Marlee Matlin on ‘CODA’: The deaf community is ‘becoming part of the mainstream’

Marlee Matlin is aware of the perception of movies about deaf people. For a long time, stories about the deaf community have been triumphant tales of overcoming obstacles, with characters whose deafness defines them. But in the new film “CODA,” which features Matlin as Jackie, the matriarch of a predominantly deaf family, it’s a different story. “Some people, I think, initially were worried about sign language and deaf actors and thought, it’s all going to be about deafness or it’s going to be a sad story,” says Matlin in an exclusive new interview for Gold Derby. “Instead, it was a universal story about a family that cares for each other and that entertains and they happen to be deaf and they happen to have a child of deaf adults in the family.” Watch the full chat above.

The main conflict of “CODA” centers on Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of the family, and her desire to become a singer. At first, Jackie doesn’t understand her daughter’s dream, almost taking it personally. “Jackie had never been exposed to music and it’s new for her,” explains Matlin. “She never really had a chance to stop and think about Ruby’s hopes and dreams, whatever they may be.” One of Matlin’s standout scenes comes towards the end of the film, where Jackie tells Ruby about the day she was born. She admits that she didn’t want Ruby to be hearing at first, hoping she would be deaf like the rest of the family. “It really was a very hard scene to play,” the actress reveals. While a mother herself, Matlin could not quite relate to Jackie in that way, but she did understand her. “There are people like that, who want to have deaf children and they do have deaf children, and they want to be able to have that bond that they didn’t get from their own parents.”

Much of Matlin’s material in “CODA,” though, is more comedic in nature. She flirts openly with her husband, Frank (Troy Kotsur), even in front of their kids. “They are just crazy in love with each other,” notes Matlin. “There’s just something animal about the attraction between the two of them.” She and Kotsur had known each other prior to working on the film, but they put in the work to make their onscreen relationship feel as lived-in as possible. “We told each other that we would just dig into every aspect, every line, every quirk about the characters that we were playing,” she recalls. “I also told him, we need to have fun with the characters because we wanted to balance the drama and the humor throughout the entire film.”

It’s been 35 years since Matlin first arrived on our screens in “Children of a Lesser God,” which won her the Oscar for Best Actress. Over the past few decades, the actress has noticed a shift in the way films are promoted during award season and how deaf creatives are earning more acknowledgment. “The attention is even greater than it ever was,” she observes. “People are understanding now that deafness and disability are not costumes that you can put on and take off at the end of the day, and now we’re becoming part of the mainstream, getting recognition, getting our voices heard and seen, and I think that’s important, but again, I’m not the only one. I can’t do it alone.”

To watch the same interview with closed captions, view our YouTube video below:

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