Marlee Matlin was surprised at her parents’ reaction to her latest movie, “Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story,” premiering Wednesday on cable’s Lifetime.
In the disturbing true story, the hearing-impaired actress plays Carrie Buck, a developmentally slow hearing woman who, in 1927, became the test case for a landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing the sterilization of mentally deficient women against their will. Melissa Gilbert also stars as a young lawyer who takes on Buck’s case.
“My dad is probably one of the most sensitive men I know,” says the ebullient actress, through her interpreter, Jack Jason. Though Matlin, who won the best actress Oscar for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” prefers to sign her interviews, she frequently breaks into conversation.
“I think it is probably he’s overprotective of me,” Matlin, 29, says of her father. “He wanted to protect me. When the movie started he instantly began to cry. I said, ‘Dad! It’s only the credits.’ And he said, ‘Just hold on, Marlee.’ He watched the movie. He talked to the TV and he kept looking at me like he was making sure I was all right and kept saying, ‘Why is this happening? Is it true?’ He was very angry.”
Her mother was equally emotional. “My mom was in the middle of watching this and she said, ‘I don’t know if I can take this anymore.’ I don’t know if she meant that the movie itself is not what she couldn’t take, or was it the work that I did she couldn’t take, or the character, what I was going through, she couldn’t take. I didn’t discuss it with them. We didn’t get to talk about what they were thinking.”
Matlin chose to do the movie because it was controversial. And also because she felt a kinship with Buck. “I was proud to portray her because I felt such an amazing instinct to protect her, to represent her in a positive way, while at the same time highlighting such a negative issue.”
The actress first received Brian Ross’ script, then called “The Friendly Suit,” four years ago. “I remember (saying to the producers), ‘Is this character deaf?’ And they said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Just go ahead and write the script and make it possible for me to play it.’ They made it possible for me to play it because this is a person who was hearing, but she wasn’t hearing in a sense that we consider a normal functioning woman.”
And one would never know watching the film that Matlin is deaf. Even her mother asked her if there was someone underneath the cameras giving Matlin her cues. “I said, ‘No, no one was helping me.’ I was working and that was my work as an actor. That’s the one thing I’m proud of. I did it on my own.”
To prepare for her part, Matlin visited a mental hospital in North Carolina, where the film was shot. “They were very nice to show me the residential part of the hospital and the different behaviors of individuals. It was overwhelming to say the least.”
She met two deaf men during her visit. “They were not responsive at all, but did respond when I signed to them, but then they couldn’t respond back. (They) made me realize how I appreciate where I come from and the fact that I have what I have. I have a great deal of good fortune. It’s one of the reasons I chose to do the role of Carrie Buck because she had nothing. She didn’t even have a life.”
Playing a hearing person is not something Matlin wants to do “repeatedly.” But after winning her Oscar, Matlin has sought out challenging parts--whether it be a snotty cashier in “The Linguini Incident” or a modern-day Robin Hood in an episode of “Picket Fences” last season. Five years ago, Matlin made her speaking debut in the CBS movie “A Bridge to Silence.”
Matlin says she’s trying to broaden her horizons. “I am doing something right,” she says, laughing. And indeed she is. Matlin received two Emmy nominations this last season for guest appearances on “Seinfeld,” as one of Jerry’s girlfriends, and for her “Picket Fences” episodes.
“In my case, I can’t just get what Julia Roberts gets and Susan Sarandon gets. But that’s OK. I let myself look at scripts, and if there’s something in the script that’s not written for me, I say, ‘Can you change it for me and make me fit in?’ ”
She would have loved to have had a crack at Jane Campion’s acclaimed “The Piano.” “Holly Hunter was terrific,” she says. “She’s a great actress. I admire her a great deal, but I don’t know if it would have been a loss if she wasn’t in it. I think that’s the truth, but at the same time, she was terrific in it and I voted for her. I think that a deaf actress could have had the opportunity to play that role.”
In fact, Matlin adds, she did meet with “Piano” director Jane Campion. But Matlin was still involved in her 1991-93 NBC series “Reasonable Doubts,” and the schedules conflicted.
Matlin is in the market to do another TV series. “I’m meeting with several people right now for next season with various ideas,” she says.
If she does another hour series, Matlin would prefer an ensemble piece. “ ‘Reasonable Doubts’ was extremely exhausting because it was myself and Mark Harmon,” she says. “The first year was very exciting because it was all new and the scripts were OK. But the second year, things sort of fell apart. It was a good experience, but I’m glad we moved on.”
“Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story” premieres Wednesday at 9 and 11 p.m. on Lifetime.