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Marlee Matlin’s Many Signs of Success
This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
Marlee Matlin’s Many Signs of Success
Actress Marlee Matlin considers herself bilingual.
She communicates in standard English and also in American Sign Language
(ASL). She will give her lecture in the "Unique Lives" series
at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Tuesday, February 16, at 7:30
p.m. in spoken English. "ASL is a language unto itself separate
from English," she says in an E-mail interview from her home in
the Los Angeles area. "I learned sign when I was five, with my
mother. She learned right along side me." Matlin lost her hearing
when she was 18 months old.
"Courage, Dreams, and Success" is the title of Matlin’s talk.
As a lecturer, she says she outlines what she intends to say, and
then takes liberties with her plan. "I like to work spontaneously,
but I tend to get caught up in my story, so I work from notes. I usually
go back and forth between the notes and random thoughts in my head.
And I love questions and answers because it puts me in touch
with my audience!" Matlin’s is the second in the "Unique Lives"
series of five lectures, which author Toni Morrison kicked off at
the end of January. The series, now in its second year, consists solely
of female speakers and has filled the 1,800-seat State Theater with
large audiences consisting primarily of women.
Matlin’s high profile as a deaf actor often prompts interviewers to
ask if she considers herself a spokesperson for the deaf community.
In an on-line interview with Jamie Berke of "Mining Company"
she said, "I disagree with the notion of `superstar’ in general.
I happen to be the most visible actor out there who happens to be
deaf and one who has worked a great deal. But when you say `superstar,’
it places unrealistic expectations and responsibilities beyond what
would be expected of a regular person. My primary responsibility is
first to myself and my family, then to my friends and then to the
community I work and live in. I am not a `representative’ of the deaf
community, no more than I am of the acting community, female community,
American community, or human race."
Nevertheless, she has advice for young deaf people who
want to become actors. "Finish school, work hard, follow your
dreams. Always ask questions, never be afraid to try, and do your
homework before you take your big leap. Acting is a tough field regardless
of whether you’re hearing or deaf, but no one says you have to be
a television or movie star to be an actor. You can be an actor right
in your own backyard."
Matlin frankly describes her hearing problems in response to my E-mail
questions. "I became deaf at 18 months of age from Roseola, baby
measles which, because of a high fever, caused my hearing loss. I
can’t hear out both my ears unless I use a hearing aid. When I use
my hearing aid, I can hear my own speech, use the phone sometimes,
hear ambient and environmental sounds, and sometimes particular voices,
music, and noises."
I ask Matlin if there are advantages to being deaf. She replies, "There
are no advantages or disadvantages in being deaf except I can turn
off my hearing aid at night and sleep so soundly, not hearing anything!
Otherwise, it’s part of me just like blonde hair is for one person
or brown eyes is for another. It defines me but it doesn’t rule my
life. And my hopes and dreams are that eventually people can recognize
this and view people like myself just as they would view anyone else."
Matlin’s acting career took off with an auspicious start in 1987 when
she earned an Oscar for her very first film role in "Children
of a Lesser God." At 21, she became the youngest recipient of
the best actress Oscar, and one of only four actresses to receive
that honor for a debut film performance. The film about a deaf woman
(Matlin) who falls in love with her speech therapist (William Hurt)
also received an Academy award nomination, as did Hurt, and cast member
Resisting being type cast after a number of roles in which she played
deaf characters, Matlin eventually played a character who is not deaf
in "The Carrie Buck Story," a 1994 movie for the Lifetime
Channel. "It was the first non-deaf role I’ve played," she
says. "It was as challenging for me as it might have been, for
example, for Dustin Hoffman to play his role in `Rainman’ or Jon Voight
in `Coming Home’ or Geoffrey Rush in `Shine.’ Collaborating with non-deaf
actors is something I’ve done in all my films. Most of my films do
not have many deaf actors in them. It’s not difficult at all to work
with non-deaf actors. Not at all."
"Every film or television production I work on has a sign language
interpreter provided as part of the crew of the film," Matlin
said in the online interview. "Most times I use the interpreter
to communicate with cast and crew but lots of times, I can communicate
well without the interpreter, since I can speak and read lips pretty
well; other times, the cast or crew learns sign too. But during shooting,
I always have the interpreter available so I make sure I don’t miss
The 33-year-old actress was born in Chicago to a car-dealer father
and a mother who worked part-time. She grew up in Morton Grove, Illinois.
Already on the scene when she was born were two older brothers, Marc
and Eric. She is the only family member to have gone into acting.
After losing her hearing, she was trained in what she calls the "oral
method (speech only)" until she and her mother started studying
ASL when Marlee was five.
ASL has its own grammar, syntax, and word order; relies
heavily on facial expressions and body language; and makes use of
the space surrounding the signer. By one estimate it is the fourth
most used language in the United States. In a battery of American
universities ASL may be studied in fulfillment of the foreign language
requirement. Like Slavic languages or Spanish, it avoids articles.
Like Chinese, it has no distinct verb forms to convey future or past
actions. Many of the gestures are universal, and there is considerable
overlap between German, French, and American sign languages. To use
the gestures of ASL, but apply standard English grammar, is the equivalent
of speaking a pidgin language.
In addition to ASL, Matlin, when she’s not speaking, also uses signed
English, a system for communicating visually using English. "Signed
English," she says, "is just a signed representation, grammar
and all, of English."
Matlin began acting when she was seven or eight. She played Dorothy
in the "Wizard of Oz" with a Chicago children’s theater company
and continued acting until she reached high school. After graduating
from Hersey High School in Chicago, she attended William Rainey Harper
College for a year, where she took up acting again and appeared in
a stage version of "Children of a Lesser God." "After
a year in college," she says, "I was cast in the film of `Children
of a Lesser God,’ and did not complete college. But I must say I’ve
learned much in my 12 years since the Oscar that a lifetime of college
degrees couldn’t teach me!"
Live theater has come to take up a relatively small part of Matlin’s
performing career. "I prefer working in film and TV rather than
the stage," she says. "I must admit I’m a bit hesitant to
return to the stage only because the amount of time and work it takes
to perform on stage would steal time away from my family. With TV
and film, I can still see my husband and daughter, though it’s sometimes
hard if I’m working on location, away from home. But that’s what airplanes
are for. I like the steady aspect of TV work, as when I worked on
`Picket Fences’ and ‘Reasonable Doubts’ with Mark Harmon." Matlin
is married to police detective Kevin Grandalski. Their daughter, Sarah
Rose, is three.
Within the last two years Matlin has not only starred in films, but
has begun producing them. At this point, she finds the production
aspect of her work satisfying, and enjoys using the skills required.
"Producing allows me to control the type of work that I do and
have a greater choice in the entire acting process," she says.
" It involves being a part of the process from the inception of
the story to the final editing. Meeting with the writers, working
out story points, meeting with network executives (if it happens to
be a film for TV or cable), are just some of the responsibilities
involved. Many of them are taken on by me producing partner, Jack
Jason, who runs my production company, Solo One Productions. It’s
a daunting task, but I like the opportunity it gives me to pick and
choose the stories I’d like to tell and the roles I’d like to play.
It’s much more involved than being an actor for hire."
Still, Matlin realizes that she could become disenchanted with producing.
"Right now, I’ve just begun producing so ask me in a year if I’d
like to continue. I’ve seen a lot of producers in Hollywood with gray
hair. (Maybe there would be more if a lot of them didn’t go to the
salon to get their hair colored! Ha!)," she quips electronically.
Besides her professional activities Matlin has an active private life.
"My daughter keeps me busy enough," she says, "though
I love to cook and work out at the gym." At the gym Matlin runs
and lifts weights. She also says that she is busy "keeping up
with films so I can vote at Academy Awards time."
She makes every effort to be a hands-on mother. "I want my daughter
to have a normal upbringing. Not to say there is something wrong with
nannies and babysitters. It’s just that her upbringing is important
to my husband and myself and we go out of our way to juggle our work
to make sure we are with Sarah as much as we can be when she’s not
Summing up, Matlin responds without qualification when asked which
of her accomplishments has pleased her the most. "Our daughter
Sarah is our most wonderful accomplishment," she says.
— Elaine Strauss
Theater, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. ASL interpreted. Q&A follows
the talk. $26. Tuesday, February 16, 7:30 p.m.
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