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Marlee Matlin Plays Billy Joel in Her Car, Has Strong Opinions on Deaf Humor

In an interview with Jezebel, the Oscar-winning actor discussed her role in the Sundance breakout CODA

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Image for article titled Marlee Matlin Plays Billy Joel in Her Car, Has Strong Opinions on Deaf Humor
Photo: Rodin Eckenroth (Getty Images)

It’s too early to call Sian Heder’s film CODA a hit, but Apple is banking on it—heavily. The movie, which hits the Apple TV+ streaming service on Friday, won rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was eventually purchased by Apple for a record $25 million. Regarding the adoration and immediate value placed on the movie about a predominantly Deaf family with one hearing child, one of its stars, Marlee Matlin, had this response: It’s about time.

“It’s about time that we are part of the mainstream, that our voices are heard and seen. And that our culture is appreciated and respected. And hopefully more people in Hollywood will see the same way that Apple did. And Sundance too,” Matlin told Jezebel in a recent video chat. Matlin, who lost most of her hearing when she was a baby, communicated during our interview in American Sign Language. Her interpreter Jack Jason, who has made Matlin’s voice accessible to the hearing since she rose to fame in the 80s, signed Jezebel’s questions to Matlin and then spoke her responses back.

Matlin’s 1987 Best Actress Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God made her the youngest person to take home that trophy (she was 21), as well as the only disabled actor to win an Academy Award. Both of those records hold today, some 34 years later. That fact illustrates both how woefully behind Hollywood remains when it comes to disability representation, as well as Matlin’s unique place in pop culture. For years, she has been tasked with explaining Deaf culture to the abled masses, an ambassadorship that she told Jezebel can get exhausting.

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At the same time, she described herself as “thrilled” by CODA’s representation. CODA (an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults”) centers on Ruby (Emilia Jones), whose Deaf parents Jackie and Frank (played by Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) depend on as an interpreter, particularly in their family fishing business. Ruby’s pulled between her family and her ambitions to become a singer (and, as a high school senior, just growing up in general). Heder’s script strikes a balance between heart and humor, which appealed to Matlin, as did the casting of Deaf actors to play pivotal Deaf roles. “I’m thrilled that you’re going to see three Deaf actors carrying a film, as opposed to being relegated to the background or as a token character who happens to be deaf,” she told Jezebel.

Matlin also explained where her own experience as a Deaf parent of hearing children deviates from that of her character and what makes for a good Deaf joke. She made an ostensible reference to Donald Trump, with whom she worked on The Celebrity Apprentice only for news to circulate that he called her the r-word. This and more can be found in the transcript of our interview with Matlin below, which has been edited and condensed.

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JEZEBEL: You’ve been a prominent Deaf actor for over three decades. Apple bought CODA for a record $25 million. Do you think things have gotten better for disability representation in the mainstream? Is the mainstream is more primed now than ever to receive a story about disability?

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MARLEE MATLIN: Yes and no. In this case, I’m thrilled that you’re going to see three Deaf actors carrying a film, as opposed to being relegated to the background or as a token character who happens to be deaf. Hopefully this will show people who want to make films, who want to tell stories. I mean, we just announced that NBC is going to be developing a show that I’ll be carrying myself. So I think that that progress is being made. I think it’s because social media has given us an opportunity to be able to speak up, to be able to show off our craft. And I think that there’s more information out there about us. So I think people are more receptive.

As a Deaf parent of hearing children, did you relate to your role of Jackie? There’s that moment where Jackie tells Ruby, “I thought I would fail you, that being deaf would make me a bad mom.” Did you ever feel that way?

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No, I didn’t relate to that at all. It’s not who Marlee is, because I was raised in both worlds. Unlike Jackie, I was happy being in Deaf and hearing worlds. I was the only Deaf person in my family and my extended family. I really didn’t have to dwell on being Deaf. I mean, listen, I wanted greater opportunities for communication. And I wanted more than what I got. And I always wanted more of everything anyway, and I always wanted to the max. But in that scene that you referred to in which Jackie and Ruby have a heart-to-heart conversation, I believe Jackie was feeling insecure at that moment as a Deaf woman who didn’t know how to raise a hearing child. She might feel that the world would be judging her, as a Deaf mom, who perhaps because she didn’t speak, didn’t know how she would even teach her daughter how to speak. I mean, all the things—hearing friends, how would she communicate with her daughters’ hearing friends—those were Jackie’s concerns, completely different than mine. I have four kids and I communicate freely with them and their friends and parents. Whatever situation I’m given, I make it work. So it’s just a different and different situation between me and Jackie. But I understand where Jackie is coming from. I’ve seen friends of mine in real life just like her.

What kind of things do you look for when you receive a script in terms of the representation of Deaf people, and what are red flags to you?

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Well, when I look at a script, first of all, I have to just be excited about it. I have to feel just in general, the writing is great, that it makes sense, that whatever representation of the characters are there makes sense to me. Those are scripts that I go after. And I did that particularly with this script. But a red flag, for example, is when it comes to casting, if they’re talking about other Deaf characters and they want a hearing actor to play a Deaf role, I am saying no. You can’t get away with that any longer. We are not costumes to be put on by hearing actors. I know of some films that are still casting this way. Other red flags might be how they write a Deaf character. You can just say, “Hey, look, let’s collaborate and make the simple change.” Or if it’s really bad, I won’t even consider the script. I won’t even go forward with it. It’s the same as it is for any hearing actor based on the character that you’re reading.

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Frank and Jackie play hip hop in their car. Do you have a similar relationship to music?

Absolutely, I love Billy Joel. I play Billy Joel every time I get in my car, I crank it up because I wear hearing aids in real life. Jackie and Frank do not, they just simply feel the beat. I grew up listening to his music. I listen to it. One time I got stopped at a red light and I was playing “Just The Way You Are” by Billy Joel. I was waiting for the light to change and a guy who was about my age was walking down the sidewalk and he was singing along with what I was playing in my car. And I thought, wait a minute, this guy is lip-syncing to what I’m hearing in my car. This is great. It really touched my heart. I will never forget that moment.

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CODA has a good sense of humor, I think. Especially about deafness, right?

You’re absolutely right.

How do you decide what makes a good Deaf joke and what makes a bad one?

Well, listen, it goes all the way back to when I was on Seinfeld and I did a scene where George and Jerry are talking about using me as a lip reader in a party and they’re covering their mouths thinking that I couldn’t read their lips. It was so brilliantly written that I caught them. I said, “I’ll do it,” you know, totally blowing their minds. That was playing on this idea of Deaf people can be all different. On Family Guy they used my name. They threw my name into the mix, talking about passing gas and not being able to hear it. I heard this and I said, “Seth [MacFarlane], instead of you guys playing me, why don’t you let me play the character?” And they created this character for me called Stella.

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Humor is all about if I’m able to do it or any Deaf actor is able to do it, it makes more sense that the humor comes from their perspective. With American Sign Language, in terms of delivering the humor and the lines in CODA, we had a lot of fun. I mean, Frank had a lot of fun playing how you put on a condom or describing how his balls were on fire in the doctor’s office. Those scenes were very visual. And that’s the beauty of American Sign Language. You can describe those things. Remember, those things are not international when it comes to sign language. Every country has their own sign language.

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Do you think that today people are more sensitive about Deaf jokes? Regarding the response to your 2009 appearance on the special Family Guy Presents Seth & Alex’s Almost Live Comedy Show, you said, “Lighten up, people.”

Well, it depends on the joke. I have a sense of humor. I have a very wicked sense of humor. So it depends. But, yeah, lighten up, folks. As long as it’s not denigrating or it’s not insulting or culturally offensive. I don’t really do that any longer. Again, it’s how it’s written and how it’s executed and how it’s just basically as simple as that. I think diversity is important in drama and in humor. We need to incorporate humor when it comes to people who are disabled. There are still people out there who are ignorant, who don’t get it, who don’t think that you can incorporate humor when it comes to people like myself. These are people who don’t realize or have never been exposed that [don’t know] you can have fun with it. It’s not always hurtful. It just depends on the situation. I been called names by very famous people and he denied it, and that’s hurtful, and I’ll talk about it and continue to talk about it. It shows that people are still today it exists, ignorance still exists. But what can you do but move on?

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In addition to being an entertainer, so much of the time you’re also an educator to the hearing world. Does that ever feel like a burden? Do you ever feel like existing would be without explanation would be a lot easier?

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Well, again, it depends on the situation. It can get a bit exhausting having to explain, having to prove why I should be here, why Deaf people should be able to do what they deserve to do, why it is that it shouldn’t be any different for us. But again, we all have to work together. It’s just the nature of things. If there’s something you really want to do or really want to get and the other side doesn’t get it, then you have to take the opportunity to explain to make sure you they understand this is something you really want to do. This is what I need to do. I mean, we’re all constantly sharing ideas. It comes from both sides. We just all need to get to know each other better. There’s nothing perfect in this world.