How 2017 Became A Banner Year for Deaf Actors & Sign Language In Film
It’s been some 30 years since Marlee Matlin took home the Academy Award for her work in Children of a Lesser God, but despite this breakthrough performance, she’s probably the only deaf performer most people can name. Matlin’s Oscar victory was historic, no doubt, but sadly, there has seemingly been little progress for deaf actors in Hollywood since. It’s not that there haven’t been strides made – representation nowadays has surpassed what it once was, especially with the inclusion of deaf actors on television shows like Switched at Birth, Scream Queens, Fargo and the upcoming This Close, among others, but we are undoubtedly not where we need to be. Matlin may have stolen the show during her time on The West Wing and wowed with her consistent career since, but she’s certainly not the only deaf performer trying to make a name for themselves in Hollywood.
2017 has been a lousy year, no doubt, but one redeeming moment for this year is that we, as viewers, have been lucky enough to see a handful of deaf performers and the use of sign language given a platform in mainstream films – perhaps more prominently than ever before. With the help of films like Baby Driver, Wonderstruck, and even The Shape of Water, 2017 has stealthily become one of the most visible years for deaf actors and sign language in film in recent memory.
MUSIC TO DEAF EARS
Edgar Wright’s bumpin’ Baby Driver may be driven by music, but one of its biggest scene-stealers is Joseph, the deaf foster father of lead character Baby (Ansel Elgort) played by deaf actor CJ Jones. In Baby Driver, Jones uses his warm comedic chops opposite Elgort to provide some of the most touching moments in the film – and most of their interactions are done via sign language. Decider spoke with Jones – the first black deaf actor to be featured in a major motion picture! – about his time working on the film and what it’s been like to fight for industry recognition all these years, and he was frank about just how difficult it’s been. Many deaf characters aren’t played by deaf actors, largely because of the extra cost of hiring an interpreter and potential communication breakdowns on set. For Mr. Jones’ role in Baby Driver, they also auditioned hearing actors, but Wright (whose sign name, an identifier assigned to someone by an ASL speaker, is “Cool”, something Jones said Wright loved to sign) decided in the end that Jones was the best for the role – a fact that elated Jones. “I realized they were looking for someone authentic. That was me! I told Mr. Wright, I really appreciate that you focused on what was most important to you and went with an authentic actor.”
According to Wright, Jones was the obvious choice. “We saw him, and he was really good,” Wright told Decider. “After that, I saw some non-deaf actors pretending to be deaf and pretending to sign, and immediately it made me feel uneasy. I’d already seen a deaf actor, and I obviously couldn’t help comparing them to him,” he recalled. “I knew that going with an actor pretending to be deaf was the wrong decision.” After a wonderful on-set experience and enthusiastic audience reaction, Wright felt even more affirmed in his decision. “I think it’s a great performance. I’m really proud,” Wright said. “I’m so happy I gave him the part. Not only was it the right thing to do, but he was the best man for the job.” The on-set experience Wright had with Jones only reinforced this decision. When it came to showing Joseph and Baby signing on screen, Wright was intent on doing the language justice and emphasizing its inherently visual nature. “At one point, actually, the studio asked me to shoot a version where Baby said aloud what he was saying while he was signing and also repeated aloud what Joe was saying where he was signing,” Wright remembered. “And I refused to do it.” Elgort agreed with Wright – because it would have ruined what made these signing scenes so striking in the first place. The route they eventually took – one that places subtitles close to the hands of the actors – put emphasis on the sign itself, something not often done on screen.
While shooting the film, Jones was always accompanied by an interpreter, but he said he had a lot of fun teaching different cast and crew members sign language. Even if it was just to learn a curse word (or two), he loved that they had taken an interest. “A lot of people on set, they loved asking me, how do you sign this, how do you sign that?” he recalled. Jones also took the time to help Elgort make the sign language he had learned more conversational. “He [Ansel] had teachers, but when he came and I watched him sign, I was like… hmm…,” Jones remembered. “I helped sign more normally, I gave him my type of signing… Ansel learned very fast with me, and he loved signing and always, always made sure – ‘am I signing this right? Am I doing a good job? Is this ok?’ He had a really good attitude,” said Jones. “I had a wonderful, wonderful time.” Wright echoed these sentiments, crediting Jones with changing him as a director and shaking things up on set. “Shooting the scenes was really beautiful,” Wright recalled. “Working with CJ made me want to be a better director, because I realized that when you’re talking to somebody who’s reading your lips, you’re very aware that of what you say is absolute nonsense – so you should try and be more succinct. It was an amazing experience. And he’s such a warm and funny presence to have on set. He was great.”
For Jones, one of the first deaf performers that made him believe he even had a semblance of a shot in the industry was Linda Bove, who played Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street for 30 years. “I looked and I said, ‘wow! If she can do it – I can do it!’. I became interested in TV.” The difference that can be made just from increased visibility has already become apparent to Jones since appearing in Baby Driver, and the importance of it is not lost on him. “Some parents have told me, I’m so happy that my deaf child has you to look at as a role model. And they’re gonna grow up to be successful knowing that there’s no limit for the deaf. That’s really big – when hearing parents tell me that. That because of me, their kids can do anything, that leaves me speechless.” Jones, who has performed standup comedy for many years, is thrilled that Baby Driver has given him such a big platform to reach deaf people and give them hope – and it’s given him hope as well.
Since Baby Driver, Jones says many doors have opened for him. He’s got a horror movie in the works and a few other high-profile projects (including a top-secret, big budget sequel!) in the pipeline, but he acknowledged that people are still largely in the dark about deaf actors. “There’s ignorance – they think Marlee Matlin is the only one – that there are no other deaf actors!” Jones explained. “Wrong. There’s a lot of deaf actors, we just have to educate everybody. Hollywood is very secluded,” he said. His experience working with Wright on Baby Driver, however, made him hopeful, and not just for himself – but for the future of deaf actors in the industry as a whole. “I hope that Hollywood now starts to embrace us and include us, and that there’s not a problem with deaf people auditioning,” said Jones. “The point is to have authentic deaf roles in movies or TV shows. It’ll make a big difference.”
STRUCK BY SILENCE
Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck is a wondrous little movie; told alternately between two timelines, we follow Rose (the 14-year-old deaf actress Millicent Simmonds), an isolated young deaf girl in 1927 New Jersey, and Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy in 1977 Minnesota who becomes deaf after he is struck by lightning. While Julianne Moore plays Rose in sequences that depict her later in life (a necessity to bankroll a film largely filled with little-known actors), Haynes’ casting of a deaf actress in a deaf role is a bold move – and one that is more rare than it should be.
For almost the entire first hour of Wonderstruck, there is hardly any dialogue in the film. As Rose’s story plays out in dreamy black and white and Ben’s in warm, saturated ’70s color, the two explore New York City in search of their truths. The manner in which Haynes embraces of the beauty of deafness and focuses on visuals makes Wonderstruck uniquely appealing to deaf and hearing audiences alike. There are many moments in the film that bring call our attention to things that hearing people may not usually notice; in the very beginning, Rose finds solace in her local cinema, where the silent film era is coming to a close. In a world where she constantly feels alone, she is able to watch a film that she doesn’t need to hear – but this is soon taken from her when talkies are introduced. Simmonds, who carries each scene in her expressive gaze, perfectly captures what can only be total frustration and despair when it comes to her inability to communicate with others (according to Haynes, 1927 was a period during which sign language was not taught to deaf children in the U.S.).
In addition to Simmonds, Haynes also cast several other deaf actors in small hearing roles during the black-and-white segments of the film – an unprecedented move. “Todd [Haynes] made me feel comfortable from the very first day,” Simmonds told Decider. “A lot of the crew learned sign language for me too. But they hired other deaf actors in my part of the movie so I really didn’t feel like I was the only one.” Haynes dove into the world of deaf culture and life as best he could in the process, beginning by donning noise-cancelling headphones with Fegley and exploring New York City. Haynes conceded that this is not anything close to living as a deaf person, but it helped him to understand the importance of visuals to someone who is unable to hear – and the film is a testament to this. For Simmonds, the on-set experience was more than she ever could have hoped for – and she was thrilled by the enthusiasm of her co-stars and crew members. “Julianne Moore had an amazing ASL coach that she worked with. The first time I met her she finger-spelled her name and told me she was excited to meet me.” Moore did not take the responsibility of playing a deaf character lightly; the actress spent two months learning ASL for her scenes, and even received some tips and tricks from Simmonds in the process.
With its deaf leading lady and supporting cast members, Wonderstruck is a stunning indication of just how far we’ve come in depicting and casting deaf people – but it’s also a reminder of how much work there is to still be done with industry access. “I don’t think I had anyone I looked up to that was a deaf performer my whole life,” said Simmonds. “I met a lot of deaf performers on the set of Wonderstruck that I now look up to. I didn’t have that growing up.” Despite how hard it is for deaf people to break into the industry, Simmonds is optimistic about the future and hopes the film shows deaf people that their dreams are possible. “I would say that if acting is really what they want to do, to not give up,” she said. “I never thought I would be in a movie. I feel so lucky. I hope other deaf people get the opportunities I’ve been given.”
SEE WHAT I’M SAYING
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, may not feature a deaf performer, but it does put sign language front and center in a beautiful way. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman who uses sign language to communicate with her peers. It may not seem like a massive deal, but the idea that del Toro rests his film on a nonverbal character whose emotion lies in her expressions and signing is important. Even without spoken words, Hawkins’ performance is flooring, a reminder that while society may place higher value on verbal communication, the inability to speak is not a death sentence – and sign language can be just as emotive and beautiful as any words we’re able to put together with our voices. “It was very much part of the story to show that the two characters that don’t have the verbal use of words, they’re communicating with looks and essence and presence,” del Toro told Decider. There was a personal connection to sign language for del Toro, too; the director was raised by a group of great aunts, one of whom was hard of hearing and the other completely deaf. “They communicated a lot through sign language,” del Toro remembered. “As a kid, I used to love how eloquent their eyes and their gestures were with the sign language. And it has a beauty and a power to it.” del Toro wasn’t the only one involved in The Shape of Water with a personal connection to sign language, either – del Toro discovered that Octavia Spencer had also had experience with it growing up. “I was talking to Octavia, and I learned that her brother was signing, and that was really some sort of synchronicity because both her and myself were raised in households where that was of common usage.”
Sign language is very rarely given the representation that it deserves, especially given that over a million Americans are deaf and many of them use American Sign Language as their primary mode of communication. del Toro does something magical with Hawkins’ signing here; he keeps subtitles close to her hands and the focus on the entire picture rather than cutting away at convenient moments, and it counts. This was a conscious decision on del Toro’s part. “We tried to place it in an unconventional way to be close to the hands,” he said. “To be very close to the hands because that is, in essence, taking the place of the mouth of the character, in a way.” As with Wright’s use of subtitles in Baby Driver, del Toro made sure there was an emphasis placed on the sign itself.
Hawkins and Spencer both took learning ASL very seriously, enrolling in classes together (though Spencer’s character did not end up signing much in the final version of the film). Hawkins was intent on there being a layer of “richness” to it, so that it could be “understood on another level”. del Toro added that several actors in the film learned a fair amount of sign language as well so that they would all be in sync. “We had a coach on set, but we started the coaching with Sally many months before we started… You need to synchronize what they’re signing and what the people are repeating. Sometimes Octavia or Richard [Jenkins] might be one beat ahead or one beat behind, you know, so we tried to make sure that they understood, really, the sign language.” Dedication like that of Hawkins and Spencer for The Shape of Water and Moore in Wonderstruck is an example that the rest of the industry might benefit from following; their reverence for sign language and using it accurately and respectfully shine through on screen, and it’s significant if only that many audiences – both deaf and hearing – have likely never seen ASL used in a mainstream movie before.
2017 has certainly been a remarkable year for deaf representation in Hollywood, but it’s only a drop in the bucket. Groundbreaking television series, indie films, and directors like Wright, Haynes, and del Toro may be paving the way for further representation, but if we want to ensure that deaf people have the same opportunities as hearing individuals, bridges must be built and doors must be opened to ensure accessibility. How can someone step into the spotlight if they’re never even given an opportunity to show what they’re made of? Creating access is an easy first step – and one that big industry players should be making an effort to ensure. “Open the doors for all other deaf and disabled people and they’ll be able to get work – without the struggle,” Jones told Decider. “Struggle is painful. It’s not necessary. If you have the dream, you’re able. Let’s open those doors. We can’t leave them closed.” This year, we’ve pried open a few doors. We could do with busting through a few more.
Dawn Tammaro from Geneva Worldwide acted as interpreter for the interview with Mr. Jones.
*An earlier version of this article stated that American Sign Language was not taught in schools until after the 1920s, when it has in fact been taught in America since the 1800s. It has since been corrected.