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Recently, Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin has become known more and more for her versatility as an actress. She's played a variety of compelling roles on both the large and small screens. Matlin is best known for winning the Academy Award for her film debut in "Children of a Lesser God." Fast forward to 2004: She's a mother of four who's earned her fourth Emmy nod, she's starred in the unconventional independent film "What the Bleep Do You Know?" and returned to a re-occurring role on the hit television drama "West Wing" and "Law and Order."
Although she has a thriving career, Marlee still finds time to focus on children's issues by appearing on shows such as "Sesame Street" and "Blues Clues." How does the woman who is on two hit television shows, movies, authors a few books, and countless other projects find the time to star in an independent film and raise a family of four?
DM) Every interview inevitably seems to focus on your disability and how that's affected your career. My question is actually on your career developing to the point that the disability isn't mentioned. For example, on "West Wing," I've seen a few episodes where the fact that you're deaf is barely brought up, as opposed to earlier roles that might have focused on the disability more. Am I just reading into things or is this a conscious choice?
MM) On "West Wing" it's a conscious choice. Aaron Sorkin never intended it to be a part of the show - my deafness that is. It was just part of who I was. Just like John Amos who was on the show happened to be black, etc... Aaron was intelligent enough to know that it was ability that mattered, not disability. Which is a word I'm not crazy about using.
I just did "Law and Order Special Victims Unit" and one interviewer came onto the set and acted as if I was acting for the first time. He asked "How have you overcome your deafness to do this role?" And I wanted to say "Well, I'm in my mid-thirties, I've won an Oscar, I have four children. I guess you figure out if my deafness has adversely affected my life..."
DM) Following along that vein though, is this something you've had to "work towards." Is this a role that you feel could have happened, 10, 20 years ago, or is society more ready to accept a deaf person for what they're doing?
MM) I've had to "work" on it ever since I was deafened as a kid because it seems that's what society wants. Every one of us is different in some way but for those of us who are more "different," we have to put more effort into convincing the less different that we can do the same thing as they can... just differently. It's crazy because I picked the business to work in that wants people to be as much the same as each other as possible.
And it happened 20 years ago when I did the film.. "Children of A Lesser God," so maybe the better comparison would be 30 or 40 years ago, but there were other actors who preceded me; Linda Bove did "Happy Days," Audree Norton did "Mannix." They were deaf, but I happened to have won an Oscar because someone wrote a good movie that asked for a deaf lead. My "working towards" these days is about working with producers, networks and executives to see that a role can be filled with all different types of people. But when it comes down to it, it's just about who you know, and who's a fan. It's about whether you're the right age, whether you're hot or not, whether the studio is into you or not. And just the luck of the draw.
The film I have coming out next month, "What the Bleep Do We Know," was not written with a deaf person in mind but when they met me and we discussed the role, it clicked with them to have me in it. But that happens with a lot of actors in Hollywood, not just with me.
DM) Yes, the entertainment industry seems to want everybody to fit in that same mold. What made you make that "crazy" choice and choose this business knowing the perception that the business had?
MM) I didn't choose it knowing that was the perception. I chose it because I wanted to do it. When aspiring actors ask me how they can make it in this business, I always ask them first, "Do you really want to act?" and if they say, "I don't want to do anything else," then I say "go for it." I did it because I wanted to do it. When I was 13, I wanted to do it and I told Henry Winkler that when he made a personal appearance at a benefit I was acting in. He said "If you want it that badly then follow it. Do it and don't let anyone stand in your way." That was my philosophy up until then, and his validation just made it all the more true. I haven't stopped thanking him since.
DM) Was acting your only focus growing up? What inspired you to act?
MM) It must have been born in me. I've been doing it since I was 7 years old. Maybe it was my family (we're very dramatic... no... we're Jews... oh well... we're both! Ha!). Maybe it was because I was the youngest and only girl in a family of two older brothers. Maybe my way of communicating through sign made me more in tune with my body and how it moved. Who knows? I just know when I saw a stage for the first time, I wanted to be on it.
DM) We've briefly mentioned your recent film, your Oscar, your West Wing work, but there's a bit more... How do you balance your life between family, West Wing, Law and Order, What the Bleep, author, producer and everything else?
MM) How? I don't know how. I just know I do it. But it takes work. I have a great husband, a great set of parents and in-laws, and obviously I have help with a nanny. It's not easy but there are others who do it every day and don't have a high profile job as I do. Patricia Heaton does it with four kids, Meryl Streep did it with four, Mare Winningham did it with five. It's just a matter of having the intention and seeing it through.
DM) Does it ever get difficult to balance?
MM) Yep. But what parent has it easy? I just never make the difficulty of it all an obstacle. As I said, I just do it.
DM) Has that always been your philosophy? To simply work through the "obstacles" no matter what? Just do it?
MM) Yes, but I also find the mantle of "she works hard for the money" or "she's overcome so many obstacles" a bit overused. I know it allows me to stand out in a crowd when the sea of faces can seem so similar, and I know it serves a purpose in inspiring others who might be facing the same obstacles I faced while growing up, but at some point we have to stop and say "there's Marlee" not "there's the deaf actress"... I've been around since I was 19, I won the Oscar when I was 21, I've had a couple of TV series.
I've continued to work despite the predictions of some naysayers. But again, we're talking Hollywood here, and memories are short, trends are swift, so no matter if you're me, or Julia or Jennifer or Meryl or Sandra, you always have to prove yourself, show them what you got and just kick ass.
DM) You're a tough dame.
MM) I got a good handshake to prove it. A lot of executives tell me I have the best handshake in Hollywood.
DM) It's funny, I asked the staff (12 people) to e-mail me all of their favorite questions for you and literally 95 percent were about your being deaf. Does it ever drive you nuts?
MM) Well, makes sense ... how many deaf people do they know in real life? But unless they live in a cave, or are 14 (which seems to be true for most people in this business), what could I possibly tell them that they don't already know? I mean, I'm not being facetious here, but the only thing I say I can't do is hear. I can drive, I obviously have a life with four kids, I work on TV, I do movies, so the deafness question, is it that they want to know because, what? Not sure. But hey, I get it.
I'm "different" and my manner invites questions. I'm never afraid to answer.
DM) You mentioned that there was a transition 30, 40 years ago. Do you feel we've reached the point where people see you for you?
MM) But watch me when people say "deaf and dumb" or "deaf mute" and I give them a look like you might get if you called Denzel Washington the wrong name.
It seems we're always in transition and that it's more about trends than it is about what's meaningful. Hollywood embraced me in the late 80s because there was a good project I was in and it was different. Nowadays, it's about corporate mentality, about box office, about youth, and differences are scarier now. The dollar isn't so guaranteed if you don't follow what they see as the norm. But hey, I get it and I don't moan about it. I just keep working away at it.
It works just as much to my disadvantage if you want to call it that because I'm a woman, I'm in my 30's, etc ... but again, everybody's got a job to do and I do mine as best I can.
DM) Okay, clearly you're tough as nails and you have a positive attitude. I can't imagine you've been this way 24/7 though! Don't you ever get frustrated?
MM) Hell yeah ... but what ya gonna do about it? I should say "Oh, no never" but I try not to lie. Well, not too much when it comes to interviews. Ha, you know it's all about perception in this line of work I've chosen!
DM) Okay, you're honest when the industry says to lie, and you're taking roles when you "shouldn't" be! Don't you do what you're told! (laughs)
MM) Yeah, I'm gonna be unemployed when people read this. Ha.