CODA: We Speak to Oscar Winner Marlee Matlin About Deaf Representation in Hollywood

Dept. of Chats and Confabs


Seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the sole hearing member of her family. Besides trudging through school, her days are spent working on the family’s fishing boat and acting as an interpreter for her parents. Things begin to change, however, when she joins the school’s choir club and discovers a passion and a gift for singing. Soon, the young Ruby finds herself caught in that age old dilemma of the obligation she feels towards her family and pursuing her own dreams. CODA (which stands for Children of Deaf Adults) is a beautifully made coming of age tale that takes the familiar and transforms it into something that feels fresh.

In this Goggler exclusive, we had the chance to speak to the legendary Marlee Matlin about her career in Hollywood and whether or not things have changed for deaf talent in the entertainment industry. (As I do not speak ASL, this interview was conducted with the help of Marlee’s interpreter Jack Jason.)


Umapagan Ampikaipakan: Marlee, this is both an honour and a pleasure. I’ve got a big picture question for you. CODA is one of those rare movies in which we see deaf actors playing deaf parts. It is also a movie that approaches the deaf culture narrative with respect and research. You’ve had a career in Hollywood for such a long time and I’m curious as to where we are now for deaf actors in Hollywood? Am I right in thinking that this movie still feels like a rarity?

Marlee Matlin: That’s a great question. And I have a question for you after I answer yours. 

Looking at my career and having the opportunity over the years to play many character arcs or episodic parts in shows like The West Wing, The L Word, Quantico, and Picket Fences, I was never in any of the lead roles. I was more of a guest star. And I think we still haven’t seen deaf actors at the core of a television show. And I think that needs to change.

I’m not sure if you heard, but NBC just announced that I have a show in which I will be the lead. So I hope that this is something that will come to fruition. This is just one example of what we need to see more of. NBC recognized that we need shows in which a deaf character carries a television show. Meanwhile a lot of people think that if they have background actors or supporting characters, that somehow this box has been checked. 

But there is so much talent out there, including those behind the camera, we’re talking about costume designers, and makeup artists, and directors, and writers, and they need to be used. 

Now I have a question for you. Have you read all the books that are behind you? Because I see so many books!

UA: Let me tell you, when you’ve been stuck in lockdown as long as we have been in Malaysia, having this many books is a godsend.

MM: I do hope the book about my my life is there. 

UA: Oh yes! I’ve read I’ll Scream Later and I enjoyed it very much. 

MM: Oh, thank you so much.

UA: You know, I’m so glad you brought up The West Wing, because besides being one of my favorite TV shows of all time, it was also a rare example of where you played a part that wasn’t about deafness. It was just a beautiful character and a beautiful part. 

MM: Exactly. Exactly. You’re exactly right. All the shows that I mentioned were just like that. I played characters who just happen to be deaf.


UA: In CODA, you’ve got the “and Marlee Matlin” credit, which is the most coveted credit of all…

MM: I have very good agents. I don’t do that. They do that.

UA: But surely that gives you a certain amount of clout in Hollywood. And what does that mean for you, with regards to options and choice, but also for other deaf talent?

MM: I’m not complaining. In all honesty, it’s nice to have that credit and that opportunity. But I think we’re all in this together equally and I think that the opportunity to be recognized should be the same for everyone. I think Daniel Durant and Troy Kotzer are new faces for all of you, but I can tell you that they are probably two of the most incredible actors within our community. There are many more out there, but in relation to this film, they should not be overlooked whatsoever. They have really paid their dues. As have a lot of other actors, like Shoshannah Stern, for example, who has been around for a long time.

I think clout is what you make of it. And I always say, no matter how important you are, you always say please and thank you. You stay humble. And that’s how I’ve tried to carry myself throughout my career.

We also spoke to CODA director Siân Heder. Check out our interview here.

CODA premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, 13 August.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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