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‘Eternals’ Star Lauren Ridloff on Playing Marvel’s First Deaf Superhero and the Need to ‘Normalize Subtitles’

Makkari Lauren Ridloff Eternals
Sophie Mutevelian / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

When Lauren Ridloff saw Marvel Studios’ “Eternals” for the first time at a special screening on the Disney lot in October, the actor began to cry before the movie had even started. The COVID pandemic had delayed the Chloé Zhao film for a full year, but for Ridloff — the first deaf actor ever to play a superhero in a studio feature film — the wait had been much longer.

“It felt like it was a lifetime of waiting,” Ridloff told Variety, through the use of an American Sign Language interpreter. “I didn’t really see anyone like myself ever represented on the screen.”

Ridloff plays Makkari, one of 10 Eternals who arrived on Earth 7,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization to help humanity progress and protect them against monstrous creatures called Deviants. Her professional career, however, only started a few years ago. Born deaf, the 43-year-old worked for years as a teacher before a gig teaching ASL to theater director Kenny Leon for a revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” which ultimately landed her the lead role. From there, Ridloff was cast on “The Walking Dead.” In the 2020 awards darling “Sound of Metal,” she played a teacher of deaf children who helps Riz Ahmed’s character learn how to use ASL.

In the comic books, the super-fast Makkari is a hearing white man, but from the earliest conception of the movie, Marvel Studios executive Nate Moore saw “Eternals” as an opportunity to broaden the MCU’s demographic spectrum by reimagining several characters beyond the standard white, straight, cisgender male model.

Cut to Ridloff, weeping in a darkened theater — “Tears of joy! Tears of joy!” — as she watched herself converse in ASL with costars like Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani and Salma Hayek with nary a line of dialogue wasted to explain why.

“Finally seeing Makkari appear on the screen — wow,” she says. “It was definitely life changing. And I hope that this has the same impact on different communities, people who have been marginalized or are underrepresented in this industry.”

Ridloff isn’t just speaking symbolically when she says “Eternals” has been life changing. While making the movie, she expressed frustration to Jolie that a scene in which she wasn’t facing the camera meant she didn’t know when the director was calling “Action.” Jolie suggested having a crew member use a laser pointer to signal when the scene was starting, a practice Ridloff immediately adopted on every project she’s worked on since.

“It’s actually invaluable to my work now,” she says. “Whenever I go to shoots on ‘The Walking Dead,’ I use a laser pen. When the camera starts rolling, the interpreter just moves the laser pen in a circle, and then on action, it disappears, so I know that’s when we’re calling action.”

Ridloff also spoke with Variety about how the production chose to incorporate ASL into the storyline, what she thinks about the surge of movies and TV shows that include deaf or hard of hearing characters and the real-life superpower she discovered making “Eternals.”

A different approach to this movie would have been to explain why Makkari is deaf or why the other Eternals aren’t, or how the other Eternals learned sign language. This movie presents all of that as a given. Did you have discussions with Chloé [Zhao] about that decision?

What I love most about Chloé and this movie is there’s diversity on the screen without actually having that become the point of the story. It just is. It’s just like the real world. I think that was what was so exciting to see, people who were just different. They have different interests, different abilities.

Given the movie’s global and historical scope, were there discussions about the kind of sign language you would be using in the movie?

Yeah, there absolutely was that discussion with Chloé. I know a lot of people don’t realize that sign language is not universal. Each country has their own form of sign language. We have American Sign Language here. There’s also British Sign Language and Mexican Sign Language. I could meet a deaf person from Japan and not understand them, because our sign languages are so different. So we were thinking about Makkari, should we make up some kind of sign language system, because in this story, we start at the dawn of civilization. But Chloé was like, “Look, everybody is speaking English [in the movie]. Come on!” So we decided, why not just use American Sign Language? It makes sense. People haven’t been speaking English since the dawn of time, but here we are.

You’ve talked about how Angelina Jolie and you came up with a system of using a laser pointer to help cue you during a dialogue scene. But what was your process for shooting action sequences?

One thing that I love about Hollywood is it’s Hollywood’s nature to problem solve. Also, sometimes people, you know, overthink things. It wasn’t that complicated to work out all those action sequences. We would just walk through it, do our blocking marks. We would do a dry run, just to make sure everything was safe. And then if we were clear on everything, we would just go through it, and it worked. I did a lot of my own stunts in the movie, and I don’t think there was really a big learning curve, truly.

You’ve also talked about Deaf Gain — ways being deaf can be an advantage instead of a loss. Was there any Deaf Gain for you while making a giant Marvel movie?

Well, first of all, I’m just so thrilled to see Deaf Gain enter into the mainstream. I guess that’s one of the good things about having this kind of platform. Yes, definitely we had deaf gain. There were several stories, but I’ll start with one. It was when we were doing reshoots. Makkari’s running, and I use my sonic boom to push the Deviant. The AD was passing out earplugs to everybody, because Chloé was using the sonic boom when I actually did that scene. They came up to me and they’re like, “Here’s your ear plugs.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t need them!” “But it’s really loud. You know, it might be pressure on your eardrum.” I’m like, “No, I don’t think I’m going to need them, but thank you.” In that moment, I was like, wow, superhero powers! I’m the only one without earplugs. When we shot that, and that boom happened, everybody was like, “Wow, that was really loud, even with the earplugs.” And it didn’t faze me at all. Not one bit.

What kind of responses have you been getting from deaf and hard of hearing people about your character?

From the deaf and hard of hearing community, the response has been very positive. I feel like a lot of people are thrilled just to see a deaf person of color in the movie. But also what I’m seeing is deaf and hard of hearing people are really taking this opportunity to push for more [movie] subtitling, and I’m just thrilled that that’s happening. I think it is an important conversation that we need to continue to have. We just need to normalize subtitles. Right now, all of us are so visual, and we’re so dependent on text — a lot of hearing people are. You text on your phone, you look at text on social media. So why not allow that to infiltrate the movie theater? Why don’t we just start incorporating text into subtitling in movies. I think everybody truly would benefit from it on the screen. It really would help.

In just the last few years, there have been a wave of titles featuring and centering deaf and hard of hearing people, including “Eternals,” “A Quiet Place” and its sequel, “Only Murders in the Building,” “CODA,” “Deaf U” and “Sound of Metal.” Why do you think that’s happening now?

I have a feeling that this is just an example of Hollywood being aware of the need to tell new, fresh stories. We’ve seen so many stories out there with the same tropes, with the same characters, and we’re getting restless. Since COVID, truly, I think we’ve been watching a lot more content, and it’s time to start listening and watching different experiences and lifestyles. I think Hollywood sees the importance of bringing more representation on the screen and we’re just trying to figure out how. What’s the best way? What are the best resources that Hollywood needs to make more space for new stories? And also, putting it out there, many of those projects that you just mentioned, I just realized that my husband actually was involved as the ASL consultant. He was part of “Only Murders in the Building,” “A Quiet Place” and “A Quiet Place Part II.”

Are you seeing more career opportunities for yourself after “Eternals”?

I’m hopeful that this movie will create more opportunities for myself, but also I’m very hopeful that this creates more opportunities for other deaf people [and] for people with other disabilities, not only in front of the camera, but also behind the camera. We need more people in the writers room. We need more people involved with pre-production. We need people who are deaf or have disabilities.

This interview has been edited and condensed.