Making Room for the Deaf in Hollywood

Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams

Millie Simmonds plays Rose, a lonely deaf girl in 1927 New Jersey enamored of silent movies and of one star in particular (played by Julianne Moore, the hearing actress who also plays the grown-up Rose). Rose’s story alternates with that of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a Minnesota boy who becomes deaf when he is struck by lightning in 1977. In Brian Selznick’s best-selling book, which he adapted for the screen, Rose’s story is conveyed wordlessly in pencil drawings; Ben’s is shared entirely in words. In the movie, her story unfolds without speech in black and white, his with blazing ’70s pop color but — for nearly an hour — no dialogue.

“I was completely shocked by how little dialogue there was in the film,” Mr. Haynes said in a phone interview. To approximate a nearly soundless world before production, he and Oakes wore noise-canceling headphones as they walked around New York City one day. He became aware of “acute shards of visual information,” he said, though he wasn’t kidding himself that he had any idea what it was like to live deafness: “This was a thumbnail version of anything close to life.”

Like Rose and Ben, Carol Padden and her husband, Tom Humphries, who both teach at the University of California, San Diego, represent different deaf experiences. Ms. Padden, a MacArthur Fellow for her research in world sign languages, was born deaf to deaf parents and grew up in deaf culture. Mr. Humphries lost his hearing when he was 6, had no deaf family and did not learn sign language until he went to college. The couple were advisers for “Wonderstruck,” both the book and the movie.

Ms. Padden and Mr. Humphries would like to see more deaf actors in film — and not just as deaf characters. Deaf actors played nonspeaking hearing roles — a policeman and a maid, among others — in “Wonderstruck,” and as a fun exercise, Ms. Padden said in an email, she tried to figure out who was deaf in the movie. “There was one I missed,” she said, “which is a good sign of his acting. I heard that as they prepared to play their roles, they were told to look ‘less intently’ at others so they would seem more hearing.”

But authenticity works both ways. “It’s hard for hearing actors to look deaf to deaf viewers,” Ms. Padden said, since American Sign Language is not just a finger alphabet but a system of expression employing the whole body. “For hearing viewers,” she said, “being ‘deaf’ is about signing, or seeming silent, but for deaf viewers, it’s the entire embodiment of that life: the eyes, the shoulders, the hands, the walking and of course the looking. Until hearing viewers see deaf actors playing them, they may not realize entirely the hard work of embodying an entire different kind of life.”

Mr. Haynes said there was discussion about hiring a deaf actor for the adult Rose, but he said the film needed stars to get financing and “the only role that offered itself that kind of status was the role of Rose.” He turned to Ms. Moore. “She took on the responsibility of that character and the research with great seriousness.”

Mr. Humphries, in an email, said that the movie “succeeded way better than most,” but he also said that “you can’t achieve authenticity without much more participation of deaf people in all aspects of a movie about deaf people.”

Even films with deaf involvement can misstep by putting the hearing point of view first. In the summer hit “Baby Driver,” for example, the deaf actor and comedian CJ Jones is a scene stealer amid some Hollywood heavyweights. But Mr. Humphries pointed out that “the editing cut into CJ’s signed lines so much we often couldn’t see his signing” and added, “That’s reality, audiences are overwhelmingly hearing.”

Ms. Matlin said that “not so much” has changed since “Children of a Lesser God” when it comes to studio movies. In independent films, “where budgets are smaller,” she said, “risks can be taken, and there has been some progress.” A recent Ukrainian film, “The Tribe,” has gone further than any Hollywood movie. It was filmed entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language, with a cast of deaf actors, and no subtitles or voice-overs.

Still, Ms. Matlin pointed out that on TV and streaming services, “there are many, many deaf actors, writers, directors and producers — and lots of stories to tell.”

Chief among those stories may have been the cable series “Switched at Birth,” which ran for five seasons, featured multiple deaf actors and included an episode shot almost entirely in A.S.L. A current example is the ABC series “Quantico,” now shooting Season 3 in New York. Ms. Matlin (who had a recurring role in “Switched at Birth”) joins the cast as an ex-F.B.I. agent who lost her hearing in a bomb blast. “They just put me in and have had no qualms about ‘How do we do it?’” she emailed from the set.

In films, by contrast, there isn’t much nuance in telling the story of a deaf character, she said: “Usually they’re victims, or their deafness creates some sort of jeopardy.”

Ethan Sinnott, director of the theater and dance program at Gallaudet University and a set designer, said that deaf theater professionals like him were not “waiting for hearing Hollywood to call” but taking matters into their own hands.

“Deaf filmmaking is ascendant,” he said in an email, “likely due to the ease of communication afforded by a common language between deaf actors, creatives and techies.” He also said that he was “gobsmacked” by the success of “Switched at Birth,” adding, “I never thought I would ever see this in my lifetime.”

Millie Simmonds has seen neither “The Tribe” nor “Children of a Lesser God” (they both have very adult themes), and she “never, never never” dreamed of being an actress. “I always wanted to be a cop or a fireman or do something dangerous,” she said. But here she was in Poughkeepsie, already at work in her second movie, “A Quiet Place,” with John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. She has no time to watch noisy scary movies anytime soon, even if she wanted to.

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