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Marlee Matlin Talks Trio of TV Roles: ‘There’s No Box I Fit Into’

Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her first role (in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God”) but the majority of her three decade-long career has been spent on television. This year alone she has had roles on ABC’s “Quantico,” Syfy’s “The Magicians” and Sundance Now’s “This Close.” “They’re all three very, very different roles, and I’m very excited about the fact that there’s opportunity to play different characters on different outlets,” Matlin says.

Your three most recent TV projects are across the board with genres and networks. Was there a common thread to them that made you say yes to all three?

There wasn’t really a thread. I’m not in a position where I can just say “OK I’m going to this,” “I’m going to do that.” But they all have to appeal to me.

What specifically appealed about these three?

This Close” was a project from a good friend of mine — Shoshannah Stern — and I said, “When am I on your show?” And I didn’t know if she was going to take me seriously, but she did, and she wrote a role for me. When I got there, I was so excited because it was deaf-centric and it was sign language-centric, and I used my language. It was much more freeing than I anticipated because I would see the lines and then we’d shoot, and they’d say “Cut,” and I’d say “Wait a minute, I missed a line” and they said “No, don’t worry.” What I learned very quickly was they wanted more improvisation — and that was fun. It really delved into my culture, my language, whereas other projects are different because my role is the deaf person surrounded by a world of hearing people. On “This Close” I’m in my community and it was the hearing people that were in the minority.

The Magicians” was very interesting because that’s not my wheelhouse. I don’t watch sci-fi. But knowing how good the show is — how well they put it together and how good the actors are — I decided to do it when they asked for me. And that, too, was very different because of the special effects. I’ve done some special effects in some other films, but this was really intense and fascinating because I was involved a lot more than typically would be.

Quantico,” you’ve never really seen a FBI agent who happens to be deaf working in the field. People [will wonder] “Why? How?” [My character] used to be a hearing person and then I became injured on the job and yet I took the time to recover and I relearned everything and learned a new language and got very good at it, obviously, in three years. My character has a huge plus being deaf because rather than what everyone else depends on [she] depends on her eyes. She’s [great as] a sniper because that is somebody who uses their eyes quite well and a person who is deaf has better sensitivity with their eyes than any person who can hear. There are situations with surveillance, to put together puzzles that have to do with visual images, to take a photograph and analyze it and see what shadows lie — there are all kinds of ways. It’s taking advantage of my visual superpowers.

Do you feel like there are better opportunities to play well-rounded characters in TV than film today?

American Sign Language is a lot more prevalent and there’s a greater awareness of it on television. But now I think we are seeing it in both TV and film. There are more opportunities for deaf actors, but I think we still need to educate people to be more open to using deaf actors.

What do you think is key in bringing about more roles for deaf actors?

I think that we should never be denied an opportunity or let deafness stand in the way. We obviously have laws out there to keep these things from happening, but people have to make these things happen. And as a result of social media, with one simple post we have access, because of technology. If they can’t get the roles because they can’t get cast, then they create their own roles, they write their own roles, they produce their own stuff — big or small.

Do you feel similarly about the opportunities for women in film and TV right now?

I’m not saying that everything is hunky-dory or fine, but from what I’ve observed, I think people are more thoughtful when they think of what they’re saying on set. People are very aware that there has to be mutual respect. Obviously there are still issues that are going on, but people are not disrespecting people as they once were — at least that’s what I’ve seen. Everyone knows that we don’t hold back and that we’re not going to be silent. We’re making noise, and it’s even louder than what’s been going on. I’m sorry that it took this long, but it’s there and now we’re all working together to learn and grow from it.

How do you feel you’ve most changed over your years in the industry?

I’m more outspoken than I think I have been in the past. I’m not letting anyone treat me any differently just because I happen to be deaf. A lot of times people are afraid to talk to me and I’m just straightforward and I say, “Come on, this is a collaborative process, we need to meet halfway.” It’s about communication. Before I think I used to get people get away with things or do things without my involvement, but I think it’s now important to speak up.

What work have you done that you feel personally resonated most, even if they’re not the roles for which you’re most famous?

When I get a chance to play comedy a lot of people are very surprised. For example, in “The Larry Sanders Show” — that was really something that people were like, “Wait a minute, hold on” because I used language. Also when you see me on shows like “Family Guy” or when I did the roast of Donald Trump. It was pretty nasty stuff. I think comedy is an area that people aren’t really aware that I can do. The bottom line is that there’s no box I fit into.

Is there any specific type of role you don’t want to do?

I don’t want to play poor, deaf victims, for sure. I don’t mind playing victims in general — but not because I’m deaf. It’s already been done; we’ve see that before.

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