Catching Up With Marlee Matlin

The Oscar-winning actress talks about Judaism, being deaf, parenthood, Celebrity Apprentice and winning an Oscar when she was barely out of high school.

by Danielle Cantor
(Originally published in July 2011)

If you were alive and culturally aware in the 1980s, it’s likely you remember when Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for her incendiary performance as Sarah Norman, a troubled young deaf woman in the 1986 film 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. It was her first film. That same year, Harper’s Bazaar named her one of the “Ten Most Beautiful Women” and Esquire featured her in its “Women We Love.” America had a new sweetheart.

Early in her career, Matlin’s personal life was rocky: She had a lengthy and tumultuous relationship with her Children of a Lesser God co-star, William Hurt, further complicated by a period of drug abuse. But Matlin summoned her trademark fortitude and swiftly got herself clean. From there, her stardom rose.

Matlin has appeared in numerous films, including Hear No Evil, opposite Martin Sheen, and The Man in the Golden Mask, a French feature co-starring Jean Reno. Since her small-screen debut in the 1989 CBS movie Bridge to Silence, Matlin has worked steadily on television: She’s starred in NBC’s Reasonable Doubts (earning Golden Globe and People’s Choice Award nominations) and The West Wing, on HBO’s The L Word, and in the Lifetime movie Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story—playing a character who was not deaf—for which she was nominated for a CableACE Award.

Matlin has also garnered praise for guest appearances on Seinfeld, Picket Fences, Desperate Housewives, ER, Nip/Tuck and many other popular shows. When reality TV came calling, she rose to the challenge and dazzled on both Dancing With the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice, where she raised an unprecedented amount—nearly $1 million—for the Starkey Hearing Foundation as one of Donald Trump’s two business-savvy finalists. 

Beyond performing, Matlin spends a lot of time giving back. President Clinton appointed her to the board of directors for the Corporation for National Service. She is also a national celebrity spokesperson for the American Red Cross and serves on the boards of a number of charitable organizations, including Easter Seals and the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation. She was instrumental in passing federal legislation that requires closed-captioning technology in all U.S.-manufactured televisions.

Also worth mentioning is Matlin’s series of children’s novels (Deaf Child Crossing, 2002; Nobody’s Perfect, 2006; Leading Ladies, 2007) and her engrossing 2009 memoir, I’ll Scream Later, all published by Simon and Schuster. The memoir, a New York Times and Los Angeles Times best-seller, chronicles Matlin’s life: her diagnosis as deaf at 18 months old, her years working with some of Hollywood’s most talented stars (and dating some of its most eligible heartthrobs), and her happy life today with husband Kevin Grandalsky and their four children.

It’s clear that Matlin’s success is inspired by talent, but driven by honest hard work. She has met every professional and personal challenge—and there have been many—with strength, positivity and humor. It’s easy to see why she’s a role model for women all over the world.

JW: Your parents decided to have you live at home and learn in mainstream schools. Do you think your life would have followed a different path if they had sent you to a deaf school, perhaps away from home, where you would have been part of a larger deaf community?

MM: The implication that somehow I am not a part of a larger deaf community, having been educated at a mainstreamed school and not at a school for the deaf, is incorrect. The deaf community today is made up of all different sorts of deaf people: those who attended schools for the deaf, those who were mainstreamed, etc. I found that my life was very rich having friends both hearing and deaf, both from the deaf community that attended schools for the deaf and those who attended mainstreamed schools.

JW: Describe the experience of learning—and reading (and also speaking?)—Hebrew for your bat mitzvah.

MM: Some people might have thought being bat mitzvahed would be impossible for a deaf girl, but it was an opportunity for which I was most grateful. Being bat mitzvahed is difficult enough for children whose primary language is English and Hebrew is learned in school every afternoon. Now imagine a child who is deaf—who learned English through extensive speech and hearing training—having to learn Hebrew phonetically as I had to. It was tough, it was a lot of work, but the rewards were immense. Seeing my mother’s and father’s faces as I stood on the bima, reading my Torah portion, was just amazing. At one point, they were crying tears of joy, and then I began to cry. When I noticed that my tears had stained the Torah, I was horrified. But the rabbi assured me that my tears were a mitzvah, for all the hard work and hours I had put toward becoming a member of the Jewish community. It was just a wonderful day for me!

JW: In what ways is deafness an advantage? What are hearing people missing out on?

MM: The opportunity to communicate in [sign language], one of the most beautiful languages in the world, is an advantage that deaf people enjoy. What’s great is that hearing people can enjoy it as well if they have the chance to learn and practice it with us. It would be great if it were taught in schools and colleges like a foreign language; in fact, many schools do! It’s a language that combines several elements at once with a simple hand movement and facial expression: meaning, affect, time and duration. It’s just so beautiful that printed or spoken words can’t begin to describe it. As for me, having an opportunity to sleep well at night because there just aren’t any distractions is a big advantage for me!

JW: Where within yourself did you find the fury needed for your Oscar-winning portrayal of Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God?

MM: In my book I’ll Scream Later, I describe how [director] Randa Haines and I worked on a very specific incident in my childhood, where I was molested by a babysitter, as a means to express the anger and frustrations of being horribly taken advantaged of by an authority figure. The anger and frustration that Sara Norman expressed in Children of a Lesser God had to feel real, and Randa knew that my experiences were very much like those that my character experienced. It was extremely emotional and difficult for me, but I welcomed the challenge and was extremely fortunate that I had Randa’s skilled hand and compassion to guide me through the catharsis safely.

JW: Winning the Oscar when you were barely out of your teenage years: Were you prepared? Do you wish it had happened later?

MM: I must say I was glad to have gotten the Oscar when I was barely out of high school. The hoopla, the media frenzy that goes along with Oscar was new to me, and, in fact, I wasn’t as savvy to the business as I am now, nearly 25 years later. I think, being so naive, I was protected and I sort of cruised along with it all. Had it happened now, I think I would’ve been an emotional wreck! What to wear? What do I say? All of these come with having seen it all, and I think being young was to my emotional advantage. I’m glad I won it then, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t welcome another one!

JW: Reading your book, one gets the sense that as your star was rising, you may have felt like your life was happening to you, that you were not in control. Is that an accurate perception, and if so, did it contribute to your drug abuse in those days?

MM: My drug use might have been a result of the isolation I felt being in a world where communication was mostly spoken and not signed, where I was taken advantage of sexually by a babysitter and then a teacher, as well as factors that related to an addictive personality I had. My drug use came way before I was in the film business; I started using drugs when I was 13 and continued through high school.

I would say it was as my star was rising that I decided to get clean of drugs: I stopped cold turkey just a few months before I won the Academy Award and entered myself into rehab. I did it all alone, with virtually no support from family or friends, who thought my problem wasn’t that bad. That’s because I did a good job of hiding it. I was tired of having a problem with drugs, however, and knew it was time to stop. Today I am proud to say that I have been sober 24 years, 5 months and 10 days. I feel great.

JW: Being a survivor of domestic violence in your relationship with William Hurt, and being married to a police officer now, you have a uniquely informed perspective on the issue of abuse. Where do you feel “the system”—the courts, law enforcement, social services—needs improvement when serving abuse victims, particularly those with disabilities?

MM: Women need to know there are places to go if they are in an abusive situation, that there are people who will listen and that there are options out there. Deaf women are in a particularly precarious situation because there is a lack of resources that can help deaf women deal with domestic violence. There is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has a special line for deaf women to call; there’s Deaf Hope in the San Francisco Bay Area and other organizations scattered throughout the country. But the majority of deaf women are isolated and find that they have nowhere to turn for help when their relationships become abusive. It’s a matter of devoting more financial resources to helping deaf women communicate and helping them find safe places where they can get the help they need.

JW: Since you saved all the mementos, particularly the written ones, from your volatile relationship with William Hurt, do you have plans to write a book or a screenplay about it?

MM: My life is not entirely defined by the relationship I had with William Hurt. I respect and admire his work as an actor. However, the personal aspect of our relationship was one which I chose to express in my autobiography as a means to help other men and women in similar situations see that it can and will get better if you learn to stand up for yourself, open the door and just leave. That’s what I did. As far as a screenplay, that’s up to filmmakers out there. Any takers?

JW: You’ve guest-starred on innumerable TV shows. Where did you feel most welcome as a guest?

MM: I felt most comfortable as a guest actor in three series: The West Wing, Law and Order: SVU and Seinfeld. These are shows that have become part of TV history, and I am so proud to have had the opportunity to be in them. The cast, the crew on these shows were nothing but professional, and I was honored to act alongside some amazing talent.

JW: Who have been your most memorable co-stars, for better or for worse? Directors? Writers? Do you have a favorite role?

MM: My favorite role is Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God. And some memorable co-stars have been Lee Remick, Martin Sheen, William Hurt and James Garner. Favorite directors—Randa Haines tops my list, but I loved working with Tommy Schlamme, who directed several episodes of The West Wing. As far as writers, Aaron Sorkin tops my list, and David E. Kelley is up there as well. Worse directors or actors are for me to keep in the back of my mind; I know not to work with them again!

JW: Is there a “role of a lifetime” that you’ve yet to play?

MM: I know this sounds strange, but I’d love to be in a Judd Apatow comedy or a Farrelly Brothers comedy. I would love to do something politically incorrect and funny in a feature film.

JW: My mother has a book, All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in the Loehmann’s Dressing Room. I imagine something similar could be written about Celebrity Apprentice. What did you learn while doing that show? What about Dancing With the Stars? And about show business in general?

MM: I learned about business, various aspects of brand managing, aspects of advertising, graphic design, directing and editing all while doing Celebrity Apprentice—things that I have never encountered in my acting career. It was fascinating. I was like a sponge, wanting to learn it all, and I loved it. The hours and the drama, however, weren’t what I expected, but I went with the flow and did my best to be professional and focused on my charity, and it worked. As for Dancing With the Stars, I learned I could push my body to extreme heights that I never thought I could, dancing nine hours a day, five days a week, and then putting it all together for a live performance in front of 24 million people. People thought a person who was deaf couldn’t do it, but I proved them wrong each week I was there.

JW: After 25 years working together, how do you characterize your relationship with your interpreter, Jack Jason?

MM: Jack is my producing partner, interpreter, confidant and friend. We finish each other’s thoughts, and yet we can argue like brother and sister. He is my business half and an invaluable partner.

JW: In your book you mention that you asked Jack, upon meeting him, if he was Jewish. Even if it didn’t seem too important at the time, do you think, looking back, that expressing yourself through a Jewish interpreter has colored (or perhaps clarified) your communication with the world?

MM: Having someone who grew up with the same religious values as myself, as well as having someone who shares that perspective of life that growing up Jewish gives you, has certainly been an asset. He gets where I’m coming from when I look at the world through my Jewish eyes and can identify with all aspects of having grown up in a Jewish family, whether it’s the Jewish values or even humor.

JW: Have you ever thought twice about speaking through a man’s voice?

MM: No, it never occurred to me. All I want is someone who is good, and Jack was and still is the best.

JW: Did your husband need to learn any new skills to keep communication flowing in your relationship?

MM: My husband learned to sign in college before we met and continued to learn sign through our relationship and marriage. He is a good and patient signer!

JW: Have you encountered many frustrations as a deaf mother raising hearing children?

MM: The frustrations I face as a parent are balanced with the joy of being a parent and really have no basis in my being deaf and my children being hearing. We communicate well and freely and whatever frustrations there are come from just the normal parent/child relationships. I make sure that deafness is not a barrier when it comes to raising my children.

JW: What role does Judaism play in your home now that you’re an adult and a parent?

MM: My values, my beliefs, my perspective on life in general are all a direct result of my Jewish upbringing. These are values I live and share with my children, and I learn to meld them with my husband’s beliefs and values. He is Catholic, and we live in a mixed religious household, but we have taught our family to honor, respect and celebrate both and find common ground in both.

JW: Do your Jewish values inform or motivate your extensive charity work? Is there a particular charity that’s closest to your heart?

MM: I’ve always said to people who’ve asked, “Why do you do so much charity work?” because when I was young, my parents made it a point of sharing with me the idea of giving back, of helping out those less fortunate than yourself. I love the phrase “living a life generously” that the Jewish Federation uses; it really sums up the lesson I got from my parents.

The charities that are closest to my heart are those primarily serving the best interests of children. My favorite charity is Starkey Hearing Foundation. They give out free hearing aids to deaf and hard-of-hearing children who could not otherwise afford them and who reside in developing countries and here in the United States. There are millions of children who are unable to afford hearing aids, and Starkey helps them as best they can. To date, they have given out nearly 500,000 hearing aids, and we’re trying to get more. That’s why I worked so hard on Celebrity Apprentice on behalf of Starkey and was proud to have raised $1 million on their behalf in one day, the most ever raised for charity on the show.

JW: I loved the anecdote in your book about a stewardess who noticed you signing on a flight and handed you a braille menu. What are some of the more ridiculous (but well-intentioned…or not) things people have said to you?

MM: My favorite is the studio executive who came to visit me working on my first TV series, and after a few minutes of watching me work, he leaned over to the executive producer of the TV show and said, “Marlee is great!” Then, with a straight face, he asked, “Is she going to be deaf for the entire series?” You know that big letter “L” that is made with the thumb and forefinger they use in the ads for Glee? He needed that letter on his forehead. Ha!

JW: What’s next on your to-do list?

MM: Summer vacation, hopefully more episodes of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth and some projects I’m looking to produce as well as act in. Plus I have a full fall/winter schedule of speaking engagements, some with my mentor and friend, Henry Winkler, for the Jewish Federation. My agenda is always full!