Marlee Matlin

Photo by Stan Malinowski

By Jae-Ha Kim
Metro Chicago Magazine
Fall 1987 issue

Blessed with a simple, heartbreaking beauty, Marlee Matlin carries her star status with self-effacing humor. A native of Chicago’s northwest suburbs, Matlin presently lives in New York. Having lost her hearing at the age of 18 months, she was recently back in town to attend the creative arts festival at the Center on Deafness in Des Plaines where she had been a student.

Matlin relies on sign language to communicate. To the students at the Center and to deaf children worldwide, Matlin is more than a heroine. She represents hope that they can succeed in an arena of endeavor where the odds are definitely in their favor.

A lot of people would think it strange for a celebrity to come home to watch a couple of children’s plays.

The Center on Deafness holds a very special place in my heart. It wasn’t that long ago that I was performing for my mother and father and friends. I could see the same joy in these kids’ eyes. Since I won the Oscar, I was a source of pride for these kids. I had my own workshop for an hour with the kids and the parents.

What did you tell them?

I told them that it wasn’t as important as being true to yourself. It’s important to learn and continue learning. I told them a little bit about myself and my schooling at the center. At first I was really nervous, but I relaxed because I was really enjoying myself. I got wonderful questions. It was very hectic. I had to control their requests for autographs because that uses up all the time. I said, “Enough, no, no. I have to go after this.” You know, I have to be firm. I try to be. I always try to be.

Even so, I noticed that you spent about 20 minutes signing autographs.

It is very difficult to ignore people who want to meet you, especially people who’ve been supportive. But similarly, I can’t ignore my other obligations. For instance, I said I would be at the studio for the photo shoot at a certain time. Although we’re going to be a little late, I’ve got to try to fulfill that part of my obligation or else everyone is going to be screwed because of my delay. It’s really difficult to balance everything.

You seem to like kids so much. Do you want to have a lot yourself?

I don’t know. Maybe seven.

You’re the youngest in your family. Did they spoil you and treat you like the baby?

They tried, but I wouldn’t let them. “Hey, hey, hey. This is my life. Don’t worry about me.”

You were independent even as a child?


When did you first become interested in acting?

I was seven years old. I was at camp, and they asked me, “How’d you like to be in a play, Marlee?” They wanted me to sing. I can’t sing. I went to rehearsal anyway and sang along with the hearing girls who helped me. I liked all the attention, the clapping. It really helped me although it was very frustrating for me because I wanted to be perfect.

What high school did you go to?

Hersey, in Arlington Heights.

What kind of student were you?

Party animal! I was well liked by the teachers and the students. I got average grades–B’s, C’s. I didn’t have good study habits, which is one thing I regret. I should’ve studied.

Did you know then that you were cut out to be an actress?

Well, no. Throughout high school I didn’t think about acting at all. I thought, “I’m in high school now. I can’t be involved in children’s theatre.” After being graduated I went to Harper College and studied criminal justice because I wanted to be a cop. I wanted to be a probation officer for deaf criminals. One day, I got a call from Patti (Shore Kaden). We didn’t even know each other very well at that point. She said, “There’s this audition happening for the play Children of a Lesser God. My initial reaction was, “No, I don’t want to do it.” I went to the audition. I was really scared. I had my brother come with me.

That was the secondary role of one of the students?

Yes, it was for Lydia. I got a second callback and then I got the part. I was really excited. Opening night of the play, the casting director for the film was looking for Sarah, not for the role I was playing. Someone recommended me. I went to the agent’s office and they had a videotape of the play, and my friend who was playing Sarah said, “You’ll get Sarah for sure.” And then the agent called me and said they wanted to see me. I said, “No, no, no, I don’t know how to make a movie. I don’t know any of this.” I was too scared to think that this could be the role for me. They kept calling me. It’s been two years since that phone call.

You didn’t smoke before you made Children of a Lesser God and had to learn how to do it for the film.

You bet. When we went to make the film, they told me that Sarah smoked. I told them I don’t smoke. I’ve never. We fought back and forth about that. And they won. I’m still smoking.

When you were announced as the winner of the Academy Award for best actress (for that role) how did you feel?

It felt great. I felt proud, especially for the deaf community and for Chicago.

You received mixed reactions regarding the dress that you wore.

A lot of people made so many comments about my dress–awful, awful comments. You know, about how bad my glasses looked and how hideous my dress was. I’m not into fashion. I just want to be comfortable. I don’t care what I look like. I don’t have to show off.

I read that you want to concentrate on theatre.

I’d like to concentrate on acting, period. I want to try the stage again. TV, I can wait on. I’ve actually got a project for television I’m working on but I can’t announce it yet. I want to do films, little by little, making careful choices. I don’t want to flop. I’m a perfectionist and that’s a problem. I will learn a lot from anything, right or wrong, mistakes or not.

What have you done to prepare yourself for Nicaragua, where you’re shooting Walker?

I got the necessary shots. I took pills once a week. Huge pills. Those are supposed to keep me immune. I called the director and asked, “What should I bring for the children?”  He said anything to do with baseball. So I bought baseball cards.

Had you been offered the part before you won the Academy Award?

Yeah, I met the director. This was before Children of a Lesser God came out. He hadn’t seen the film but he just heard about me and had faith in me.

When does the story take place?

In 1855. It’s about a man named William Walker who took over Nicaragua. I’m really looking forward to working with Ed Harris. I’m really eager to work again. I play a brilliant woman, very straightforward, who happens to be deaf–and a little bit of a tease. They get engaged and she supports him through all his traumas. It’s a very, very small, teeny tiny role, because she dies of cholera.

The actor John Lone (Year of the Dragon and Iceman) says he wants the press to refer to him not as, “Chinese actor John Lone” but simply as “actor John Lone.”

Right! Right! There’s too much labeling. If I got certain roles, I could speak, not as well as you, but I could do it. If I speak too much, it’s too great an effort and I get dizzy. I don’t necessarily want to play speaking women. But maybe there could be a character who’s speech impaired…or like those women in videos that you see on MTV lip synching. They have women in the background who say nothing–they just stand there. I could do that!

Comments (7)

  1. Cora says:

    Love this! I think I have one of those James Dean shirts!

  2. Kulie Barker says:

    Great pic Jae-Ha!

  3. Michael Murphy says:

    It’s not often when you’re not clearly the best-looking person in a picture (peanut pics excepted)

  4. John Harrold says:

    from the interview: I found this to be relevant too.

    “The actor John Lone (Year of the Dragon and Iceman) says he wants the press to refer to him not as, “Chinese actor John Lone” but simply as “actor John Lone.”

  5. Does minority = diability? Very strange.

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