Marlee Matlin: Deaf and disabled roles are more authentic in Hollywood

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

L to R: Actors Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant appear in “CODA.” Credit: Apple TV+.

Marlee Matlin has been one of the only Deaf actors consistently working in Hollywood. She was Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriend in “The Lip Reader” episode, and pollster Joey Lucas in “The West Wing.” 

Her latest movie, “CODA,” is nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. She plays Jackie Rossi, a Deaf mother raising a daughter who can hear and loves to sing. The actors portraying Jackie’s husband and son are also Deaf. American Sign Language is the primary language in their home. 

Matlin captured Hollywood’s attention when she starred in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986. As Sarah Norman, she was fiery, confident, beautiful, and Deaf. The role won her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. 

Over her 30-plus year career, she has watched Hollywood slowly evolve. More Deaf and hard-of-hearing actors are being hired. Films such as “Sound of Metal” and reality shows like “Deaf U” are bringing their stories to larger audiences.

Marlee Matlin speaks with Press Play, along with her interpreter Jack Jason. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: Tell us more about “CODA,” which stands for Child of Deaf Adults,” and your character Jackie. 

Marlee Matlin: It's really a very simple story. It's a feel-good movie. It's about a small family who lives in a small fishing town. They are all about their business making a living. And there's one member of their family who’s hearing, and it just so happens that that person has an interest in music, and it throws the family for a loop. And because they've relied on her as an interpreter, and it's about the journey that this family goes on with this young girl, their daughter, who wants to become a singer. It's not something that they initially planned. It's not something that her parents had ever thought and nor could identify with.

You play the mother, and she is not exactly encouraging of her daughter's passion for singing.

Well the character I play is Jackie Rossi, and she really cares deeply for her daughter. I have to give her that. But she just doesn't realize that there's more to life than just fishing. By that I mean there is a codependence going on here, and her family there's depending on their daughter for interpreting when they’re/she’s going out in life. It's how CODAs operate — using their skills, sign language to act as interpreters for their parents. And this is a great responsibility for them. 

Jackie comes from a family that probably was all hearing and being that she was the only Deaf member of the family, she didn't really have a connection. Her parents didn't give her the love and care that most kids would have if they were hearing. Then she met Frank who happened to be Deaf, and they had a Deaf son and everything seemed fine. 

And then one day they had a hearing daughter. Jackie really doesn't want to display her fear as a mother to her daughter Ruby. She has a fear of failing her because of how she was judged by her own mother. It's almost like it's a wall that's been created between her and her daughter for all these years. She doesn't want to repeat what happened to her and her mom. When Ruby says that she wants to be a singer, the first thing that Jackie thinks is okay, well wait a minute, that's not something that the family can do together, we're Deaf.

Emilia Jones (left) plays Ruby Rossi and Marlee Matlin (right) plays Jackie Rossi in “CODA.” Credit: Apple TV+. 

In a moving scene, Jackie talks about wishing that Ruby was born Deaf because she feared not being able to have a connection with her daughter. Did you have a similar feeling with your kids?

As it relates to Jackie, I mean Jackie was afraid to fail as a mother … because she really didn't know how hearing people would judge her. Growing up with her parents, again, her parents didn't give her the foundation that she needed, didn't give her the love simply because she was Deaf. 

So for me as Marlee being a mom of four, I'm completely different. … When I became a mother for the first time, which was 26 years ago, I said to myself that I would always give my children their own identity, let them identify and search life on their own. And I was raised very independently. I was the only Deaf person in my family like Jackie. However, in my family, my parents and my brothers were very supportive of my dreams to become an actor, I think. And I knew it would be the best approach for my children to give them their own identity. 

I did have a little bit of a concern having to do with communicating when it came to everybody talking at the dinner table, and I was still the only Deaf person there, I still do. There are times when I'm sitting there, and everybody's talking in the family, and I'm always using my voice, like, “Hello, I'm here.” Some days, I do get upset if I don't get enough communication or to [I need to] get more information than I typically would to operate in my life, from my kids or from extended family. However, I've always been the one to put myself out there, always wanting to ask questions. And that's just me.

And they all speak American Sign Language?

My kids all speak ASL if they feel like it. Because their mom speak very well. I understand them very well. I speak pretty well. We have our own communication, depending on which kid I'm talking to. But yeah, they all sign. … And my husband does as well.

Let's talk about your husband in the movie. I understand they initially wanted to cast a non-Deaf actor for the role. And you objected.

That's exactly right. This was originally a studio project. In the world of studios, there are formulas in how to make sure that your film is going to be a box office or make money. You need names to make that happen. All that stuff that goes on with making a film, and I get it. 

But when it happened that the producer for “CODA” didn't get what they wanted, which was a hearing actor, and they realized that it wasn't going to be authentic if they cast a hearing actor, they walked off. And I threatened to leave the film as well. And in fact, they took the movie away from the studio, and they made it independent. 

And I did express my opinion. And I wasn't really eager to tell them, I was a little bit cautious because I've never done this before. But I said I can't do this if you have a hearing person playing a Deaf part. It's been too long that this has been done that you can't have inauthentic portrayals, you can't have hearing people put on costumes of Deafness. And I think with so much awareness about disability and Deaf actors out there, you just couldn't get away with it. And the script was so perfect for Troy Kotsur. I saw it immediately for him. He was perfect for the role. He was perfectly the character, and then of course you saw it happen. He was perfectly cast.

Emilia Jones (left) plays Ruby Rossi and Troy Kotsur (right) plays Frank Rossi in “CODA.” Credit: Apple TV+.

Are you frustrated that there aren't more Deaf actors in Hollywood? It's been 30 years since you burst onto the scene.

Thirty-five years — my name has been there. People know, “Oh yeah, the Deaf actor Marlee Matlin.” But I think now with “CODA,” there are a lot more people. I mean, there's Lauren Ridloff, who is in the Marvel movies. There's Troy Kotsur. There's Daniel Durant now. I mean, I think they're all becoming names in Hollywood, and slowly but surely. And I'm excited about that. And I think with “CODA” out there, more and more people are paying attention. And they might think of us in other films and other roles and get creative. I think it's a lot better than it has been. I'm not alone anymore.

Are other projects, like “Deaf U” and “Sound of Metal,” portraying the Deaf community accurately? 

So far, I think in the last year and a half, I've seen these projects. “Audible,” which is nominated for an Oscar this year, is also starring all Deaf performers. “Healing Through,” which is a film that I produced, a film short that was nominated for an Oscar, star an authentic Deaf and blind actor. So I think those are actually good examples of how authenticity is really coming to light in Hollywood when they call for disabled or Deaf roles. “Crip Camp,” another documentary that was out last year, nominated for an Oscar, was a great film starring disabled actors. So I think we're getting there. I do. I think we are. Even TV series like “This Close” with Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, they were not only the stars, but they were also the writers of the show. And again, these are Deaf actors and Deaf writers.

I want to talk a little bit about your activism. You've been active for a very, very long time, and fought to get closed captioning on TV shows. And right now you are fighting to get President Biden to have an interpreter during his speeches and during his news conferences, and Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s daily briefings. It seems like an obvious thing. Why do you think they haven't done that so far?

I think it takes one to get it. And I think it takes one to say, “Let's just make it happen.” I guess people are probably afraid of change, or maybe accessibility frightens them? I'm not quite sure. I think we're getting closer to the point where we can see interpreters in all White House briefings, not only emergency briefings. It’s a matter of acting on it. 

I also think that it's important for me to make noise when it comes to having things like the Super Bowl, when you just saw recently the sign language interpreter, the performer was signing the national anthem during the hearing performance. To put the interpreter on the screen the whole time … not put them on for a second. … How does that serve the Deaf audience? For Deaf people to take away the vision, the view of the interpreter, the ASL performer, just put them there on the screen, in a picture in picture. … That's something that I think that networks need to focus on and to make it happen, rather than have it streaming on a separate channel. 

I'm not technologically savvy at all. And I feel like somehow, that's a separate but equal sort of setup. And that's not how we like to operate. We want to be included, we want to be able to watch with everybody. Therefore hearing on national television, if they're going to show an interpreter, show them the whole time.

How do you feel about being an activist? Is that something you sought out or was that assigned because you’re a celebrity? 

And listen, I like to take advantage of the fact that I'm in front of the media. I like to take advantage of the fact that I can talk about issues that relate to my community, to anyone who's gonna listen and put it out there, whether it's through social media, or newsprint or electronic media. But I've always been that way. I've always been that kind of Deaf person. I've always been outspoken. I've always talked about things that I've seen, things that aren't accessible for me. 

Look, being someone who had to rely on lip reading and not picking up conversations made me outspoken growing up, and noticing things like that, and noticing that there was a lack of accessibility for people like myself. So I made sure to make noise about it, to talk about it. 

It takes a village, as they say. I'm not the only one anymore. But yeah, I've always been happy to bring people, and whether they're Deaf or not, or non-disabled or disabled, thank goodness for social media, because there's so many more ways now. People are reading, people are talking. There are no barriers when it comes to social media. This is a conversation that needs to take place everywhere.

Marlee Matlin sits by her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, May 6, 2009. Photo by Shutterstock.

How did you get into acting?

I think it's because I had two older brothers. They weren't home very much. They were 12 years older than me. And I was home a lot. And my other brother was eight years older. So I was alone. And my parents left me to my own devices. And so I was ending up watching a lot of television. I watched “The Wizard of Oz” a lot. That was when I first became interested. I mean, I thought, “Wow, I'm just like Dorothy, I have dreams.” And I was a ham at heart. I love signing to music. I love talking with people. I love entertaining people. 

And when I saw “Happy Days” with Henry Winkler, and on one particular episode, there was an actress named Linda Bove who’s Deaf, she's the one you might recognize from “Sesame Street,” I looked at her and I said, “Wait, she's speaking my language. I want to be an actor just like her.”

Then you met Henry Winkler, and you became friends, and he introduced you to the world?

So he was in Chicago with his wife, they were there for a fundraiser. And the theater where I was performing, the Center on Deafness, they thought it would be nice to invite him. And he came and accepted our invitation. And when I heard that he was there, I made it my point to sign my best to him. I was doing a solo onstage. And I did it right in front of him. And naturally, I made the connection. 

And when I went up to him, I said, “Hi, I'm Marlee, and I want to be an actor in Hollywood, just like you, just like you.” And he said sure. And we kept in touch over the years. And he's been my mentor ever since. I would not be here if it were not for Henry Winkler for sure. … We're best friends.

What is your next project?

So my next project is a big full plate of development. … I don't know if you want to call it development hell. It's actually development heaven. [It’s] a documentary that I'm working on right now. I'm also looking in expanding in different areas of the entertainment business. And I think news will be coming out very shortly and we can talk about it. But yeah, there's a lot more that's going on there. 

I've noticed that there are more doors opening, perhaps as a result of “CODA,” in film and in television. If you're talking about Deaf West Theatre, that’s where I met Troy Kotsur. And every performance that he did at Deaf West, I made sure to make a point of going up to him. We started making connections. And I know that people in LA wanted to have more theater experiences. So Ed opened up Deaf West, and that's where we met Troy. And he over the years was somebody I said I wanted to work with, and he was on my bucket list. Troy now is a movie star. What can I say?