Pushing boundaries comes naturally to Marlee Matlin. The actress, 52, who came to prominence in 1986 for her Oscar-winning debut role in Children of a Lesser God opposite William Hurt (the only deaf performer to win an Oscar to date) has spent the last three decades leading the charge for deaf and disabled actors. Key roles in movies and TV have earned her acclaim, but equally important, have paved the way for increased visibility and inclusion. This week Matlin joins the rejiggered cast of the ABC drama, Quantico (April 26, 10 p.m. ET), as Jocelyn Turner, a former agent who is enlisted to help the team battle a particularly fierce adversary.
Q. Tell me about this character, Jocelyn Turner?
A. She’s determined, she’s fierce but she’s also patient, measured and observant. She’s also not one to give up easily. Even though she was deafened by a bomb, which in any other circumstance would’ve meant the end of her career, she picked up the pieces and started all over again, learned sign language and turned the barriers she faced into assets. That’s what I call a fighter.
Q. Several of Jocelyn’s team members use American Sign Language (ASL). Is this the first time multiple characters have signed on a network show?
A. My first television series, Reasonable Doubts with Mark Harmon, featured signing but it was usually me doing all the signing (or my interpreter). The same went for my character on The West Wing. On The L Word, my love interest played by Jennifer Beals, signed with me. But as far as network TV goes, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a lead character signing and probably the first time we’ve seen multiple characters who weren’t deaf also signing. The fact that other characters on Quantico signed was really the idea of the actors themselves who wanted to follow Blair Underwood’s lead and sign here and there. This has been one of the most supportive and collaborative casts I’ve ever worked with and it’s so exciting. I can’t wait for the audience to see them all signing.
Q. What are the challenges facing deaf and disabled entertainers today? Do actors ask you for industry advice?
A. I’m often asked for advice and the best advice I can give is never give up. Don’t let “no” stand in your way. The advantage these days, compared to when I first started, is that you can make your own path with all the options that are available out there; for example, YouTube. Can’t find someone to make your show? Make it yourself and put it up on the web or on social media! The biggest challenges I think are twofold; finding the right place to put up your material and two, find a way to ensure authenticity in the stuff that you do. We’re done with hearing people or nondisabled people playing deaf and disabled characters.
Q. On Twitter you noted that two top movies, Rampage and A Quiet Place, showcase characters using ASL. How has Hollywood changed since you made your debut?
A. The focus on diversity and inclusion has also brought along a greater interest in recognizing an entire community and culture of American Sign Language. With the prevalence of closed captioning and subtitles, it’s not a big deal to see signing on the screen and seeing it subtitled just as you would see a foreign language being subtitled. I think globalization, the fact that subtitling became popular with reality shows and the fact that a whole generation of viewers is open to inclusion and diversity has created a more welcoming environment for deaf actors, sign language and stories where they can fit in without having to be about being deaf.
Q. You have had so many trailblazing moments in your career. What’s left on your bucket list to accomplish?
A. I still want to produce. I’ve done it on a small scale on TV but want to do it on a feature level. I’d love to play a character in history, something where I can dress up in period costumes and change my look completely. At the end of the day, I still want to act; I still want to work.