and understand our world and learned that in order for accessibility and inclusivity to take place, they have to learn the language. And the CODA set was the first time that I saw that and was amazed. I mean, I didn’t have to worry about having an interpreter with me. I didn’t feel lonely on the set. It was so liberating. So inclusive. I belonged there. I felt as if I belonged, there was a sense of belonging that I have never experienced on a set.
Sun: You said the word “lonely.” That’s something that sometimes I think about when it comes to people that we idolize as pioneers or trailblazers. On the one hand, it must be great. On the other hand, I imagine it must be very lonely to have been the “only” for so long. I’m curious as to whether or not you think that we are approaching some sort of inflection point for deaf inclusion. I’m not going to be unrealistic and say that we’re anywhere near having reached proper and authentic representation. But do you feel that in recent years, the landscape is somewhat different from how it was maybe earlier in your career?
Matlin: I want to say it’s finally happening. It’s about time that everyone finally now understands how important it is to recognize our culture, our stories, our language. The amount of attention, the acknowledgement, the amount of interest, I mean, it’s coming. I think I said in one interview that I just don’t want this to be the flavor of the year. It shouldn’t be, because there are so many stories to tell. So many stories to share. At the same time, I’ve been talking about representation having to do with deaf actors. Everyone should recognize that we need to continue to look forward. We need to continue to pursue our stories. And there’s so many messages and so many levels I need to talk about.
There’s the importance of acknowledging actors, deaf writers, people who are working behind the camera, but at the same time, I want to acknowledge deaf people in general. Just in general, not just in Hollywood. Particularly for writers, if there are stories and you want to include deaf characters, you don’t have to talk about being deaf. It’s not that our stories have to be about being deaf. Stories can have characters who happen to be deaf, and you can create the same stories as you do for people who aren’t deaf. The key here is to collaborate with the community. So I’m excited about CODA and what it will portend for people who may see the film and say, “Oh, it’s okay to write more deaf characters or characters who happen to be deaf.” It’s as simple as that.
Sun: Because you are very involved in advocacy and serving the community sort of as a representative, have you been seeing that there’s a pipeline being built, not only of deaf actors, but for deaf writers, filmmakers, producers, other people behind the scenes?
Matlin: I have. I’ve seen more and more. However, I think what’s really good is that social media has created this pipeline for people to blend their voice, to create opportunities for their work to be seen and to make the changes that are needed or the improvements that need to be made. Social media is extremely important to break open the barriers that have been there. I mean, in terms of accessibility, we’re talking about things like closed captioning, or open captioning, or having interpreters and ensuring that people with disabilities get the opportunity to even work.
I guess I’m a little bit tired of constantly talking about it. But then again, it’s extremely important to remind people. Otherwise, how else are we going to make progress? How else are people going to learn? How else are people going to know what we can do? What it is we need to do? What is another way that we can make things happen? I guess the only way to do it is to talk about it. It is what it is, and I’m fine with it. Really.
Sun: I think that’s the burden of still being on this road of progress but not having reached the destination. Because I think that the ideal is to get to a place where CODA is seen not necessarily as an important film, but just as a great film.
Matlin: It absolutely is great and important because what you see is a set of humanity you’ve not seen before. And I think, for example, look at what Parasite did for the Korean community. It got so much recognition because there was a story about a community we’ve not seen before, but yet encompassed humor and drama. And I mean, actors who were authentically Korean, and then we had subtitles on top of it and so much was happening on the screen. It got so much recognition and it really broke down barriers. I’m grateful for the path they provided us because now people are starting to get it. Why be different than anything else out there? Why not just be ourselves?
Sun: I feel like films like Parasite or CODA sort of unlock an entirely new world that you may not have known about, and why would you not want to go explore what those experiences are about? It seems a little bit like a no-brainer.
Matlin: Absolutely. And the world is way bigger than most people realize or want to think about. There are so many beautiful cultures and stories that we can tell. And this is just one example of a culture that people are not clued into. I mean, people forget or don’t know, perhaps. There are deaf people out there, and we have a culture and a history and a language. At the same time, there are hearing people who live with deaf people. So you could talk about a hearing perspective or a deaf perspective. There are so many stories about CODAs, for example, that are real and varied and they’re not at all the same.
Sun: One of the things I loved about CODA’s script was that each member of the family had their own storyline – essentially, their own obstacle, their own struggle. It really pointed to the fact that when we talk about a culture that is underrepresented, it’s not a monolithic culture. There are differences. There are shadings within it, just like what you were saying. There is going to be a different experience growing up in a hearing family versus growing up in a third-generation deaf family, and you just need more stories to be able to capture all of that richness.
Matlin: Exactly on the point. It’s just one small facet of a multifaceted culture and family. And now we have it in a beautiful movie for everyone to see. And I look forward to seeing many, many more stories in films like this on the screen.
Sun: We always wrap up these interviews with two questions for every guest. The first one is about a hidden gem. Is there a project – it can be a movie, a television show, a documentary, a book, some sort of resource – that you could recommend to people if they want to really experience even just one small component of deaf culture or deaf representation? What’s something you would recommend?
Matlin: I would recommend the documentaries of all the deaf families that are out there. There are some wonderful documentaries and they all are about completely different people, different backgrounds, different lives. Those are really good. People would understand that there are attorneys and teachers and parents, I mean, whatever aspect in life you can expect, there are people who are deaf that happened to do those. And I think that it’s time that we focused on docuseries.
Sun: And secondly, is there a Hollywood portrayal of a deaf character in the past, or some type of portrayal that you’d like to see in the future? If you could order a redo or cast yourself or another actor that you have in mind an an ideal character, what would you like to see?
Matlin: That’s an interesting question. Gosh, there are so many roles I’ve seen over the years played by brilliant actors that I haven’t had the chance to do. And I don’t know if I could pinpoint one specifically, but if we’re talking about character, I would have loved to have played any judge in any movie that had a judge. Or any movie that had an adult of some sort, then I could play that role. I can’t really think of one specifically, though I’ve always admired and always loved the work that my fellow actors have done. And I always end up being fans of their work. But I can’t think of something that I would take away. I think the point I’d like to say here is: Roles shouldn’t be limited by the ability to speak or sign. It’s all as simple as that.
Sun: I think that makes a lot of sense, particularly since, as I’ve been learning and being educated, the community of disability is one of the most invisible when we talk about inclusion and diversity. So when you have characters who are just in normalized positions in society as judges, or as teachers, or as love interests, it basically reminds us that we exist. And I think that that’s one of the most powerful things that film and television can do.
Matlin: To add to that, nowadays “playing deaf” is just no longer a possibility. Nobody can “play deaf” like it’s a costume, by a hearing person.
Sun: That’s one thing you told Mia in our cover story, right? When they were casting CODA – which is a remake, and I believe the original French version of the film had hearing actors as the family – you told them that if they were going to cast hearing costars to play the rest of your family, that you would have backed out of the role?
Matlin: I would have said, “Adios.”
Sun: Well, the cast that they surrounded you with was stellar. I’m glad that they listened to you, and Marlee, thank you so much for this film. Thank you for so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Matlin: And I’d like to add, talking about hearing actors playing deaf characters, that doesn’t only happen in my case. I’m just talking about our community specifically, but in general it shouldn’t happen. Thank you so much.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Thanks again to both Marlee Matlin and Delbert Whetter for joining us today. You can see Marlee now in CODA on Apple TV+. Join us next Wednesday for a chat with Candyman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen about black representation in horror. And just a pro tip: The movies may be scary, but our podcast episode won’t be. Please do subscribe to Hollywood Remixed on the podcast platform of your choice, where you can check out all the episodes from our first season as well. See you next week.
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