Marlee Matlin: ‘Do What You Have To Do’

She’s the youngest woman ever to win a “Best Actress” Academy Award, and still the only deaf actor to do so. Through her longtime interpreter Jack Jason, Marlee Matlin reflects on her highly successful acting career. Matlin also discusses the 20th Anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and her experience as a deaf woman in showbiz. Matlin says her parents taught her that you have to "do what you have to do" to get things done.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we hear from those who have made a difference through their work. Today we continue our coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with a conversation with a woman who is not only one of the country's most accomplished actress, but also happens to be deaf.

Of course we're talking about Marlee Matlin. She is the youngest woman ever to take home the Academy Award for Best Actress for the 1986 film "Children of a Lesser God." In the decades since she's become a regular on television. She's done everything from sashaying through a stint on "Dancing with the Stars" to starring roles on such programs as "The West Wing," "The L Word," "Sesame Street," "My Name is Earl" and even "The Family Guy" cartoon.

(Soundbite of show, "The Family Guy")

Unidentified Man: Please say the name of the movie you'd like to see now.

Ms. MARLEE MATLIN (Actor): (As herself) "The Last Mimzy."

Unidentified Man: I'm sorry. I didn't catch that. Please say the name of the movie you'd like to see now.

Ms. MATLIN: "The Last Mimzy."

Unidentified Man: You have selected "300." If this is the movie you'd like to see, say yes now.

Ms. MATLIN: No.

Unidentified Man: You have confirmed "300."

MARTIN: She's even written a few books along the way. Her latest, an autobiography is titled "I'll Scream Later." Marlee Matlin joins us now. She's at member station KPCC in Pasadena. The voice you'll hear is that of her interpreter Jack Jason. He's the one wearing the headphones and he's signing my questions. And I welcome you both. And thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MATLIN (Through Interpreter): I'm glad you clarified that because I didn't want your audience to think that I smoke 15 packs of cigarettes a day and that's why I have a low voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, thank you. So, Marlee, I wanted to start by asking you where you know, you heard me enumerate just the bare outlines of your career. And I can't even go through all of your credits because that would be the whole interview, okay?

Ms. MATLIN: (Through Interpreter) Well, thank you, that's nice of you to say.

MARTIN: But I'd like to ask where the drive comes from.

Ms. MATLIN: (Through Interpreter) You know what? It's all something that comes from what I was born with. I have to say that it comes from knowing what my parents taught me is that you have to do what you have to do to get things done. My parents were the ones who gave me the independence, who gave me the spark to do anything that you set your mind to, as all parents should do for their kids.

I also had friends, mentors, teachers, everyone, even my rabbi, encouraging me all along the way. People that I felt it was important for me to listen to, after they passed along their messages what would be best for me. And so that's all. I'm a combination of a lot of people inside of me.

MARTIN: You've lived about half of your life before the ADA went into effect and after and half sort of after the ADA went into effect, and I wondered if it had any effect on you that you can see.

Ms. MATLIN: (Through Interpreter) Well, and that's right. It really did change my life. I don't know how I was able to accomplish what I was able to do without the ADA. The fact that some people had to suffer for years without access to interpreters or access to ramps for people with mobility impairments. Access for individuals who had visual impairments or whatever it is that the ADA provides.

I can't imagine if it were taken away from us, it would be just like wearing one shoe. You would be walking around life with one shoe, if you took it away from us, which some have suggested.

MARTIN: There are those who have over the course of covering this story, we've had the opportunity to talk to a number of people who remember very distinctly getting the message about what they were not supposed to do, and having to very consciously steel themselves against those messages. And from what I'm hearing from you, it doesn't sound like you had that experience. But you did grow up in a time...

Ms. MATLIN: (Through Interpreter) Well, no, I did. I did have those experiences. They were more...

MARTIN: Well, tell me more about that.

Ms. MATLIN: (Through Interpreter) They were more on a personal level. For example, I was in high school when me and my best friend, like any other girl, were very much interested in becoming cheerleaders. And so we decided that we would try out for cheerleaders because they had tryouts after school. And we rehearsed, we really did rehearse.

And, you know, from the moment that they told us that we were going to be having auditions, a week later, we came back to show our stuff and we knew every move, we knew every chant. You know, I mean we knew when to smile when we were supposed to smile and to show our enthusiasm for the school. And after we did everything - I mean I even did the splits and I haven't done the splits up until that point and I haven't done them since. But I did them at that very point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Thats the drive that I had. I wanted to do it so badly. And the next thing we knew is after we were done, they said right there on the spot, if you get it or not, they said, you know what, you guys can't hear. So we are just going to move on. Thank you very much.

And thats something that stuck with me. I mean, its so small but its an important part of understanding how much the ADA has probably changed lives because that probably wouldnt happen today.

MARTIN: You know, acting is the business of no anyway. You get three no's for every yes that you get, if youre lucky, if youre having a good day and I...

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know...

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): And I go through that all the time.

MARTIN: Well, what I'm curious about is though, I dont know if you mind the term trailblazer but I think you are. I think most people would agree that are a trailblazer. And when I Judith Jamison has this phrase, that you can't be what you can't see. Im just wondering how you got the vision that you could do this.

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): I just did it. I just did it. In all honesty, my mother was the one who felt that I needed something to do after school, so she found a productive outlet for me and for my energy. And there was, fortunately, near our house a theater that was called the Center on Deafness. And we did plays, we did stories, we did songs all in sign language and we traveled all throughout Illinois and the Midwest.

And what I think it did is it brought out for me this desire to act as a deaf girl who had something to express. Just as any girl would want to express themselves. And I stuck with it and it was what I knew, and it was something that I knew I wanted to do when I grew up. So when it came to actually becoming an actor, I just did it. I just did it.

MARTIN: Youve written about the fact that when you started to gain acclaim in Hollywood, that the deaf acting community there was not always giving you love either. In fact, that youve written that when you won the Oscar, you were actually snubbed in some quarters. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): I think it was because I was new and because I came from nowhere and it was a very small community. I was 19 years old and I spoke. I could be one of those deaf people who can sign and speak. A lot of people couldnt. So when I spoke at the Oscars at the Academy Awards there was a huge controversy.

In the deaf community there are different types of people who have different philosophies. Some believe that they should only sign. Some believe they should only speak. Some people say you should use cued speech. Some say you should use cochlear implants. Some say you shouldnt sign. Some people say you should sign. Whatever the varying opinions were, I represented something different, and because no one knew me, they decided to make me their scapegoat or whatever it was to express their philosophy.

MARTIN: Do you still feel that your decisions are magnified in a way, or do you feel you could disappear a little bit more now?

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Always. Always. As a public figure you'll always be analyzed. Everyone scrutinizes everyone. I was recently in Las Vegas doing, signing my books and I had people who stood in line for two or three hours to wait for my book to get signed and there was another group of people just standing there behind the ropes just, you know, standing for two or three hours just staring at me - staring. I dont know if its the cult of celebrity or whatever it is or because I'm a famous deaf person, I dont know, but it is what it is. You know, what can you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, spoken like a person with good sense.

If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest for this Wisdom Watch conversation is the actor and activist Marlee Matlin. The voice youre hearing is her interpreter Jack Jason, and we're talking about her life and her work, and we're also talking about how the Americans with Disabilities Act is 20 years old, has changed the lives of Americans living with disabilities.

Can I ask, if you dont mind, you and Jack have been working together, as I understand it, for some 25 years? Do I have that...

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Twenty-five years. Yeah.

MARTIN: Twenty-five years. Thats longer than some marriages.

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Yes. Longer than my own husband and I have been married.

MARTIN: I am curious how you maintain a working partnership like that. Can you explain it, how you maintain that kind of collaboration, you know?

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Well, Jack sleeps between my husband and I in our bed no actually, I'm just, I'm joking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): I'm joking. Jack and I met when I moved to New York City after Children of a Lesser God, it guessed it was deemed that I needed an interpreter, and when we met, we just happened to click. He would interpret at that time for, like, photo shoots or interviews. And when I moved to California from New York City, Jack decided to go back to California where he was originally from. And just as time went by, we formed a production company together and Jack still runs that company today.

I mean, hes a gem. And hes the brains of the outfit. And I know he loves saying these things about himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): So, in any case, and hes a good interpreter...

MARTIN: Well, do you ever get in each others...

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Hes a good interpreter and hes a good friend. And he knows my sensibilities. He knows how I think. He knows all the sort of things that comes from working with somebody for a long time. We're a good match. We're a good match.

Mr. JASON: I have to say this is now Jack speaking that its an interesting experience having the opportunity to interpret for a woman for 25 years and saying things that sometimes women say that men would never say. And heres a good story that Marlee likes to tell, which is when Marlee was breastfeeding, she had to make an appearance at a Girl Scout function. And at one point she had to excuse herself because she had to pump her breasts.

So she said to the young girls, through me, excuse me, but I have to go pump my breasts now. And I said it and the little girls looked at me and I said, oh. And I said no, no, no. Not me, her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JASON: And then I thought to myself, I must be the only man in human history to ever utter the words, excuse me, I have to go pump my breasts now.

MARTIN: Good for you.

Mr. JASON: So thats the kind of stuff I get all the time.

MARTIN: You go girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JASON: Okay. Thanks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Can I ask, though, do you ever get on each others nerves?

Ms. MATLIN: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Oh my gosh. Ridiculous. Ridiculous. But we make up and its all fine. Its all fine.

Mr. JASON: Marlee and I, and again, its Jack speaking, Marlee and I have all these little inside jokes. And we have to be very careful because we sign in front of peoples faces but we're talking about them behind their back, and we get busted. Because recently, Marlee made an appearance in New York City on behalf of a big 125th anniversary for Good Housekeeping, and Marlee and I were signing and talking about all these people. You know, there's oh, so and so, and so and so, and then a very well-known hair stylist by the name of Ken Paves came over. And Marlee was like, oh, there's that famous guy Ken Paves who works with Jessica Simpson and Eva Longoria. And he started to sign fluently -fluently.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JASON: And we kept thinking oh, no.

MARTIN: Oh man, you are so busted.

Mr. JASON: Had he been watching everything we were saying? It's like an episode of "Seinfeld," you know, which, of course, they did use in "Seinfeld" when Marlee was on.

MARTIN: So you can never assume.

Mr. JASON: You have to be very careful.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask Marlee...

Mr. JASON: Because sign language...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. JASON: ...is being more and more used by everyone, I mean in schools...

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. JASON: They're teaching it in schools. You have to be really careful.

MARTIN: And it's true that children - children, very young children, to sign too as a way to kind of help them bridge the gap and you can...

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Absolutely. It works. It works. That you can teach a child to speak to you in sign language six months before you can talk to them with the voice. I did three DVD's for "Baby Einstein," teaching babies how to sign. It really helps a parent communicate because babies can't talk. But it has been proven that they can communicate using their hands to communicate. So sign language is a great tool in that way.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask about the "Baby Einstein," and "Sesame Street," and "The L Word," and "Dancing with the Stars," what haven't you done? Is there something you have not done that you want to do? Play Muhammad Ali? I dont know?

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): There's a lot.

MARTIN: But play...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): There's a lot. I would love to do a talk show. Naturally, I would love to do more films. I'd love to be able to see casting directors more willing to put in a character who happens to be deaf. I'm not talking about doing deaf storylines, but putting in deaf characters. I'd love to be able to do Broadway. I'd love to find challenging roles like that. There's still a lot to do. I mean, you know what, maybe I could work at a radio station. Who knows, the first deaf lady on the radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It would be hot. I would listen.

I did want to ask though, now that the first part of your career you had to deal with the whole expectation of navigating being an actor and being deaf. Now you are both a mother, okay, and you are older in Hollywoodland. In other professions, no, you'd just be hitting your stride. But in Hollywood, women particularly, age out. And I am curious to ask of those identities, which is the most challenging professionally at this point?

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): As being a woman over 40, I think that Hollywood looks at me in a completely different way. Its - I mean, they look at women that age as mothers. I've seem them grandmothers, teachers. It's really hard. And I guess being Hollywood it's to be expected because what do we get out of Hollywood? The 20-years-olds we have today, some are extremely talented, some are people who should be doing something else. But those are the people, that if they stay in Hollywood, theyll eventually realize that theyll get to where I am today because I was there. I was there.

So you deal with the fact that there are roles that they say youre too old or, you know, its time for you to play grandmother. But, you just have to bust your ass and get your work, get yourself out there and say, hey, look at me. I'm looking great. I have an Oscar. I can give you a great show, whatever it is you need, I can do it.

MARTIN: Can I ask you though, and I...

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): And I'm working on my hot body at the same time.

MARTIN: Yes, ma'am. Yes you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): I know. I saw - we saw you on "The L Word." We know what's up. We know what's up. But, do you mind if I ask...

Mr. JASON: Marlee just gave you two snaps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I dont know, this is the kind of question you ask and you say to yourself, would you be asking this of a man, and I dont know that I would, but I know that a lot of people would like to know how you balance being a wife and mom with four kids and doing the Hollywood thing and all the other stuff that you do. And we haven't even talked about all the activism that you do, weigh in on issues. I would, you know, if you dont find the question patronizing, I would be interested to know.

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): Well, you know, my kids are saints, as well as my husband. They are fully aware and were born to be open and understanding and that mom sometimes has to go away and mom has to come back. And I communicate with my kids every time I know I have to leave and I'll give them advance warning of, you know, three or four days.

And, for example, I just told my son I have to go to Washington, D.C. What are you going for? And I said, well, I'm meeting the president - President Obama. And he said, oh, do you think you can get his autograph for me? And I said, well, I dont know if I could do that but I can try. And he said well, without even thinking, he said, well, if you can't, could you get me a bobblehead instead?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): So I got him a bobblehead. And clearly, I didnt get the president's autograph. But getting back to my point, I am fortunate that everyone in my family, including my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, everybody is very supportive. And as Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village. And in my case, I have a very big village.

MARTIN: Well, youve been very generous with your time and I really appreciate it. Before we let you go, we always like to end these conversations by asking if you have some wisdom to share?

Ms. MATLIN (through interpreter): My motto has been, when kids come up to me and say I want to be an actor just like you, I say, well, first of all, please finish school. Or if you really want to be an actor then look for opportunities in your school or in your community.

But I always sign in my books that courage plus dreams equals success. And I think it's an equation that should be taught in every single institution of learning.

MARTIN: Marlee Matlin is an actor, activist and writer. She joined us from member KPCC in Pasadena. And once again, that the voice that you heard was her long-time interpreter Jack Jason. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JASON: Thank you.

Ms. MATLIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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