Marlee Matlin
Photo by Josh Telles

Marlee Matlin: “That’s what keeps me going”

Short Profile

Name: Marlee Beth Matlin
DOB: 24 August 1965
Place of birth: Morton Grove, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Actor, activist

Ms. Matlin, you’ve been acting for over 35 years now — looking back on your career, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

I don’t think I have any regrets having to do with my career except I wish I had been louder about deaf representation in films, whether it comes to writers or directors or actors. There are a few deaf directors who are out there and I believe that people should recognize that their work is brilliant, but they are not necessarily in the mainstream. I don’t know if they have the same caliber as they should have, they probably haven’t been invited nor have been given the chance. But it’s never too late, and now I’m making more noise than ever.

Apparently you threatened to walk away from your role in CODA if they didn’t cast deaf actors for it.

That’s absolutely true! In terms of films, there has rarely been somebody cast authentically that carried a film. With CODA, there are three actors carrying this film who are deaf, and 60 percent of the film is with subtitles and sign language. I have never seen anything like that before. And for me to be able to play Jackie was really a treat, just express myself authentically in my language, it couldn’t have been better than that. I was in my element. There is something to be said for casting authentically, there is something to be said for providing accessibility and inclusivity in the film. And those are three words that I have been talking about for my entire career and people always either ignored it or they didn’t feel that it needed their attention. And sometimes I kick myself for not making that point as loudly as I should have.

“People are now paying attention, but I don’t want this attention to be something that’s fleeting. We need to keep the momentum going.”

Then again, it was a lot harder to make noise about these issues when you were first starting out as an actor: there was no social media, it was a lot harder to make your message heard.

Right, I mean, there weren’t really appropriate channels for me to be able to talk about this… It was always through interviews like we are doing right now. That was the only channel that I had. So we really can’t overlook the opportunities we have with social media these days. I would hope that with films like CODA and also the short film I produced called Feeling Through, for example, that people are now paying attention, but at the same time, I don’t want this attention to be something that’s fleeting. We need to keep the momentum going.

Is it tiring for you to constantly fight this fight?

It’s exhausting for me if I don’t see that what should be happening for us is happening.

You’ve fought very hard to make those things happen for yourself: some of the roles you’ve played over the years were not even written for a deaf person, you simply got them to cast you anyway, right?

Yes, I would say probably thirty percent were not written for me or for deaf characters, they were parts that were written for hearing actors. And yet when they met me they felt like, “Oh great, yeah, let’s change it.” It was like a no brainer for them, they were open minded, they were amenable. The rest that were written for me, by people like Aaron Sorkin and Ilene Chaiken, David Kelley, Michael Seitzman, they wrote characters for me that happened to be deaf, they just saw me fit as an actor to play the character. But I have also had several dry spells without work, honestly. And they are not fun, but it doesn’t mean that I quit. I continue to work, until I’m tired or dead! I’m not there yet.

Did you ever think of quitting or giving up on acting at any point?

There are times where you think, “What am I doing wrong?” But that’s why I have to be proactive, I have to work to create, to research, to communicate, to do things like with my production company. In fact, I do wish that I went to college and had something to fall back on… But acting is something I’ve loved doing all my life, so, no, I never thought of quitting.

Do you remember when you first realized this was what you wanted to do with your life?

Yes, I was seven years old, I was at summer camp where there were deaf children and hearing children together. We did a performance where the hearing children sang while the deaf children signed the song together… On the night of the performance, with family and friends in the audience clapping and smiling, I was immediately hooked. And my mother looked at that and realized that there’s something there. She found a theater just a few miles from our home called The International Center on Deafness, where they were putting together a production of The Wizard of Oz. And when I walked in and I saw what they were doing, I said I will do this only if I can play the role of Dorothy! (Laughs)

“At the end of the day, you get back to the real world and you get back to being Marlee.”

And then you went on to win a Best Actress Oscar at only 21 years old for Children of a Lesser God. How did you manage to stay so grounded after such an accomplishment at a very young age?

I think if I didn’t take myself to rehab before the nomination for the Academy Award, I probably would have been a completely different person and I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you. I actually got nominated while I was in rehab! So I was doing rehab and therapy and self-analysis for an entire month without any interruption, and I think that helped ground me and be who I am today, simple as that. So, it’s a matter of keeping up my sobriety — I have been sober ever since. And it’s work, at the end of the day, you get back to the real world and you get back to being Marlee. And that’s what keeps me going.

You’ve been working with your interpreter for a very long time — almost as long as you’ve been acting. Those kinds of relationships must also help keep things steady.

Yes, I’m still very much in touch with my friends that I grew up with, I’m still in touch with the people who help ground me! I met Jack right after Children of a Lesser God completed initial filming, right before I went to rehab. I was living in New York City and I needed an interpreter. His parents are deaf, and he understands and it just so happens that our friendship also became a business relationship. And so I wonder how awkward it is for Jack to talk about himself having to interpret what I am saying, but 35 years has grown into a business relationship and we have very similar ideas, similar drives, he understands my world and I understand his. So I can be a pain in the ass, he can be a pain in the ass, but at the same time, that’s what friends are all about. We understand each other.