Marlee Matlin explains why Switched at Birth is a show for everybody, not just deaf people

Switched at Birth may be ending, but actress Marlee Matlin says representation of deaf people on television is just beginning.
Actress Marlee Matlin is an actress on the ABC Family drama, Switched at Birth, which wraps up its fifth and final season this year. (Getty Images for Turner)

Switched at Birth has tackled something few television shows have.

In its five seasons on air, the show has filmed entire scenes that are completely silent, shot in only American Sign Language. Many of the characters on the show are deaf, including star Marlee Matlin. 

Matlin, who spoke to host Tom Power via her interpreter Jack Jason, says the show (which is ending its run this year) is "unlike anything that had been on television before." 

"It's not a deaf show and it's not a hearing show," she continues. "It's cool to learn about another culture, to learn about another language. It brings the show to a higher level [...] It operates on so many levels and yet it was a show for everybody." 

Switched at Birth airs Tuesdays nights on ABC Spark.

Web extra: Read below for a full transcription of our interview with Marlee Matlin

[TOM] Marlee, what's been like to realize over the years that the show has such a dedicated fan base? 

[Marlee] This is Jack, who is voicing for me. So for that portion of your audience who doesn't know that I don't have a male voice... I have a male voice right now. In any case when Switched at Birth was born (I like that metaphor!) the idea was very ground breaking at the time. When we began shooting and telling stories and blending the two communities; the deaf community, the hearing community ...  using deaf actors, using hearing actors, using American Sign Language, creating dialogue in scenes that were subtitled ... and the conflicts the inherent conflicts of deaf and hearing people coming together who may not know about each other, it made everyone who watched the show much more curious and much more interested in their culture and American Sign Language. Obviously with the addition of all these great actors it was unlike anything that had ever been on television before and bringing all these elements together really was groundbreaking. 

[TOM] It's funny that you mention that it brings together the deaf community and the hearing community in one package because that's also reflects the fan base the fan base has not just been necessarily a deaf fan base. 

[MARLEE] Exactly. And as I like to say it's a show for everybody to watch together. So it's not a def show, it's not a hearing show but it's cool to learn something about another culture,  it's cool to learn about another language to expose yourself to something you might not necessarily see. It brings the show which - you might initially label as a teen show -  to a higher level. We have scenes that have never been done on television before,  scenes that are done silently with subtitles without any sound. And with me playing the mom of a son who is deaf, That gave me the opportunity to communicate in my language so, switched at birth operated on so many levels and yet it was a show for everybody. 

[TOM] That episode that you bring up is fascinating. In 2013 you aired an episode that was entirely in American Sign Language.  What did that mean to you?

[MARLEE] It was one of my proudest moments on television. It really opened up everyone's eyes. People who had never even thought what it would be like to communicate in sign language or what it would be like to watch subtitles for a whole show.  And watching this, you get to take in the beauty of sign language. And we're all watching this together. You know, I used to think of watching things separately now I'm watching it with my friends; with people who don't necessarily know how to sign but now see what our perspective is like. And when I watch TV I have my own perspective. So the fact that this episode brought everybody together. And I can always say that I'm so thankful for what [Lizzie Weiss, who wrote the episode] created right there. To put it out there on the air and for everybody to see because that she took a risk ... and at the end of the day it wasn't a risk because it worked. It worked. 

[TOM] What do you think the impact of the show has been when you say it worked? 

[Marlee] First of all you're talking about whom the show was aimed at, which was teens and families. But I think teens, being the curious people that they are, probably came away from the show knowing we don't necessarily need to judge people by what we see or by the flaws that we think they have. I think it created a playing field where we were all better able to understand each other. It's partly educational. It's partly entertainment.  I mean it's an exciting show with story lines of plot lines. It's just the whole package: It all comes together and I'm happy to say that it gave actors who were deaf more work. It really did. 

[TOM] I'm speaking with actor Marlee Matlin. Through her American Sign Language interpreter Jack Jason, we were just talking about the breakthrough show "Switched at Birth." Marlee plays the recurring character Melody Bledsoe. Marlee, obviously isn't your first role. It's been a real pleasure to speak to you. I've seen you in so many things : "Law and Order: SVU,' "Seinfeld," "The West Wing" ... and my personal favourite was when you were on Larry Sanders. Could ask a personal question about Larry Sanders?  My favourite scene is you speaking through your interpreter, through a door, while Larry is hiding out. Jack is that you [in that scene]? 

[JACK/MARLEE, joking back and forth with JACK's voice] That is Jack with me ... the one and only Jack. And he said that! I didn't say that. He's not interpretation you know.... In fact this whole interview has been Jack's speaking I'm not even here...  I could be on my phone. I'm going to go text on my telephone, Jack to you just take it from here. This is Jack speaking now. That's the humour you can play with somebody you've worked for 30 years together. We can play. We're not the purely deaf person with the professional. But I'm far from professional. 

[TOM] You also have an Oscar under your belt for "Children of a Lesser God." 

[MARLEE] I do have an Oscar!  It's actually 30 years ago this month. My first film "Children of a Lesser God" came out and I got a Golden Globe just before I got the Oscar. It was a learning experience for sure. 

[TOM] Does it feel that long ago?

[MARLEE] I guess with so much that's gone on over the last 30 years ... getting married, having four kids ... a lot has happened. But yeah, I mean it feels like it's come by fast but sometimes it feels like it just happened yesterday. 

[TOM] There was a debate that was happening around the time you won that Oscar;  a debate in the deaf community that the hearing community may not be as aware of. In part of your speech, you used your your own voice rather than use American Sign Language...

[MARLEE] Actually,  it was it was the following year when I was asked to come back and present the award for best actor that I decided that I would speak during the presentation of the Oscar for best actor the names of the nominees. And it became a battle between myself and some segments of the deaf community who felt that somehow I shouldn't be speaking. I was completely naive from my point of view. My intention was to "work the room" and say, "Hi I'm deaf." However, I grew up signing and speaking, so because last year you only saw me signing, I thought I would speak this year. And some people in certain segment of the deaf community thought that I was trying to impress upon parents of deaf children that somehow their children should speak and not sign. And the best way to do that would be to just speak. And that was completely out of my mind it wasn't even something that registered in my head. 

[TOM] How do you reflect on that now? 

[MARLEE]You know, I will never ever say that I regret that moment. I do not regret that moment because I knew what my intentions were. I knew what I set out to do.  No apologies from my perspective. 

[TOM] When you're interviewed -- this interview is admittedly no exception -- there are a lot of questions about deafness and about representation on screen. You can be honest: Does it ever get tiresome? Do you ever feel like you're always being asked to speak for deaf people? 

[MARLEE] No. Because I know I don't speak for all deaf people but I speak for what I believe are our rights. I speak for what I believe we deserve in terms of accessibility. I think I speak in terms of education, in terms of the importance of American Sign Language, of deaf culture, of accessibility, of the rights for deaf actors to get work or to create authentic roles instead of having them played by hearing people. But in terms of being the leader of the deaf community, I leave that up to them. I'm an actor. That's my career, that's my job. It's something that I love to do. But I'm also a friend and a mother and an author and a producer and an advocate. And so I'm not tired of it. No not by any means. And the expectations however are high. They were once very high when I was very young, but I think people have come to understand I think as a result of social media that we all have a right to speak out and we can speak out together with one voice. And I take advantage of the presence that I have in the media. And if there's something that I feel that I need to speak up about when it has to do with the deaf community, for sure, I'm right there in the front making a loud noise. But I can't do it all alone. I really can't. 

[TOM] There are so many people behind a show like "Switched at Birth." It's the creation of so many people working behind the scenes, people who are writing, people who are directing, and of course people who are acting in it. But Marlee, I can't help but think that you must be somewhat proud that a show like this has gone on the air and has had this impact. 

[MARLEE] Absolutely proud. Absolutely. I would have liked to have seen more deaf people working on the show behind the scenes. But it is what it is. We do offer contributions if given the opportunity, we do have ideas if given the opportunity and a show like "Switched at Birth" is perfect for that. The actors, the writers, the directors, and the producers were nothing but awesome, nothing but supportive and I really appreciate it. They were always there with an open mind. Whether it came to a sign language or when it came to accommodating deaf actors. we had interpreters everywhere for each actor who was deaf. Every single individual actor who was deaf had their own interpreter. I mean there was nothing but smooth sailing the entire show. There was never a problem behind the scenes and I'm very proud of the fact that everybody at "Switched at Birth" jumped in. Thanks to the great leadership of Lizzy Weiss everything went so smoothly. We did 103 episodes. It's unfortunate that it's coming to an end. 

[TOM] I want to I want to pick up on something you said about the number of deaf people who are working backstage and behind the scenes. Is that a cause of concern for you going forward?

[MARLEE] Well, I mean there's not a lot of deaf people [working in the industry]. I mean first of all there are a lot of actors and actresses writers directors producers who are deaf  - even deaf musicians - but they don't get the opportunity to work because when you're talking about roles with disabilities, only 2 percent of people with disabilities actually play disabled roles. And I think that we have to continue to create and continue to come up with roles like "Switched at Birth" for ourselves, because nobody's going to give it to us.

[TOM] Maybe the best way to end this interview is to ask a kind of a grander question...  as you mentioned, it's been 30 years this month since you won that Oscar ...

[MARLEE] What's funny is that I'm only 26,  so I don't understand the math... 

[TOM] I tell you a, minus four was an unbelievable year...

[MARLEE] I'm still trying to figure out .... I'm sorry I'm being facetious...

[TOM] Yeah, you were you when you were carried up to win the Oscar in your mother's arms, it was really remarkable.... [LAUGHTER] You worked with so many young actors on the set of "Switched at Birth." All of them went in separate directions. Now that this last season is airing,  what  advice have you given to these young actors over the years?

[MARLEE] Some of them are working, some of them are not working, some of them are still struggling to get agents or managers. Some of them are working to get recognition. Some of them have gotten the recognition as a result of being on the show. They're all extremely talented actors. But I hope that what switched at birth has done is created a new cast of actors out there who are deaf. It's not an easy business in the first place  and we all know it's probably one of the most toughest careers you could choose for yourselves and the fact that there's a lack of understanding when it comes to deaf people. Some people get it but a lot of people don't.

[TOM] But what advice have you given these actors. 

[MARLEE] First of all, I say get creative. Write your own stories. Get yourself out there, network. No matter what, how, where, when. You have to get the courage to stand up and show your face wherever you can. Whatever's possible, whether you're talking about film festivals or parties or you're talking about going to screenings, or about making friends and friends of friends of friends. Get yourself seen and get yourself out there and most importantly you need to get creative. And the best way is to write something. I don't know how to write but I throw ideas out there and then I have friends who do write ideas for me. That's the only way. As an actor who has to face these kinds of barriers ... It's hard but yet you can do it. And nothing is impossible. That's what I always say. 

[TOM] Marlee Marrlin, it's been a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you very much. 

[MARLEE] Thank you. 


— Produced by Diane Eros


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