Marlee Matlin is an American actress, author, producer, and deaf activist. For decades, she has captivated the public with her incredible acting ability, poise, beauty, and humor…the humor of someone secure in her own skin and someone able to rise regally above the audism and ableism she experienced daily in Hollywood. Growing up, she was virtually the only one on any screen that I as a young disabled girl saw on screen (except perhaps Geri Jewell), and seemingly the only household name with any kind of physical difference, and certainly the only Oscar winner. She was relatable in a way that made her deafness accessible, and subtly yet definitively trailblazing.
In 1987, at the age of 21, Marlee Matlin became the youngest Academy Award Winner for Best Actress and remains the only deaf performer to ever win the coveted award for her debut film role in Children of a Lesser God. She has also received a Golden Globe for this performance as well. She has appeared in a wide array of successful TV shows and films resulting in two other Golden Globes, received four Emmy nominations for her guest appearances in Seinfeld, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Practice. Not to mention, her scene-stealing role as Joey Lucus on the award-winning show The West Wing, also as Jodi Lerner on The L Word, a series regular on Switched at Birth, the first deaf performer to compete on season 6 of Dancing with the Stars, and a runner up and finalist in The Celebrity Apprentice raising over a million dollars in one episode. Marlee has written five books including her autobiography I’ll Scream Later. In her autobiography, Matlin is candid about the toll of addiction and abuse but also shares many triumphs as an Oscar Winner, a captions advocate, and groundbreaker. Now, she stars in the new film CODA, which to date has garnered a number of awards and nominations including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, Grand Jury Prize at Sundance film festival, as well as receiving the highest purchase price in Sundance history of $25 million dollars. She was also recently presented with the Media Access Award’s highest honor, the Norman Lear-Geri Jewell lifetime achievement award and recently nominated for a Gotham Award and included in the Hollywood Reporter’s 100 Most Powerful Women in Entertainment.
With the sudden onset of her deafness at eighteen months old, Marlee shares that her support systems, especially her family, mentors and friends, have always been present and essential to her success. Matlin reflects on herself and her best friend, Alexis Kashar, a civil rights activist and founder of the inclusive jewelry brand, Rose Byander. She says of Alexis, “I adore that woman. She is my light.” Both women are incredibly successful in their own rights. The two friends came from nearly opposite backgrounds; while Marlee came from a family where she was the only deaf family member, Alexis came from a family in which every family member was deaf except for one sister. Yet Marlee says in terms of support systems, they had a lot in common and Alexis and Marlee have navigated both hearing and deaf environments seamlessly.
Friends since both their children were toddlers, Alexis says, “Marlee is one of those rare people with whom I share a deep personal connection that goes above our common roles as working women and mothers who are deaf. Her work as the ultimate trailblazer inspires me in my daily work.” Both consummate multi-hyphenate business women, Marlee describes their curiosity for life came from being observant from a young age and having a yearning for freedom. “We both learned very early on to keep our eyes open to explore what’s in front of us…we knew that we had to embrace all that life has to offer as early as we could, [ because we also knew we] wouldn’t be living with our parents the rest of our lives…and it just so happens that we are very very independent persons… who are also people people…you know we love to talk to people.”
As an accomplished actress in Hollywood, her advice to performers looking to start their own journey is this, “You have to network…I still hustle everyday…the best advice is to get creative, reach out to someone who is involved in the business…make every effort to collaborate and they don’t have to be anything like you. They don’t have to be deaf or disabled, [networking] is about building confidence.”
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And even though Matlin did not finish college and has had an incredibly successful and long lived career in show business, she still advises young artists to get an education before making their leap towards Hollywood. She says, “I don’t have anything to fall back on…I wish I had gone back to college. So when people say, ‘I want to be an actor like you,’ I say, ‘So, great, but why don’t you try to finish school so you have something to fall back on? Because not everything works all the time in your efforts to be an actor.’”
She also offers sage advice for those who might be afraid to take the leap and fail:
“Making a mistake is not the end of the world…it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to fall because eventually you will get back up again and in that journey, you will learn something, you will find a point of understanding. I say to my kids that if you fail or if you fall someone will, or you, have to pick yourself up.”
In 2011, Marlee broke the record for most donations on The Apprentice in a single challenge with $1 million dollars, a feat not possible without great relationships. When asked about maintaining trust and good faith with others, she said “the bottom line is that it’s also not [just] about love, it is also loyalty. [I]t’s about maintaining friendships and maintaining trust, and that’s why I keep my friends who aren’t in the business because they’re very loyal to me and vice versa, not to say that people in Hollywood aren’t loyal to each other, I need my friends in Hollywood, that’s how you are able to continue and make your work, but I see that in my real friendships, my non-Hollywood friendships, we know [what] works for each other and the choices we make [support each other]…sometimes I have trust issues and I try to work on those trust issues. But I’m human so what can I say after all.” She also speaks on the importance of maintaining self-awareness in order to foster healthy relationships with others. Her advice is:
“You have to do a deep self-examination, you have to find groups outside of yourself: family…[and] people that can make you feel [your] sense of self-worth…it’s about people who can help you unpack where you come from and try to be as transparent as you can. There’s no such thing as a perfect person, don’t try to think this is what people expect of you… What you can do and what you control is how you choose to live your life.”
When asked about where she finds the courage and fearlessness in her constant pursuit of new challenging opportunities such as Dancing with the Stars and acting live on Broadway, she says, “My attitude is who’s to say what I can’t do. Why would anyone expect or think that you can’t do [anything], you just do [it], there’s no reason to have any sort of barriers, whether they’re physical or mental barriers.”
And as a deaf woman working in Hollywood, Marlee Matlin is no stranger to navigating ignorance or curiosity. When faced with people who either are unintentionally ableist or audist, her advice is:
“You need to be able to understand, to have empathy for the other person not knowing what it is they deal with, or whatever their political views are, what language they choose… we’re all different, we all have different perspectives, [it’s] up to you…how you embrace it and choose to respond to it…I do it with humor and I always try and use it as a means to break the ice, particularly [with] someone new…I can recognize when people are nervous…I learned from my father to own who you are and to do it with humor.” And while she has an incredibly optimistic outlook on how she is treated, she still holds people accountable for their actions and she says, “I expect to be respected.” She points again to wisdom from her famous mentor, “Henry Winkler said you need to just think before you speak and yet, speak about what it is you think and what you believe in and say it with grace and with the positive attitude and that way people will listen and pay attention. [R]emember it’s a two-way street, if you are going to communicate you have to expect to give people what they’re looking for [just as you are] looking for something from them.”
Kindness is the foundation of how Marlee chooses to treat everyone. She shares, “We all have beautiful hearts…when I go to a store for example, I always make it a point to say hello. I approach life with a smile. And always…even if I meet somebody in an elevator [I say], “have a good day.”…[I]t’s about how you approach, not necessarily how they might feel and I think that in turn will draw them to you. It’s the best I can do, to show them by example, how much I appreciate them, whoever they are.”
Marlee’s optimism and strength comes from experiencing her own challenges and rock-bottom. When asked about advice for someone at their lowest point, she says:
“Listen, take one thing at a time, I always talk to myself out loud, [asking] is this right? Does this make me happy? If this doesn’t make me happy, if I’m not getting the right sort of feel from it…move on knowing that you’re on a journey to growing…Patience is a big thing, …you have to be patient…you just have to open your mind, open your heart and try to see what works best for you…I know being sober was that for me. And…communicate with people…someone you can trust, someone you feel safe with.” Marlee admits that she also has her own “ups and downs” but assures that “if you want to be as happy as you can be then work for it.”
In terms of failure, she says that her biggest obstacle hasn’t been in her professional life, but rather, her role as a parent to her four children, because it has taken her time to figure out how to support them individually and uniquely. She says, “ I love the fact that they’re all different and yet I love them all the same. We each have different relationships, we have different ways to communicate with each other and I know that they have my back and they know I have their backs, too.”
Her maternal role also extends to her work life in CODA. The film follows the story of Ruby Rossi, the daughter and only hearing member of her deaf family and the difficulties she grapples with in choosing between supporting her family and pursuing her love of music. Marlee stars as Ruby’s mother, Jackie Rossi. She says about the film, “There is a learning curve for [all the characters in the film] particularly concerning Ruby’s decision to say I want to leave, I want to go to school, I want to sing.”
Matlin speaks fondly of Emilia Jones, who plays Ruby. She says she not only learned to sign and sing for the role, but also to fish and as a Brit, remember to say all her lines in an American accent. Marlee says [w]hen we first met Emilia, “We welcomed her into our family as if she were our own daughter…She was fearless and if she had fear, she never showed it. She totally jumped into the role.”
Emilia isn’t the only powerhouse in the film. Matlin insisted the role of her husband be played by a deaf actor, and not just any actor, but one of the best out there — the incredibly captivating Troy Kotsur, whose performance in the film just garnered him a Golden Globe nomination. On a recent interview with Good Morning America, Marlee pointed out that what makes this film unique is that it is told from the deaf perspective, rather than from a hearing centric point-of-view. This undeniably talented ensemble combined with what Marlee calls “a universal story” furthers her mission of bringing deaf stories to a larger audience. CODA is now streaming on Apple +.
Matlin attributes her longevity in the industry to constantly being inspired by those around her. She says, “I seek out people to inspire me … I need [just] as much reinforcement. That power that people have within themselves in order for me to keep going…it’s about mutual respect, mutual learning based on what I see.”
And as for looking forward to the next 5 to 10 years, Marlee hopes to star in her own TV series and see more representation for deaf and disabled folks not only in Hollywood, but in every industry.
Alexis reflects on Marlee’s work ethic and impact on the world:
“Marlee is one of the most hardworking and smartest women I know. Her tenacity in knocking down barriers in Hollywood and beyond has created a better world for us all. Without her, we would be way behind in the push for inclusion in Hollywood and representation in media and beyond.”
Marlee Matlin has indeed made an indelible mark on history and has influenced the future forever with her incredible career, poise, resilience, sense of humor, humility and her constant evolution as an artist and human being.
When asked about what she hopes her legacy would be:
“My legacy is don’t tell me what to do. Believe that you should never have anybody tell you what to do… I’m a person who wants to be known for being a woman who never takes no for an answer.”