When Shoshannah Stern was six years old, she asked her mother for an agent. The actress and creator of “This Close’ on Sundance Now doesn’t know how she knew what an agent was at that age, but once she got it in her head that acting was what she wanted to do, she never let it out of her sights. Stern booked her first professional gig on “Off Centre” after attending Gallaudet University and then went onto series such as “Threat Matrix,” “Jericho,” “Weeds” and “Supernatural” before launching “This Close” with Josh Feldman.
Do you consider “Off Centre,” your first TV show, your big break?
They were looking for a deaf actor in their 20s and they were looking outside of Los Angeles so they called Gallaudet University … and the secretary, who was almost like my mom, always very supportive, said “I know the perfect person for you.” So she gave them my AOL email address, and I got this audition out of the blue, and it was a sign. [But] I think people have different ways in which they come into their own, and I feel like I’m just now starting to experience that. I’m learning so much about how I’m stretching myself, in different ways. … I never would have thought or dreamt in that time that I’d be in the position I’m in today. There’s not just one point that was the defining moment. It’s been a progression and a process and I feel like that process is still happening.
What inspired you to start writing your own content?
It’s not just one moment, it’s a series of collective of moments. It came from my frustration. Frustration is fuel. You have to use that fuel to empower someone, so all my frustration between work or, I feel like I could’ve either let it kill me or put it somewhere. So I just started writing, I just started doing.
When was the first moment you started writing in your career?
I think it started with “Jericho.” They called me into the writers’ room and they asked me about specific experiences that I had had, that a deaf person would have had, and that was the first time I really understood the collaborative effort. I felt like that’s where the magic happened. In talking with them about ideas and such there was just something inside of me that thought it was so cool. And then one day on set I was struggling with a specific scene, and the showrunner was on set at the time and she came up to me and was like, “What’s going on with you today?” And I said, “I just feel like I’m having a hard time connecting to this particular scene.” And so she started asking more questions, why essentially, and I was like, “Well, I’m not sure that a deaf person would be in this situation or if they were that they would say something like this.” I kept trying to say this line that wasn’t right, and I was obsessing. And she said, “Then say whatever you want to say in this moment.” She gave me a pencil and was like, “Here, write whatever you would say.” I was like, “All right.” And I think it was that moment.
Have you had moments where you don’t connect to a character, but you’re not allowed to change things? How do you handle that?
I’ve had auditions where I’ve felt that way, but I wasn’t in a position to say no. And I’m still not in a position to say no because really there aren’t enough roles out there yet for me. So every time I audition for something I can’t say no, I have to go. But every time I feel like that I don’t get that role. When I feel like I connect to the material, then I typically get the job.
Do you find your process is different when you write for yourself as a performer as opposed to another character?
Actually, it’s the exact same process. … Early on, I think I did think, “Oh I’d like to play it this way,” but then you get lost in the process. And so I started writing for the character instead of writing for myself, and I think that’s the coolest of experiences. It forces me to do things that I feel like are outside of my comfort zone.
Not everyone can create a show for themselves, so what do you want to see those already in power do to expand representation on-screen?
I think it starts with how we see diversity. Diversity exists in so many more colors and more ways than so many people think. So like with a disabled role, only 2.5% in any film or television show last year were disabled characters or played by disabled people. Diversity is about things that you don’t necessarily see, and I think when you write a role intended for somebody in mind, sometimes the intention is really good, but then it becomes very narrowly defined as this one thing and becomes what this person thinks that person’s experience is, rather than what it actually is in real life or what it could be in real life. So with the roles that I connected with, they’re not written as a deaf person, per se, but I can see the interesting layers of that character that would come out if that character were also deaf. So I think it’s about seeing anyone for any role, and I think that’s how we can really move forward and that’s where the magic happens. That’s how things become more nuanced.
Were there roles you booked not specifically written for a deaf performer? How did you make sure you got seen for them?
The “Jericho” role that I played, that wasn’t written for a deaf person, and also the “Threat Matrix.” … I was just talking to my representative, and I was like, “This is what I want. These are the roles I want to go for.” As a woman, especially a woman who has a narrow space that I can occupy, I think you have to really ask for what you want. … That really essentially goes against what my own conditioning would tell me to do, and I’m still learning now how much I need to ask for what I want, but it has to do with casting directors, if they’re willing to entertain the idea. But I think what happened in the Jericho situation, it was supposed to be just a general meeting but then [they] said, “No no, just give her something.” So I read for another character and I didn’t hear back from them, and I was like, “Oh well.” I just thought it was a win I got to read for that character and then months and months later they said they were writing a role for me.
What did you learn from the first season of “This Close” that you’re applying to season 2?
I think I’m learning that the creative process is never over. It’s really about not a product, per se, but it’s about the cohesiveness of all of the different parts and the specific dynamics with the specific people in the play. And it’s also people’s various perspectives. We don’t know what we can’t see until we do actually see it. So I’m learning how to see something from different perspectives.
How did response to season 1 affect what you wanted to do with season 2?
We tried to make the first season about the human experience, rather than the deaf experience. We wanted to make sure it was accessible to a wider audience. But the more human moments didn’t get as much response as the specific deaf moments. That was really unexpected and really refreshing. We are more alike than we think we are, and I think that was a really important lesson for me going into the second season. In this climate that we’re living in right now I’m kind of like, there’s more than connects us, but I think you just have to see each other more so you can bring your specific experience into somebody else’s life.