“She. Is. Stunning.” Those were the words my publisher used to describe Marlee Matlin when we first received her pictures from her longtime friend and sign language interpreter, Jack Jason, who has worked with the actress for more than 20 years. If you were alive and culturally aware in the 1980s, it’s likely you remember when Marlee won an Academy Award for her incendiary performance as Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God.” Matlin was just 21, a self-described “good Jewish girl” from the Chicago suburbs who had never let her deafness slow her down. Not only is she gorgeous on the outside, but her soul and spirit as a human being is what makes her shine and what others say make her “light up a room.”
For several years, Marlee worked the Chicago theatre scene before landing the lead role as Sarah, a young deaf woman who becomes romantically involved with a speech teacher, in the stage production of “Children of a Lesser God.” Having gained attention in that role, she was selected to play Sarah in the movie version, opposite William Hurt, for which she won an Academy Award in 1988. Critic Roger Ebert said, “She holds her own against the powerhouse she’s acting with, carrying scenes with a passion.” And that’s how Marlee has lived life. She’s received Emmy nominations for appearances in “Seinfeld,” “Picket Fences,” “Law and Order” and “The Practice.” Matlin depicted a mentally-handicapped woman who fights to keep her child in a made-for-TV movie, “Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story,” and has played in such series as “Spin City,” “ER,” “Reasonable Doubts” and “The West Wing.” Marlee was awarded a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2009. She’s been a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” has written a children’s book about what it’s like to be deaf, a young adult book, “Deaf Child Crossing,” and has co-authored two other titles. Stopping at nothing, she supports many charitable causes serving children, and is an advocate for the hard of hearing for The Starkey Hearing Foundation. As you can see, Marlee lives what she preaches. As she says, “Silence is the last thing you will ever hear from me.” I recently had the chance to interview Ms. Matlin and get the dish on everything from growing up Jewish to what’s next for the multi-talented actress.
You attended Temple B’nai Shalom, the Jewish Temple for the Deaf. How did it shape your faith and you as a person? Going to Temple B’nai Shalom was something I looked forward to every week because it was a community that was ALL inclusive—hearing and deaf Jews—together! It showed me that Judaism was a religion that did not judge nor exclude anyone simply because of the barriers they may face. B’nai Shalom just simply shaped who I am—my values, my core beliefs and why I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to live generously and heal the world.
Favorite role and why? Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God.” It’s like your first love; your first movie role is one you’ll never forget. That was the role that introduced me to what would be my career and path for the rest of my life, and I cherish every memory and every friend I made including my director, the talented (and unfortunately not acknowledged as she should be) Randa Haines.
What was it like performing in Deaf Theatre West’s production of “Spring Awakening.” Did you ever think you would be performing again in a musical? I had been performing in musicals since I was 7 years old at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Northbrook, IL. They allowed children, both deaf and hearing to perform together in song and spoke both dialogue and sign language. Though it had been 30 years since I was last on the stage, being in “Spring Awakening” was like coming back home and all those “stage muscles” came to life again. I had a marvelous time being on Broadway!
You’ve overcome so many challenges in your life, what are you most proud of accomplishing? Continuing to work in the entertainment business for the last 31 years when critics and naysayers said I would never work again after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. I like to say that even though they declared me “D.O.A”—Deaf On Arrival—I’m still here and doing my best to prove that Deaf people can do anything—except hear!
What’s the best piece of advice you were given? From Henry Winkler, my friend and mentor. While I was living at he and his wife’s house after the negative reviews about my career prospects, he would remind me of a quote from Herzl that said “If you will it, it is not a dream.” He was right, no dream is impossible if you want it badly enough. I try and pass that message every chance I get when I have the opportunity to speak with Jewish groups.
Without going into too much detail about your personal feelings about the election, but given the current political climate, what is some advice you would give to our younger generation who are somehow “different” from the norm (LGBT, hearing impaired, immigrants, women, etc.) NEVER give up. NEVER cave in. NEVER assume you are somehow less or not equal. Always stand strong and speak your mind. And if you stand for what’s right, you will achieve parity with your fellow human being.
What are you currently working on? I just finished a guest spot on CBS’s “Code Black” and the final season of “Switched at Birth” begins airing in January. I also just guest-starred on a show that I’ve been asked to keep a secret until they announce it early in 2017, as it looks like I may be coming back for more episodes. AND I’m producing several projects AND the mom of four. This is busy for sure!
This question might just be for me, but I remember in college watching “What the Bleep Do We Know” (a film about spiritual connection between quantum physics and consciousness) and it blew my mind. Do you practice any kind of mindfulness or spiritual connection, and did working on that particular movie influence that? I don’t practice in the same way the film delved into the mind/spirit connection because, to tell the truth, a lot of the concepts in the film went right over my head! I’m practical and a Jew and I think about what I need to do on behalf of my children, husband and family and how I can make the world a better place just by being who I am, showing people that anyone can overcome barriers if they just set their mind to it. But I know the film influenced A LOT of people and it got me thinking; perhaps there is a way to make the movie into a weekly TV series about the continuing adventures of Amanda and how her life continues to expose new and startling perspectives!
Marlee made her dream happen. And today, she’s happily married with four beautiful children. In fact, she even got married on Henry Winkler’s front lawn… the very person who lifted her up when she needed it most. She said we must never sit silently when other people are in need. That we must always give of ourselves. Marlee is a role model, living proof to all around her, myself included, that anything is possible. And with enough tenacity and chutzpah we can all be anything we want to be. And that it’s never too late. What an inspiration and a lovely human being, inside and out. To find out more about Marlee please visit her website, www.marleematlinsite.com.
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel and is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.