TV & Movies

Marlee Matlin Knows How To Make Change

The Deaf actor has spent decades building a trailblazing career in Hollywood — and always held the door open behind her.

by Sara Nović
Marlee Matlin is the star of 'CODA.'
Jeff Vespa

Marlee Matlin and I catch one another off-guard. When I log into our Zoom meeting, Matlin and her longtime interpreter and business partner, Jack Jason, are waiting for me. She smiles, her background decorated with family photos, a vase of bright yellow flowers, a replica of her Hollywood Walk of Fame star, and her Oscar. I get the feeling she’s already well into her slate of interviews promoting her latest film, CODA, so naturally, rather than cut to the chase, I panic and begin to gush. She and Jason look surprised to see me sign — “you’re Deaf?” they ask.

I’m thrown by the question; I’m used to being “the Deaf one,” to painstakingly establishing access before every professional exchange, perhaps fielding an introductory microaggression about how the person I’m speaking with once met a deaf dog. For her part, Matlin is the Deaf icon, and has undoubtedly been fielding questions from hearing journalists all week. For a moment, maybe we are both startled by the prospect of being understood. That notion, combined with my feeling starstruck, is enough to freeze me in my Hollywood square.

Luckily, Matlin is infinitely quicker and more graceful than I am, and recuperates immediately. Jason says he’ll stick around in case we need anything, and turns his camera off. She gives me a “come on, out with it” gesture that pulls me from my daze, and away we go.

You don’t need to bungle an introduction with Matlin to know that she doesn’t sit still for long. Her career in film and television is clear evidence of an actor who likes to keep moving, from famous guest appearances on shows like Seinfeld, ER, and Desperate Housewives, to beloved recurring roles like The West Wing’s Joey Lucas, The L Word’s Jodi Lerner, and even a stint as Marlee the Librarian on Blue’s Clues. Matlin has been a household name for three decades, after winning a barrier-smashing Best Actress Oscar for her very first role, in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God. At 21, she was the youngest woman ever to win the award, and the only deaf person to win in any category. Both are still true today.

At 21, she was the youngest woman ever to win the award, and the only deaf person to win an in any category. Both are still true today.

But when I ask Matlin about when she first considered herself an actor, her commitment to the art long predates any accolades; her first taste of performing came at camp when she was seven. “I was on stage with a bunch of hearing girls who were singing and I was signing. It was Family Night, so friends, family, teachers, and counselors all filled the audience and they were all looking at me. It was exhilarating to see them clapping and smiling. I could tell I was connecting with them, and I liked that feeling.”

Seeing her daughter’s newfound love of the stage, Matlin’s mother brought her to the International Center for Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) children’s theater program, where they were about to begin a production of the Wizard of Oz. Matlin introduced herself as Dorothy. “After that, I was hooked,” she says.

The truly defining moment came when Matlin, age 12, met Henry Winkler after an ICODA performance. “I went right up to him and said, ‘Hi, I’m Marlee and I want to be an actor in Hollywood just like you!’ and Henry said, ‘Sure, why not,’” she says. “Then someone pulled him aside and said, ‘Hey, don’t encourage her too much. She’s deaf and Hollywood’s just gonna blow her off.’” But Winkler was undeterred — perhaps, Matlin says, because he was used to being looked down on himself. Growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia, Winkler struggled to read, and was told by teachers he would never amount to anything.

“Henry just looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘You can be whatever you want. As long as you believe in yourself your dreams will come true.’ So from then on…” Matlin shrugs and smiles, as if to say it was all smooth sailing from there.

While Matlin’s acting career may look charmed, her life was not without its rough seas — an abuse survivor who struggled with addiction, Matlin famously received the news that she’d been nominated for an Oscar while in rehab. Matlin and Winkler’s friendship, though, stood through time and tumult. She even moved in with Winkler and his wife, Stacey, while newly sober and learning to navigate Hollywood. Later, in 1993, Matlin married her husband, the police officer Kevin Grandalski, in the Winklers’ backyard. Matlin has spoken often about the couple’s supportiveness, and Winkler recently told People that he sees Matlin as a second daughter.

Matlin and her Children co-star, William Hurt, at the Oscars.Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Matlin celebrates her win.Bettman/Getty Images
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Though the years surrounding her Children success were complicated, Matlin remembers her first night at the Oscars as a special one. “It’ll forever be etched on my mind and heart. It’s something that I can’t wait to tell my grandkids about ... Of course, I have to say I was very nervous, too, but that’s part of the package.”

What about access? “We’re talking about ’87, so no ADA, no nothing,” says Matlin. “I was lucky, very lucky to have [Jason] by my side that night.” While Matlin says the Academy was respectful about her need for an interpreter, it’s clear self-advocacy is integral to her success. “I didn’t ask them, I told them,” says Matlin. “I’m not shy.”

What was Matlin like back then, I ask Jason, who was first hired as part interpreter, part tour guide to accompany Matlin on a shopping trip in New York City. “She was a ball of 19-year-old energy with a jean jacket, big glasses and big hair,” he says. “We laughed a lot.” Their partner dynamic established, Jason decided to drop his plans for a PhD to follow Matlin, and the two have been a team ever since. “Marlee represented to me the potential to break open stereotypes that I saw the hearing community place on Deaf people growing up as a son of Deaf parents,” says Jason. “Her energy, her feistiness, her curiosity and her drive were so fascinating that I said, ‘That's a journey I'd like to see firsthand.’”

“Marlee represented to me the potential to break open stereotypes that I saw the hearing community place on Deaf people growing up as a son of Deaf parents.”

Over the past 30-odd years, Jason and Matlin have seen — and pushed for — progress. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, and the nation has made huge leaps forward in providing access for deaf and disabled people, in part due to Matlin’s activism for essentials like closed captioning. In particular, Matlin was at the forefront of advocating for captioned content on streaming services, using social media to flood Netflix’s inbox with calls for accessible content. She went on to publicize the fight for captions in the streaming age alongside the National Association of the Deaf, which in 2014 won a suit against Netflix, forcing their hand. But that's just one small piece of the puzzle — across the board, progress toward a more inclusive Hollywood has come in fits and starts.

Disabled characters are vastly underrepresented in film and television: Though about 25% of Americans have some kind of disability, in 2019, only 3.1% of series regular characters were disabled, and that was a record high. When disabled characters do show up, they’re frequently created by nondisabled writers and played by nondisabled actors. Known in the disabled community as “cripping up,” it’s a frustrating phenomenon not only because it takes work from disabled actors, but also because it upholds inauthentic portrayals that perpetuate stereotypes. The frequent failure to cast deaf and disabled roles authentically is cyclical: There aren’t many disabled actors with name recognition who can generate buzz for a project. But if disabled actors aren’t cast in films, they never become famous. More than that, Hollywood disproportionately rewards nondisabled actors for taking these roles; from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to Eddie Redmayne The Theory of Everything, a jaw-dropping one-third of Best Actor Oscar winners in the past three decades have been cripped up performers. With the exception of Matlin herself, real disabled people remain largely invisible when it comes to the awards circuit.

Long-needed changes came with the 2021 nomination of Crip Camp, a documentary about a summer camp for disabled children and the activism that grew from relationships forged there. This year’s ceremony was the first to include wheelchair ramp, and Matlin praised the accessible seating for being as beautiful as the rest of the space, and not feeling separate.

Still, when it came time for Matlin to present two award categories that evening, she says she “returned backstage to find my phone blowing up.” Amid the messages of congratulations and compliments, she learned that as she’d been presenting, the camera operator cut away to follow the voice of her interpreter, leaving deaf viewers lost. “Afterward I reached out to the Academy and explained what happened and what went wrong, and they learned from that. That’s how it works, you educate for next year.”

Matlin arrives at the 2021 Academy Awards.Matt Sayles/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

For most deaf people, getting accommodations is a daily battle. Growing up, I not only idolized Matlin the way I might any celebrity, but also coveted the uninhibited access she had to the world via a personal interpreter. Today, with all her star power, it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever failing to accommodate her. But when I ask if there was ever a role she really wanted, but missed out on, right away she says yes.

“I wanted to play a judge,” she says. A crime show, now off the air, (“karma,” Matlin says) offered her a multi-episode arc. Matlin was excited to tackle the role, and spent time speaking with a Deaf attorney friend, and researching real-life Deaf judges online. Matlin couldn’t find any culturally Deaf, signing judges, and when she approached the show’s creators about adding courtroom interpreters into the script, they seemed bewildered.

“The executive producer said, ‘Interpreters? What for?” and I said, ‘So I can understand my courtroom.’ And he said, ‘But you can read lips and you can talk.’ I said, ‘Not like that!’

“The whole time I was thinking to myself, why is he drilling me? Why is he questioning me? So finally, I said, ‘The judge needs an interpreter, just like the other roles I’ve played on West Wing, etc. It’s a no-brainer.’ He said he’d get back to me, and five minutes later he took the offer back. I was devastated. And I was reminded of all the deaf actors out there whose work is taken away from them. And that’s not cool. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

Jason appears onscreen, looking indignant on Matlin’s behalf. “Call it what it is,” he interjects. “Discrimination.”

Enter CODA, the newly released film that Apple TV+ picked up at Sundance for a record-breaking $25 million. The deal is proof that audiences and studios are hungry for inclusive and authentically made content. CODA (an acronym for “child of a Deaf adult”) follows the Rossis, a Massachusetts fishing family comprised of parents Jackie (Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), son Leo (Daniel Durant), and daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones). The parents lean on Ruby, their only hearing family member, as they navigate the hearing world; she interprets everything from doctors’ appointments to business deals. Over the course of the movie, Ruby must decide between staying to help her parents and the dream of attending college on a music scholarship. With respect to plot, the film is charming if staid, addressing coming-of-age, and “deaf-versus-music” tropes with the expected outcomes. On the other hand, CODA also contains something totally unprecedented in a mainstream movie: three Deaf leads.

I mention to Matlin that I’d heard she threatened to leave the project over plans to cast a hearing actor as Frank. Matlin says something she’s found herself repeating lately is, “being Deaf isn’t like a costume you can take on and off. Enough of that.” She also says she knew right away that Kotsur should be Frank. “When first reading the script, I thought of Troy immediately. I knew this was the movie for the two of us — absolutely perfect for us — and that’s something I’ve never said before.”

“Now people want these stories, and understand that the Deaf community has stories to share.”

Kotsur says he heard nothing for a year after he first auditioned for CODA — perhaps because the debate over casting a hearing actor had yet to be settled. When Kotsur finally joined, he and Matlin had immediate rapport on set, having crossed paths in the theater scene in and around Deaf West Theatre, and worked together on No Ordinary Heroa film Kotsur directed, which featured Matlin as herself. The onscreen family even spent time barbecuing and talking sports in their off hours. “CODA was the first time I felt at home, like I belonged on a set,” says Kotsur. “Before I was used to navigating the hearing world, playing one deaf role, and communicating via interpreter. But with three of us, it was totally different. It’s something you don’t see often.”

For Durant, a 31-year-old actor who grew up idolizing Matlin, it was perhaps even more meaningful. “It was such an honor” to star opposite her, he says.

Matlin didn’t just ensure that the film’s cast was inclusive, though: She also advocated for its audience. Kotsur credits her for working with director Sian Heder and the Apple team to guarantee that every theater showing of CODA in the U.S. and U.K. would have open captions. (Usually, movies only have one or two captioned showtimes, or require deaf people to use special equipment which hinders the viewing experience.) “I watched the movie at a film festival last night, and to see deaf and hearing audience members all together, all laughing at the same time with none of the messy access issues we normally have ... in that moment it didn’t matter if we were deaf, hearing, hard-of-hearing, we were just people,” Kotsur says.

So what was it about CODA that inspired producers to open their minds, and their checkbooks? “It’s a new generation of viewers,” says Matlin. “Diversity, accessibility and inclusivity are now widely known issues ... and we in the Deaf community, thanks in large part to social media, have been able to make our voices heard and seen in the mainstream. Now people want these stories, and understand that the Deaf community has stories to share. It’s so great that CODA is able to do it authentically.” Of the cast, Emilia Jones was the only actor who was not a Deaf community member. Jones learned ASL specifically for the film, and some have taken to the internet to say that a real-life CODA (and thus, a native signer) should have been cast in the role. But with respect to the story at least, Jason, himself a CODA, tells me the movie resonates. “The push and pull tug of feeling guilty [about] leaving your parents and wanting to have a life of your own is very familiar to me,” he says. “I bawled like a baby many times watching the film.”

Troy Kotsur (left) and Marlee Matlin (right) in CODA.Apple TV+

Matlin says her performance of Jackie will go down as one of her favorite roles. I ask about other favorites and she has trouble choosing, though she remarks on the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast during her time as pollster Joey Lucas. Known for its rapid-fire dialogue, Matlin remembered having to adjust to keep up. “I remember going to Aaron and asking him if it would be alright if I just made up all the data I was throwing out. When he said no, that I had to memorize the exact numbers in the script I was like, ‘shoot!” Matlin says she’s grateful to have lots of different fanbases, though it’s clear Joey Lucas stuck in the minds of viewers. “To this day people still come up to me and say, ‘I loved you on The West Wing,’” says Matlin.

“I was also pregnant during that show in real life,” she reminisces. It’s a reminder that her extensive list of credits is even more impressive when balanced against her work as a mother of four young kids. These days, with her youngest a rising senior in high school, Matlin has a new challenge: “I’m used to cooking for six people, and now I’m only cooking for three. But I can’t seem to shrink the amount of food I make!”

With a lighter cooking load and a pandemic that stopped Hollywood in its tracks, Matlin still hasn’t slowed down much. Through the lockdowns, Matlin created The Sound Off Ladies video podcast with three close friends — an ASL web series where the women discuss “hot topics” and interview notable Deaf people. She’s also lining up more film and television work as the industry gets back on its feet.

“I have a few projects in the works that should be announced soon that I’m excited about.” She smiles. “And I think maybe directing, down the line.”

As for CODA, which hit Apple TV+ on Aug. 13, Matlin hopes audiences approach the movie with an open mind — and remember that it represents only one of thousands of Deaf stories worth telling. “Not all deaf people see eye to eye, and we don’t all communicate the same way, but it’s a rich, beautiful culture. I’m so excited for people to see this movie.”

I ask if Matlin ever gets tired of teaching duty — of tirelessly explaining to the nondisabled not only the nature of Deaf culture, but the disabled community’s need for access — and she gives an emphatic nod. “Yes, I’m very tired of teaching,” she says. “But how else? If you stay quiet, no change will be made.”