TheWrap Special Report: “We go back to square one all the time, and I do everything in my power to break that cycle,” Deaf West Theatre’s DJ Kurs says
This story is the first of a three-part Spotlight on Deaf Actors
At the end of “A Quiet Place Part II,” Millicent Simmonds’ deaf character brandishes her hearing aid like a weapon and cripples a once threatening alien monster. Simmonds looms large as the camera lingers on her in the film’s final shots, reminding the audience that a deaf teenager, not just Emily Blunt or John Krasinski, can be the heroes of this story.
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“It’s important for kids out there watching who maybe identify with them and say, ‘I don’t have to be saved. I could be a hero. I can do all of these things,'” Simmonds told TheWrap.
Simmonds is just one of the many deaf actors, creators and talent asking why more characters in their stories and professionals on their sets can’t be deaf. Recent films like “A Quiet Place,” “Sound of Metal” and “CODA,” a Sundance phenomenon that debuts this week on the Apple TV+ streaming service, suggest that progress may be here in terms of mainstream depictions of deaf performers and themes.
In 2021 alone, five different films including “Godzilla vs. Kong” and Marvel’s upcoming “Eternals” feature deaf actors. “CODA” stars Emilia Jones, who is hearing, and deaf actors Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as her parents doing their best to raise her in a working class New England town. Shows like “The Walking Dead” have regularly featured deaf actress Lauren Ridloff, and Netflix last fall released the reality series “Deaf U” led by “America’s Next Top Model” breakout Nyle DiMarco. In many cases, they’re portraying characters who aren’t defined by their deafness or are limited to just the “very special episode” about being deaf.
“The deaf community has empowered itself to believe they can do anything,” said Paul Raci, the Oscar-nominated star of “Sound of Metal” who is hearing but was raised by deaf parents. “Is it a watershed moment? I think so, but it’s different than other times, because we’ve had this before. Someone gets something, and then it fades away.”
Indeed, there is reason for worry that the current momentum may not last. Many in the community thought that Hollywood’s breakthrough would come after 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” which won Matlin the Oscar for Best Actress and earned five other nominations, or “Switched at Birth,” the ABC Family drama that aired from 2011-17 and broke ground with multiple deaf leads and recurring characters. (One study found that at least 80 different films have featured deaf actors in some capacity since 1986.)
“I am warmed by the increased exposure of our community and language in Hollywood and on social media, but I am also old enough to know how quickly the pendulum can swing the other way. For that reason, the current moment does not feel like it meets all of the metrics of what we strive for,” DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Los Angeles’ Deaf West Theatre, said. “What happens after ‘Sound of Metal?” How do we compel Amazon, for example, to greenlight projects that deaf writers and creators put forth? We go back to square one all the time, and I do everything in my power to break that cycle.”
As with any underrepresented group, more representation has led to more authentic stories and new ways that hearing people view the deaf community.
Deanne Bray, a deaf actress known for roles on “Heroes” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” got her first big break in the title role of “Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye,” a 2002 crime drama that ran for three seasons on PAX. “Sue Thomas” was one of the first shows to have a deaf lead, and over time Bray became a creative partner on the show, encouraging the creators to bring in deaf actors for other recurring roles and American Sign Language script supervisors.
“I was able to focus on what I am supposed to focus on: the acting part and being able to tell the stories the best I could to match up what the writers’ imagined,” Bray said. “It became a team effort. I was not used to having them include me in the writing or editing process. I appreciated the moments when I felt that I had a voice and I felt heard. The production valued my input and sometimes they would share their perspectives to help me understand why it would work or not work for the story.”
Bray praised “Sue Thomas” as more than just a “deaf show,” something that demonstrated that deaf and hard of hearing people are simply “a part of this world.” And in the time since the show aired, she’s now moved to see more hearing people learn how to sign and communicate through American Sign Language.
Perhaps some of that understanding can be attributed to “Switched at Birth,” the ABC Family drama that from its pilot episode in 2011 aimed to show that deaf people are not unhappy to be deaf and do not need “fixing.” “This is a culture that celebrates being deaf and they do not feel like it is a hindrance. The hindrance is accessibility, the hindrance is society, not giving them opportunities,” “Switched at Birth” creator and showrunner Lizzy Weiss told TheWrap. “The problem isn’t their deafness. The problem is society not complying.”
Weiss soon found that the fully ASL scenes were among the most popular with test audiences, and she gradually built in more such scenes, including eventually a fully signed episode. Weiss also crafted the show so that her hearing actors were learning sign language at the same pace their characters were, even building in plot lines that reflected their own growth or awkward learning curve when it came to properly signing. At one point, Constance Marie, who had to know ASL from the beginning, got carpal tunnel from her signing, and her injury was written into the show.
Director Siân Heder’s “CODA,” which won both the Jury and Audience awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was acquired in a record sale, may be the culmination in the recent push to portray the deaf community on screen. The film, which takes its name from the acronym Child of Deaf Adults, focuses on Emilia Jones as the hearing daughter of a deaf family (played by Matlin, Kotsur and Daniel Durant). While the film takes cues from previous films and TV shows about showing ASL on screen, many say that the production reflects a watershed moment for representation as well as how to work with deaf talent when the camera isn’t rolling.
“CODA” used two different ASL Masters, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, to translate the script from English into ASL, to help deaf actors determine the most appropriate signs to use in each scene or even to tweak the production design so that it felt more authentic for a deaf family. Heder said these practices shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to entry but as communication methods “beneficial to the production on the whole.”
“When I get asked the question, was it a challenge to work with deaf talent, making movies is a challenge. It’s a challenge to do a fishing scene, it’s a challenge to do a stunt. It’s a challenge to do the music because we’re recording live on set. That’s what movie making is, being creative and problem solving,” Heder said. “There were little things like that were so helpful, and I feel like there were so many things that we discovered on our set that we can pass forward to anyone who wanted to make a movie with deaf talent. it’s just how do you create that resource so that it’s not intimidating for people?”
Despite the progress, many creators feel there’s still a stigma among their peers in working with deaf talent.
Dave Johnson, co-creator of “Sue Thomas: F. B. Eye,” said it’s an “absolute travesty” that Bray is not more of a household name — or that the knowledge of deaf actors starts and stops with Marlee Matlin. But the biggest challenge is getting studios, networks and casting directors to consider deaf performers for roles that aren’t specifically written to be deaf.
“I’ve talked to casting executives, producers, studio executives and say, ‘You have roles here, you can have a person like Deanne to play that role.’ The old days we saw before and you just assumed, It’s gotta be a white guy or white girl. Those days are long gone. Thankfully. Now it can be any ethnicity. But they’ve never gotten to the point of, gosh, a woman who’s deaf can play that role,” Johnson said.
“CODA” star Kotsur, who is married to Bray, has fought against being seen as a great deaf actor — preferring to be considered simply a great actor.
“He did not want to play a deaf guy, a deaf victim, a flavor of the week or any of those kinds of generic tropes of an individual who has a different way of communicating. He wanted to talk about how hard it is to communicate even when you speak the same language,” Deborah LaVine, Dean of the School of Filmmaking at UNC School of the Arts and who directed Kotsur in the 2016 film “Wild Prairie Rose,” said. “When I look around, I don’t see a lot of fascinating stories that are exclusive of the event of being deaf, it’s just that the character happens to be deaf. And that’s a complaint as an audience member I completely empathize with and see.”
Raci also remains frustrated that Hollywood continues to overlook deaf actors, saying that hearing casting directors and producers have “no excuse” to not at least consider deaf talent for roles.
“If Hollywood puts it out in the breakdowns that this is a deaf role, believe me, it spreads around like wildfire, and word gets out very quickly,” he said. “They’ve got to be more sensitive, more aware, and they gotta get woke in the right way. They have to come to reality here. They could be casting a lot more deaf people. My agent usually recommends them: ‘Hey, did you ever think about a deaf guy for this role?’ ‘Oh, that’s a good idea!’ ‘Well then why don’t you just do it?’”
Hollywood could start by recognizing that deaf people have stories that aren’t limited strictly to what it means to be deaf. “It’s time for new creative content by us and not some uninspiring and recycled storylines about who gets fixed, like, such stories about who received cochlear implants and who gets to hear a sound,” said Jade Bryan, a Black deaf filmmaker who has been making independent films as a director, writer, producer and financier since 1997.
“Ain’t nobody wanna be perceived as helpless and hapless people,” she said. “We need to stop writing these types of stories. We’re self-reliant superheroes who see things through our eyes and perform magical stuff! We should be saving them!”
Bryan, a vocal critic of the Netflix series “Deaf U” who started the Deaf Talent Movement a decade ago to advocate for BIPOC deaf talent, also pointed out the challenges for nonwhite members of the deaf community to get their stories told.
“I’m waiting to learn whether Hollywood is ready to be open to stories written and developed by BIPOC deaf creators about Black deaf and hearing families,” Bryan told TheWrap. “Fear is the biggest factor. People fear what they don’t know. The truth is, we’re no different than they are. These are groundbreaking stories when they are told from our perspective. This is what inclusive means to me. I don’t want anyone telling my stories unless they are open to allowing us to lead because it is not their lived experience.”
For directors and producers who do want to seek out deaf acting talent, one go-to spot has been Deaf West Theatre, the 30-year-old L.A. nonprofit that has produced Tony-nominated theater productions and launched the careers of Raci, Bray, Kotsur, Wailes and many others.
Kurs, a Gallaudet University graduate who has served as Deaf West’s artistic director since 2012, said he feels pride seeing deaf actors performing for a community that understands their culture and language. “Performing on stage before a paying audience is a deeply political act for deaf artists,” he said. “It is the repudiation of the advice that our parents received when we were born, that we were deficient and needed to be fixed.”
But he’s surprised that more producers and casting directors don’t reach out to him when searching for talent — or carve out funding for interpreters and other resources. “There should be individuals at each step of the process: deaf producers, accessibility consultants and ASL team members who can navigate the process for deaf actors, writers and directors so that they do not have to shoulder the burden of navigating cultures and languages,” Kurs added. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the basic rule of thumb is that there should be interpreters everywhere the deaf performers go.”
Perhaps Hollywood needs to absorb one of the lessons from “Switched at Birth,” when a deaf character named Emmett (Sean Berdy) struggled to order food at a music festival and pushes back when his frustrated girlfriend orders for him in English. He tells her, “The world can wait for me. I communicate differently, and that’s OK.”
Showrunner Weiss recalled that the idea for that scene came from one of the show’s ASL consultants. “I remember thinking that’s so cool. That was another one of those moments that I thought was just a great teaching moment to hearing people,” she said. “Everyone relax and let people who are different communicate in the way that’s comfortable for them.”
And many take heart that projects like “Sound of Metal,” “A Quiet Place — Part II” and “CODA” are all hitting the screen within months of each other — and showing different aspects of the deaf experience.
“I really hope that it’s not an accident that all these movies came out in one year and then people move on. I think this could be a seismic shift,” Heder said, noting how stories of deafness and disability need to be part of any conversation around inclusion and diversity.
“People are hungry for stories they don’t know, and specificity and cultural specificity, and there are so many stories in this world that haven’t been told,” she said. “That’s the exciting part of this: Once you open the door to artists in this community having a voice, there are amazing stories there.”
Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report.
Read more from TheWrap Special Report: Spotlight on Deaf Actors
Part 1: Are Deaf Actors and Stories Finally Breaking Through in Hollywood?
Part 2: How American Sign Language Masters Are Transforming the Culture for Deaf Actors
Part 3: Why Hearing Actors Playing Deaf Characters Still Sparks Backlash