Thursday, June 18, 2009

Interview with Marlee Matlin

by StuntDouble, June 15, 2009 on

According to her calculations, Marlee Matlin was exactly 21 years and 218 days old the night in 1987 that she won the Best Leading Actress Academy Award for her role in Children of a Lesser God and had to convince Academy Award producers to let her interpreter on stage with her.

She took home a Golden Globe that year too, and she remains the youngest woman to ever win a leading lady Oscar.

But Matlin's rise to fame began much earlier: When she was seven-years-old, Matlin's teacher at the Center on Deafness and the Arts approached her about starring in their stage production of The Wizard of Oz. "Would you like to be Dorothy?" her teacher asked. Matlin's response: "I am Dorothy."

Not long after, she won a competition for her essay, "If I Was A Movie Star."
If I was a movie star, I would ride in a limousine.

When I go out of the limousine I would give everyone my best autograph and I would let people take my picture. Ohhh, when I am on the stage I would give everyone my best smile.

I would have a huge house which would have mirrors all over. I would love when people would write me letters. I would love to send them back but it's hard to write all the people.

I would love to meet all movie stars! They are so nice!!

I want to make movies all my life!

I am the best!!!

Here's my autograph.

Matlin's new memoir, I'll Scream Later, tells of her journey from childhood thespian to Oscar-winner to television star. Rather than the typical Hollywood tell-all, Matlin's autobiography paints a picture of a plucky young woman who fought through stereotypes, childhood abuse, a tumultuous family life and an intense drug addiction to become one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood.

Her book is filled with uncommon grace and plenty of laughter as she recounts her early career as a film star; her transition to television as Tess Kaufman on Reasonable Doubts (1991-1993), a role which earned her two more Golden Globe nominations; her appearance in Seinfeld's subversive "Lip Reader" episode (1993); her role as the formidable Joey Lucas on The West Wing (2000-2006); her turn as a contestant on ABC's Dancing With The Stars (2008-2009); and, of course, the time she spent on the set of The L Word, playing spirited artist Jodi Lerner (2007-2009).

A passionate advocate for gay rights, Matlin recently answered questions from us about her candid biography, her athletic prowess, how easy it is to kiss a woman, and why silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from her.

AfterEllen: The title of your book, I'll Scream Later, alludes to the fact that you were in rehab when you got the news that you'd been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Your interpreter, Jack, told you the press needed some kind of reaction, and you told him, "I'll scream later." It seems like such a feverish time in your life. Did you ever actually get the chance to celebrate and scream later?

Marlee Matlin: Actually, every day of sobriety for me is a celebration. I have a great family, I have a career. Had I not gotten sober, I don't even know if would have had a career after Children of A Lesser God, or even if I would be alive. It was really that bad for me. So each day is a wonderful celebration. As for "screaming later" I think the book is "later." I wanted the world to know that the time for silence was no more, that I couldn't keep silent about the abuse, the molestation, the drugs. But I also wanted to scream about my triumphs and my sobriety.

In some small way, I hoped that my story, my truth, could help someone who was saying "I'll scream later" because they didn't know how or have the tools to break the cycle of silence that comes with abuse, molestation and addiction.

AE: Your book starts off with you effectively closing the door on Hollywood after you won the Golden Globe for Best Leading Actress in a Drama. You checked into Betty Ford two days later, and almost no one supported you, not even your family. Do you look back now and just sort of marvel at the courage that took?

MM: That Marlee is a such a different person than who I am now. I want to give her a hug, then a kick in the ass and say, "You should've gotten yourself to rehab sooner." But we can only do what is right when the time feels right, so I guess I'd cut her some slack.

It wasn't about courage for me. It just felt right. I wasn't out to prove anything. I just wanted to get my life back.

AE: You said in rehab you started telling the "gritty parts" of your story — an image I love. What made you decide that now was the right time to write your autobiography, to share the gritty parts with the world?

MM: There were two factors that led me to write the book and all the "gritty" parts. First was that little show called Dancing with the Stars. As a result of being on that show, I got so many letters telling me I was an inspiration — the fact that I danced without hearing the music. It got to the point that every week it was all people were saying about me, and I wanted them to know that I was more than just that.

It was probably, too, the fact that I was playing myself on the show, and opening up, that I realized I hadn't had the chance to tell people who I really was, but if I did, perhaps they'd be inspired by the other things I had overcome in my life than simply my deafness.

The second factor that motivated me to write the book was watching my daughter turn 13. She was the same age as I was when I began to use drugs and suffer the molestation, and I instantly reflected back. I knew the only way she would not experience what I had experienced was if I told the truth, came clean, put it all on the table.

Yes, it wasn't pretty and no mom wants to look bad in front of her children, but she had to know what I went through so she could know what to avoid. You can't preach if you don't come clean with what you're preaching about, and I am so glad she knows. The truth can only empower, I believe.

AE: You talk a bit in your book about your abusive relationship with William Hurt and the molestation your suffered as child from a babysitter and a teacher. Where did you get the courage to speak out about it so truthfully?

MM: The biggest obstacle to overcoming abuse and molestation is keeping silent about it. Everyone who experiences it probably thinks it's only happening to them and to talk about it would be so shameful and destructive. But the only person that is being destroyed by the silence is themselves. Talking about it can potentially help the next person — and the person after that — to get out, to make the call, to get some help.

As I've always said, "Silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me."

AE: You claim to be a sports fanatic, actually boasting that placing a bat in your hand is a promise of a couple of RBIs. I checked up on you because you played in the Taco Bell All Star Legends and Celebrity Softball game last year, and this does not look like the best way to maintain your RBI average. How do you explain yourself?

MM: Hey, if I see a nice butt, I've got to check it out. And isn't his name "Goose Gossage"? I gave him a little goose, that's all!

AE: Actually, you scored a run and had two RBIs, and I'm only bringing that up so I can post a picture of you in your uniform, because look how cute you are! In your book you mention that the Deaf community has often been torn in their support of your career. Sometimes you sign, sometimes you speak. It just depends on need of the character and the writing of the show, yet everyone seems to have an opinion about what is best for the Deaf community. Is that still a struggle for you?

MM: It's not a struggle; it just is what it is. I'm an actor, but I'm also human. I can't be everyone's answer to making everything right in the world just because the world has historically not understood people who are Deaf. I've learned I'm just one of many, and that whatever people want to put on me belongs to them, not me. All I can do is speak out on what I believe and hope that it will be considered. I don't have to be liked or loved by everyone, and I certainly hope that everyone respects my opinion as I would theirs.

At 43, I've learned to let it just slide off my back (unless they're talking about my kids, and then I get in their faces). I've mellowed out — a lot.

AE: I think Seinfeld's "Lip Reader" episode is iconic. Did you catch any flak for taking on that role?

MM: The only thing I got for taking on that role was an Emmy nomination and a lot of approving looks, from people in airports, on the freeway, in public restrooms while I was freshening up! People across the board loved the episode and why wouldn't they? It was SEINFELD for God's sake, probably one of the top one or two funniest sitcoms in history. I am so honored to have been a small part of its legacy.

And I am so jazzed to be working and developing a half-hour comedy with the creator of "Lip Reader," Carol Leifer. Funny lady!

AE: The only inhibitions you mention in your book about joining The L Word were that there were nude scenes and that it was a pretty racy departure from your previous roles. Did you have any other qualms about tackling the character of Jodi Lerner?

MM: Well other than the fact that I'd never had to do an actual full frontal nude scene, my only real qualm was being away from my family for four months out of the year to film the show. At first it was hard to adjust, and I was flying home nearly every weekend to be with my kids.

But fortunately, shooting was in the summer when the kids were busy having fun and hardly ever at home (mostly with Grandma or at the swim club). When fall came around and school started, it was a problem too as I wanted to be there for their first days.

But the producers were GREAT in letting me go down for days, and I never really felt like I missed out on important milestones in their lives. By the third season, it was a routine we had slipped into and those initial concerns seemed far away.

AE: You actually asked Ilene Chaiken to name your character "Jodi," right? After a friend of yours?

MM: Yes, one member of a lesbian couple I had known from my daughter's school was named Jodi. She died too soon of heart failure and Reiter's Syndrome, a form of arthritis, and I wanted to honor her. She was a fantastic woman, wife and mom.

AE: Obviously, I've got to ask you about this quote from your book:
I have to admit I've found it so much easier to kiss a woman than a man. I love men and I am a huge flirt, and with cute, handsome guys, well, I can get nervous about that kiss. Make no mistake, I am absolutely in love and committed to my wonderful husband. But that electricity that comes with a first kiss with someone attractive and new, well, I may be married, but I'm still human.
Do you want to unpack that statement? Because what I'm hearing you say is "Jennifer Beals is an awesome kisser."

MM: Unpack. Ha. I love that. But actually there's not much luggage there. Jennifer Beals is hot. Simple as that. I had no qualms about kissing her. One, because we were friends and had been for 20 years, so I knew there wouldn't be any judgments based on her not knowing who I was. Second, because we were familiar with each other. And in acting it's so much easier to work with what you know than what you don't know.

With a lot of male actors in love scenes, it's all about choreography because each of us has different working parts, if you know what I mean, and you're never sure how your male costar likes to approach things. With a woman, it's just easier. You both know where everything is and you can focus on the other stuff in the scene — the passion, etc.

With Jennifer I never had to worry about the physical part, I could focus on the acting. With a lot of male costars it was completely the opposite and thus much more difficult to feel as if I did it right.

AE: Are you glad to have spent three seasons with the show? Any regrets?

MM: My only regret was that we didn't have the opportunity to explore Jodi's life a lot more in the same way the other characters lives were explored. Who were her friends, what brought her to where she was on the show? By the last season we saw only small glimpses of her and I think a lot of the viewers felt conflicted about her. I loved the scenes that showed Jodi interacting with the other characters like Shane but unfortunately there weren't enough.

Maybe if there's an L Word movie and Jodi is in it. Hint, hint, Ilene? Ha!

AE: What's your take on the current state of same-sex marriage rights in the U.S.?

MM: Anyone regardless of their sexual preference should be able to MARRY whomever they want. Period. Asking gays and lesbians to accept any less (i.e. civil unions) is not equal. I respect and understand people's opinions that marriage is between a man and a woman, but why do their opinions have to prevent two people, regardless of their sexual preference, from getting married?

As my pal Whoopi Goldberg said, "If they don't like gay marriage, don't marry one!" What does it have to do with them? It's just a matter of time before it'll be available everywhere but in the meantime, we all have the right to speak up about the injustice of marriage inequality and try and help make the change come sooner.

AE: At the age of seven, when your teacher at the Center on Deafness and the Arts asked you if you wanted to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you said, "I am Dorothy." Are there any other roles you've taken on where you just felt like, "I am this character"?

MM: I tackle every character with gusto; that's just who I am. There have been times when I didn't feel comfortable with what I was doing because I may have taken the role simply for the money (all actors have those moments) but more times than not, I have embraced each character I have played and learned to live in their shoes.

It's my favorite thing about acting and I can't imagine doing anything else.

AE: In your book you tell a story about going on a helicopter ride as a child, even though you were terrified. You said, "Often the 'thing', whatever it was, that I feared the most turned into something I loved."

You've won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award; you've done comedy, drama and cartoons to lavish praise from critics; you've written books; you've performed the "Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl; you've danced beautifully with the Stars, and now even have your own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; you have four wonderful children; and you've made out with Jennifer Beals. Are there still fears in your life you have to break through, or at this point have you pretty much conquered the world?

MM: The fears I have left in my life have to do with overcoming my own insecurities about myself, but I'm working on them. I still consider myself a very shy person in many situations and I'd like to change that. I also have fears of certain things that have to do with loss of control: fear of horses (they're so big and I'm afraid I can't control them); fear of small spaces (claustrophobia that goes back to the William Hurt experience). Again, they have to do with a feeling that I have no control. I'm working on those but mostly I am a fearless person when it comes to acting.

I want to tackle every role that's out there, regardless of whether they see a Deaf person in it or not. Where there's a will there's a way. Really the only handicap I face is not my inability to hear but what people think it is I can't do.

Once I overcome that, I can do anything. (Well, except sing the "Star Spangled Banner"... but I can sign it!)

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