Actress Marlee Matlin

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Matlin—the first deaf performer to win the Oscar for best actress—describes her recurring role on the ABC Family drama series, Switched at Birth.

Although Marlee Matlin lost much of her hearing at the age of 18 months, she refused to be limited by her deafness. She acted in children's theater and, after studying criminal justice in college, went on to become the youngest recipient of the best actress Oscar (for her film debut—a recreation of her role on stage—in Children of a Lesser God). The four-time Emmy nominee has starred in her own series and made numerous guest appearances in TV series, including ABC Family's Switched at Birth. She's also written novels for children. Matlin works with a number of charities and was instrumental in getting legislation passed in Congress in support of Closed Captioning.


Tavis: Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin has always refused to take no for an answer. Breaking down many of the barriers faced by actors with disabilities, she made her acting debut in “Children of a Lesser God,” for which, of course, she won that Academy Award at the age of 21.

Since then she’s gone on to win a Golden Globe award, and recently four Emmy nominations for her work on various specials and series, including “Seinfeld” and “Law & Order: SVU.”

She’s currently in the Peabody award winning series on the ABC Family Network called “Switched at Birth,” playing the role of a guidance counselor to a hearing-impaired teen. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Switched at Birth.”

[Clip from “Switched at Birth”]

Tavis: So it’s good to have you on the program.

[Marlee Matlin speaks via an ASL interpreter throughout entirety of interview]

Marlee Matlin: Thank you so much.

Tavis: This is not typically how we watch television. We see movies from time to time with subtitles, but we don’t typically watch television this way. Yet there’s something about this program that’s making it work. The numbers are huge for this network. What’s making it work for American audiences?

Matlin: Well obviously it’s the first time where you get to see – in television history where network has allowed deaf characters to be part of a scene entirely like this. I think for the hearing audience, for people who don’t know sign language, American Sign Language, you’re able to sort of feel what it’s like to be able to watch, for those of us who’ve watched television so long with subtitles.

I think it’s just a brilliant means of programming. It’s compelling, it makes it very, very compelling for everyone to watch, regardless of whether you’re deaf or not. I think it’s broken down barriers, it really has.

For such a long time I’ve struggled to try to get on equal footing in terms of access to be able to show a television screen that has deaf characters there.

Tavis: Speaking of Closed Captioning, I should bow down to you because you and a few other people, certainly you, were very aggressive and progressive about pushing for these national standards.

Everything on PBS and everywhere else, for that matter, on TV these days is closed-captioned, but that’s in large measure to you and the Herculean effort that you made on Capitol Hill some years ago.

Matlin: It was really an effort that was needed. First of all, first I have to bow to PBS because PBS was the first network to closed caption. They got it, they got it, and it was a long time coming.

I grew up watching television with my family, not understanding what was going on, not understanding what was being said, and my parents and my brothers would laugh at certain things that were being said or they would watch, watching a cop show, and I would have to ask someone to interpret for me.

So when Closed Captioning came along, just the beginnings of it, before it became law for all networks to have to closed caption, I just had to sort of make up lines with what people were saying, whatever they were saying on television.

Tavis: Sometimes that may be better. (Laughter)

Matlin: Well, maybe you’re right, that may be right. Sometimes if there was bad writing I could get away with it, yeah, I could understand, that’s true. But the first show that came on was “Three’s Company,” and I was absolutely fascinated because I didn’t want to turn off the television.

I tried to find other shows that had captioning, and every once in a while there would be. But then I went to Capitol Hill and I lobbied and tried to break down that barrier, and to this day, I’ll never forget each one of those senators saying yes, yes, yes, we want to do this, and I was a changed woman. I have to say I was changed.

Tavis: How much more difficult, and maybe I’m showing my bias here, but how much more difficult does it make your job as an actor to – you won an Academy Award, so clearly you can do this.

But how much more difficult does it make your job to get, to emote, to get across on the screen what you want to get across on the screen when you have to sign it?

Matlin: Well I think I’m more expressive, so I don’t know if it’s necessarily more difficult. I use my body more than people who speak. I think there’s some great actors who do the same thing who speak, but I think I come naturally to that.

It’s part of who I am and part of my culture. So I think that’s one advantage that I have of being deaf – I’m assuming so. When I watch movies or television and I see an actor, I look for them to express their authenticity, I look – everyone delivers their lines, certainly.

They use their voices, they have their tones, they have their expressions. But I want to see it in their face and their body. I want to see how it matches what they’re feeling.

Tavis: It’s a fascinating phrase that you use, and I’m not surprised to hear come out of your mouth, this notion of the advantage that you have of being deaf. Are there other advantages to being deaf?

Matlin: Well I sleep very well at night, that’s for sure. (Laughter) I have no problems with that. I’m a mom of four, so certainly that works. There’s a technology for deaf people to use when the baby cries, for example, that allows a light to flash off and on when a baby cries with sound.

Sometimes I would get away with it – I would turn off the device so that my husband would have to (laughter) go up and get the baby crying, and I would say, “I didn’t hear anything.” That was a big advantage to me.

Tavis: All right.

Matlin: And I don’t have to hear all the obnoxious people, whatever people are speaking around you on a daily basis, I don’t have to hear anybody snore. There are a lot of advantages to being deaf.

At the same time, I wish that there was one thing I could hear, and that was my kids’ voices.

Tavis: Oh –

Matlin: But that’s okay. I can see them with their eyes; I can hear them with their eyes. I see them as individuals, as persons, and – it would be nice to know what they sound like, but it’s all right. There’s no – I’m not crying for myself here. There’s no tears here.

Tavis: For those who haven’t seen the show, let me go back to the show. For those who haven’t seen it, tell me about the role you play as a guidance counselor, and more about the show overall.

Matlin: Well I play, as you said, a guidance counselor, and I’m a mom of a teenager who is the star of the show. That’s Sean Berdy, who plays my son. He’s a great actor.

The show really wasn’t originally written with a deaf character in it, according to Lizzy Weiss, our executive producer. She was working on two girls who were switched at birth, it just so happens. Just switched at birth. One, she decided at some point after the network said let’s find something to do, and made it deaf.

So now we have a story not only of kids who were switched at birth, but you have one who’s deaf and one is from a poor neighborhood, one’s from a rich neighborhood, and it deals with all the issues that a family goes through when finding out that there’s another family out there.

What’s great about the show is that you have a great deal of diversity in the show. They use American Sign Language, they have deaf culture, they have all kinds of different ways of communicating, and they don’t dwell on what it’s like to be deaf. They don’t create deaf victims, in other words.

It’s not about the victimization of being deaf, and I think that’s what’s great about the show. Teens love the show, and I’ve gained a huge teen audience, fan base, that I’ve never had before.

I’m walking down the street with my kids, and these teens are like, “Oh my God, there’s Emmett’s mom.” My kids are looking at me like, “Emmett’s mom? Wait a minute, you’re our mom.”

Tavis: (Laughter) What about this storyline with deaf characters you think resonates particularly with the young? You made the point a moment ago that you have a huge teen following. What’s so relatable, what’s so resonant for teens?

Matlin: Well I think – you’re asking a question that I can give you a lot of answers so I’ll try to be brief, but I think the storyline in particular about having my character try to educate these kids about the importance of going to college, the importance of thinking about what you want in your future, the importance of your setting your goals, the importance of what you want to be in the world as a person who happens to be deaf.

I think that’s certainly relatable. I would say that my character says you can do – I say I can do anything except hear. King Jordan, who was the first president of Gallaudet University, college for the deaf, said that: “I can do anything except hear.”

So I think what’s important is that for hearing audiences to get at this, for people who’ve never seen American Sign Language, who have never seen deaf culture, who’ve never even let alone seen a deaf character on a show like this, it’s a great lesson for them because it’s certainly relatable. It’s certainly important to understand there’s more to life than what is out there now.

Tavis: I always feel like I should have and in fact I should learn how to sign. I’ve been in any number of conversations over the years with people who talk about the difficulty in learning certain languages, and they say that English, our language, is the most difficult to learn because we have so many words that mean the same thing. So how difficult is it to learn, for a person like me to learn how to sign?

Matlin: You know what, it’s like learning any other language, I think, actually, I would think. However, being that American Sign Language is very popular, particularly in high schools, you’ll find more and more sign language classes being offered in high schools.

It’s very popular at the college level too. But I think high school students are certainly attracted to it and they’re signing up for it, because it’s such a beautiful and expressive language, and you get to use your hands.

I have to point out it’s not international, so if you meet a person from another country, they’re signing in their language and it’s a different language altogether. So there’s Chinese sign language, Russian sign language, British sign language – all of them are all different.

But deaf people who run into other deaf people from other countries have a base of nonverbal communication. We use our face, we use our bodies, to communicate.

So we can do it a little better than you can with hearing people. And I developed an app for teaching sign language called Marlee’s Signs. I’m doing a little PR on my own thing here. (Laughter)

But you can put that on your iPhone, it’s only available for iPhones, and you can learn sign language.

Tavis: Cool.

Matlin: Teaching you the basics of sign language.

Tavis: I have an iPhone, so I should download your app. I think I will. Very quickly, how crazy was this bogus sign language guy at the Mandela – how crazy was that?

Matlin: It was insane. It was insane. He was embarrassing. He was – listen, the bottom line was I felt for the people of South Africa, the deaf people, who were unable to understand.

They were so excited to be able to participate in the funeral of this great man and to be able to celebrate the life of Mandela, and yet to be duped by this fake interpreter probably is the worst thing that could have happened to them.

They were robbed of the beauty of the service; they were robbed of all those dignitaries who were speaking on Mandela’s life. They were robbed. They were robbed. Hopefully that will never happen again.

Tavis: Great to have been in conversation tonight with Academy Award winner, Golden Globe winner, Emmy nominee, mother of four, got her own app to help you learn to sign, our friend, Marlee Matlin.

The show is called “Switched at Birth.” It’s on the ABC Family Network. Marlee, congratulations and good to have you on the program.

Matlin: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: And Jack, I should have mentioned you at the beginning, but thank you.

Jack: That’s okay, I’m always getting –

Tavis: This is Jack.

Jack: Yes, nice to meet you. Marlee said she’s pretty to look at anyway, so.

Tavis: She is yes.

Jack: Yeah, she is.

Tavis: But I like those shoes you got on.

Jack: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Yeah. But your shoes are okay, too.

Jack: Your feet are a little too big; I can’t switch my shoes with you, no.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Jack: Okay.

Tavis: Nice to have you both on.

Jack: Nice to see you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: March 19, 2014 at 1:29 pm