Marlee Matlin at Boston Jewish Film Festival

By Olivia Hart

Staff Writer

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Marlee Matlin discussing her experiences as a Deaf actress. Source: Olivia Hart

Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin gave valuable insight about her experience as a Deaf actress, and her hopes for the future of deaf people working in show business, during the Boston Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 19.

Alongside her three-decade-long acting career, she noticed that deaf actors are sometimes tokenized and pigeonholed in the motion picture industry.

“There are a lot of people who know who I am— studio executives, etc.— but they don’t think outside the box and have no conception of what a deaf actor can do. It’s easy to change the characters in scripts to make them deaf. Why do we have to dwell on characters being deaf?,” Matlin said.

Matlin earned an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1987 for her work in “Children of a Lesser God,” and has appeared in roles on shows such as “The West Wing,” “The L Word,” and “Quantico.” However, in her career, deafness only matters as much as she wants it to. In many cases, it doesn’t. Matlin noted that her roles on “Quantico” and “The West Wing” were developed from this mindset. Aaron Sorkin, creator of the “The West Wing,” cast Matlin primarily because of her acting talent. Her character was deaf only because Matlin herself happened to be deaf, rather than Matlin being cast for a deaf-specific role.

Reflecting on her time on “The L Word,” Matlin continued, “I had a blast playing a lesbian, and it had nothing to do with my deafness. I found it fascinating and beautiful to explore another world.”

Matlin further emphasized the importance of deaf talent and representation in showbusiness going forward. “I want to see deaf actors who are writing their own affairs with deaf writers and deaf directors,” she said. In 2016, she worked on a Broadway production of “Spring Awakening” from theatre company Deaf West, and hopes to see similar development and advocacy for the deaf community.

“I don’t think it’s enough yet. Hollywood hasn’t caught up,” she said. Matlin, who is also Jewish, spoke at the Museum of Fine Arts after a screening of “Dirty Dancing” produced by the Boston Jewish Film Festival,. The festival is an annual event every November that celebrates Jewish filmmaking at cinemas across Greater Boston.

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