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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

Laurie Piper.

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

a thing."

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

in school."

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

Marlee Matlin, Unique Lives & Experiences, State

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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