“The first thing that comes to mind when people hear my name,” Marlee Matlin says, “is, ‘Oh, she’s the deaf one!’ I’ve learned to accept that kind of attitude.” But she refuses to be limited by other people’s expectations.
On Sunday, the actress who won an Oscar in 1987 for her role as an angry young deaf woman in “Children of a Lesser God” steps out in her first speaking role. She stars in CBS’ “Bridge to Silence” as a hearing-impaired woman whose husband is killed in an auto accident, eventually leading to a custody battle over their 4-year-old daughter with the woman’s own mother (Lee Remick).
“I took a speaking role because I can speak,” Matlin says. “I speak all the time in my personal life. I didn’t have to learn to speak for this role. The character is like me in terms of vocal capabilities--sometimes she speaks, sometimes she signs, sometimes she does both.”
The actress has a joyfulness about life that is rare among her Hollywood contemporaries. No longer is she an angry person who feels she is suffering because of her disability. Matlin lost her hearing when she was 18 months old.
“I’ve accepted who I am, and I’m used to it,” she says. “I’m proud I’m a person who happens to be deaf. I’d freak out if I got my hearing back. I don’t hear so fine, but I have other things.”
TV viewers heard her voice briefly last year during the Academy Awards ceremony when she handed Michael Douglas his best-actor Oscar.
“At the Oscars I was proud to stand up there as me and not as an actress and show I’m a person who can speak,” she says. “I just happen to be deaf. Some people criticized me because they thought I was telling deaf children to speak. That’s not my job to do. I wasn’t forced to speak. I wanted to speak, and I’ve had training. I’ve spoken since I was a kid.”
Still, in public situations she feels more comfortable communicating through her interpreter, Jack Jason.
He signs the questions to her, and she responds with a torrent of signs. Jason then delivers the words just as vigorously. After working with her for 3 1/2 years, he seems to have captured the vibrancy of her signing in his own tone of voice.
Occasionally Matlin speaks up--if she wants to make a joke or place extra emphasis. For instance, when she is explaining her desire for collaboration, she says through Jason, “A lot of people don’t know how I function as a hearing-impaired person, so I think it’s important that I meet with the writers for any project I do. If I want good work, I’ve got to invest good time.” Then she adds out loud, “But not two years!”
That’s how long “Bridge to Silence” took to get to the screen.
“The process began one month after I got my Oscar.
“In the original script, my character’s grief was focused on her deafness. That’s exactly what I wanted to get away from. They listened to me, and that was important. We agreed to focus her grief on her losing her husband and not getting along with her mother. We’ve seen enough deaf victims. It’s like blacks don’t want to be portrayed only as slaves,” Matlin says.
“Some hearing-impaired actors will never have a career beyond playing hearing-impaired characters, but Marlee’s vying to have a full career as an actor,” says Karen Arthur, who directed her in the CBS movie. “She has incredible acting instincts. She jumps into a scene, and she’s there.”
And her speaking ability? “Because she has never heard herself speak,” Arthur says, “she doesn’t know about inflection. So she relied on us to see whether she was making sense. If you think of the way she speaks as having an accent, she is totally understandable.”
“Bridge to Silence” is only Matlin’s second acting job since completing “Children of a Lesser God.” She had a small role in last year’s “Walker.” She’s trying to step things up by developing her own projects.
“I’m working to get what I want, which is to work,” she says. “I can’t say I’m desperate, but if I didn’t try to produce, it would take much longer and there wouldn’t be as many opportunities for me. I don’t want to sound like I’m selfish, but I need to have some control.”
Matlin has several films in development. One project, “Fox,” is awaiting a go-ahead from Paramount. Three other potential films involve co-stars Jennifer Grey, Jennifer Beals and Liam Neeson. As with “Bridge to Silence,” the characters she would play are hearing-impaired but speak. “I’m not going to start playing a hearing person,” she explains, “because I’m not a hearing person.”