This year, Marlee Matlin accomplished a first, stepping behind the camera to direct an episode of the FOX anthology TV series “Accused.”

It’s the latest in a long line of trailblazing moments for Matlin, who was the first deaf person to win an Academy Award and the youngest winner of the best actress Oscar for her performance in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God.” Matlin returned to the Oscar stage this year when “CODA,” a film about a hearing child with a deaf family that she co-starred in, won best picture.

Matlin will share her story at the Moore Theatre on Sept. 16, relaying tales from her prolific Hollywood career and the challenges and triumphs along the way. We spoke on the phone with Matlin, in Los Angeles, via her longtime interpreter Jack Jason. Excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.

Do you feel like you gain a new perspective on your life experiences by sharing them with an audience?

I am always inspired by audiences. That’s why I love the fact that we’re back, meeting each other in person. I get as much inspiration from an audience by being there with them as they do for me. I have grown over the last 35 years and have always been impatient to see the rest of the world grow along with me because I never feel like they’re moving fast enough. But I continue to persevere and, hopefully, people will come along with the same idea that nothing is impossible if you just set your mind to it.

Speaking of the world not coming along fast enough: Do you feel like there are encouraging signs? Is there anything that’s happened recently where you feel like ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have expected that, even a few years ago?’


Well, I think the fact that there were three deaf actors standing on a stage at the Academy Awards this year as part of the team for a film that just got the award for best picture, when that’s never happened before in the history of the academy, is certainly something that indicates to me that there’s a change afoot. When I first was at the Academy Awards, winning an award, I was the only person on stage. I was the only deaf actor who’d ever been nominated. I was the only person in the entire audience who was deaf.

Do you have an enduring memory from the Oscars this year that really sticks with you?

I think it was walking up to the stage for the best picture Oscar and seeing the entire audience wave their hands in applause, that you would see typically among a deaf audience.

And the fact that they did that when we got the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble, and seeing Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren waving their hands. I said, ‘You are the people that I’ve watched all these years. And now here I am standing with you. And I know I’ve been part of you all, but now I’m standing here with two of my co-stars who are also [deaf]. This is incredible and hopefully this is not the last time this will happen.’

What’s your perspective on the success of ‘CODA’ opening up new avenues for deaf representation in Hollywood?

We really have an opportunity before us that we need to take advantage of, which is greater awareness and acceptance of people who are deaf or who otherwise have disability. I think that as a result of ‘CODA’ being honored at such a highly visible event, we need to take that and run with it. I think I have that behind me to push even further for greater inclusion.


It’s not resolved by any means. We represent 20% of the population when you’re talking about people with disabilities or who are deaf or hard of hearing. But if you look at the number of roles on television, it’s still somewhere around 5%. And you will still see instances here and there of actors who are not deaf or disabled playing deaf or disabled roles because they still say that’s what acting is all about. I was accused by a critic of not deserving the Oscar because I was a deaf person playing a deaf role, as if somehow being deaf is a costume that you put on and take off at the end of the day.

Even recently, I lost a role because I asked where would my on-screen interpreter be in the courtroom, because I was going to be playing a judge. For some reason, the producer didn’t get it. And after offering it to me, and then I asked that question, he took the role back. So there’s still a long way to go.

When something like that happens, where clearly someone just doesn’t get it, what’s your primary feeling? Is it disbelief? Is it anger?

Sometimes it’s so ridiculous that it’s humorous. They question, ‘Am I really deaf?’ or if I happen to use a speakerphone with an interpreter, [they say] ‘I thought you couldn’t speak or hear?’ I play back with them and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can hear on Tuesdays.’ That comes from my dad because my dad was certainly one to handle things with humor.

Or the interviewer who says just before we’re waiting to go on air, ‘You know, my dog is deaf.’ I know you’re trying to identify with me. I know you want to make a connection. But for some reason, I think a deaf dog and an Oscar-winning actress have different interests in mind. So I handle it with humor.

Sometimes it’s outright discrimination like that producer who took the role back simply because he couldn’t figure out that a role like I had on ‘The West Wing’ or ‘The L Word’ with an interpreter reflects what happens in real life.

So you know what, I’ll just develop my own TV shows. I’ll just produce my own material. I’m not going to sit around and wait for people who don’t get it.

An Evening With Marlee Matlin

8 p.m. Sept. 16; Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $39.50-$59.50; 206-682-1414;