How Marlee Matlin Survived Trump, William Hurt, and Ableist Hollywood
The Oscar-winning actress opens up to Marlow Stern about her dazzling turn in “CODA,” Trump’s cruel mockery of her, and being trapped in an abusive relationship with William Hurt.
Marlee Matlin holds a number of records. She is the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Actress (at 21, for Children of a Lesser God). She is the only deaf person to win an Oscar. The $1,000,000 she raised for charity on Celebrity Apprentice is the most ever for any single-event TV show. Oh, and she once told Donald Trump something every woman would like to say to the notorious misogynist: “Now, please stop staring at my tits.”
In January of this year, Matlin made history again. Her new film CODA took home an unprecedented four awards at the virtual—owing to the pandemic—Sundance Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, and was quickly snapped up by Apple for a fest-high $25 million.
And CODA, which stands for “child of deaf adults,” is not only a total crowd-pleaser, but will surely garner plenty of Oscars attention.
Directed by Sian Heder, the film tells the story of the Rossis, a culturally deaf, working-class family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. There is Frank (Troy Kotsur) and son Leo (Daniel Durant), who man the family’s fishing boat; Ruby (Emilia Jones), who serves as their interpreter; and Jackie (Matlin), the happy-go-lucky matriarch who holds it all together. When Ruby, who is the only hearing member of the family, is encouraged by her choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez) to pursue her dream of attending music school, she wrestles over whether to remain loyal to her family or risk alienating them to chase her dream. It hits theaters and Apple TV+ on Aug. 13.
“I hope that people will approach the film with an open mind,” says Matlin. “Don’t think of it as ‘a film for deaf people.’ It’s about a different language, just like you would watch any movie with subtitles, and it comes with a rich history and a beauty that you can’t ignore. At the end of the day, it’s one of thousands of stories in our community that we want to share with people.”
Matlin, 55, has fought like hell to get Hollywood to embrace stories about the deaf community. With the help of her longtime sign-language interpreter Jack Jason, we discussed that fight, the beauty of CODA, the time Trump called her “retarded,” and much more during the course of our wide-ranging chat.
CODA is such a lovely, moving film. Virtual Sundance was rather strange this year, but CODA was the toast of the fest, having been acquired for a record $25 million. What was it like navigating all that this year?
The year and a half was out of the ordinary anyway, and sort of an out-of-body experience for all of us; and strangely enough, we all went through the experience together, with all the changes that had to take place everywhere—whether in your home, your school life, your work, or regarding everybody’s health. So, having the movie completed just before the pandemic hit, we were grateful that we had a product. And then we thought, well, we can’t go the typical Sundance route.
At the same time, Sundance was accommodating enough that they allowed a virtual presentation to celebrate film and didn’t let the pandemic stop them. They felt that it was very important to show the movie for everybody to watch, because moviemaking shouldn’t stop, and people shouldn’t stop appreciating the art of film, identifying with characters, and just feeling alive. We were lucky enough for CODA to make it into Sundance, and then to have it win four awards, which has never been done before at Sundance, and for Apple to buy it for $25 million, which never happened before at Sundance, we were like, shit, what more can you ask for?
CODA is a remake of a French film, La Famille Bélier. And the French film was criticized for using hearing actors to play the deaf parents. I read that after the producers of CODA cast you, they were looking at hearing actors to play the other deaf family members, but you fought to have deaf actors play those parts—and even threatened to walk if they didn’t.
The idea was presented to me that there would be hearing people who would be playing those roles, and I thought, are you kidding me? I didn’t have to freak out and I didn’t have to go crazy and scream about it, I just calmly said, “If you do it, then I am out.” Simple as that. And I guess my feelings—and what I was trying to represent—worked. I mean, it was a no-brainer.
Is that something you’ve had to contend with often in your career—producers casting you and then going to hearing actors for other deaf parts in the film? Because Hollywood is historically very ableist.
There’s still a lot of ableism and a lot of work to do in Hollywood—especially in terms of deaf and disabled communities being represented, even in terms of casting. Nowadays, “diversity” is the buzzword. We’re seeing it every day, from every corner of the business, and rightfully so. But it seems, when they’re talking about diversity, to not remember that the deaf and disabled communities are part of the conversation. For as long as I’ve been in the business, 35 years, I’ve talked about how diversity should include deaf and disabled actors, and I’ve had so many conversations about this. People come and go in this entertainment industry—the ones who run the studios, who have the power, who green-light films—and not everyone who comes onboard agrees with everyone else. Now, we’re experiencing a generational difference with people who have more progressive opinions, but when it comes to this particular topic, the same thing keeps happening. It’s not like, oh, here are deaf and disabled people, this is something new! We’ve been here for the longest time. And now it’s time to just act and give us the opportunities and work that we’ve long desired to do.
How has that journey been for you? Because for so long, you’ve almost been the lone star representing the deaf community in Hollywood. I imagine that can be quite a burden.
I got the Oscar when I was 21. I was very young, and just learning about the business and growing up. I was 19 when I made Children of a Lesser God, my first film, and I wasn’t clued in about Hollywood; I didn’t know the rules of engagement. I was a girl from Chicago. When I did the film, most of the hearing and deaf communities—and Hollywood—were like, “Who is she? Where did she come from?” So, when I won the Golden Globe and the Oscar, and I’m saying this because both were televised and everyone had a chance to see me there, I began to see everyone’s opinions about how it should be—this is someone who supports me; this is someone who thinks I came from nowhere and don’t deserve it—and I remember asking Jack [her translator], “Am I supposed to be the voice for the deaf community?” I thought, I can’t. I can only express my opinion, and what I see, and what I feel should be done. That being said, as I learned from my experiences in the business, I realized that I couldn’t do it alone, and that I needed the support of my community to make things happen. I can’t do it alone.
There’s an early scene in CODA where the father explains that he loves rap music because of the way the vibrations in the car feel. And when Beethoven went deaf, he famously sawed off the legs of his piano and put it on the ground so he could feel the vibrations when he was composing. What is your relationship to music like?
I do feel music’s vibrations, and I also wear hearing aids. I couldn’t live without them. I love to take them off sometimes—especially when I go to sleep at night, because then I don’t hear anything, and I sleep great. [Laughs] But I do love music. I don’t hear it the same way you hear it, but I hear it my particular way with the frequencies I can detect. And with my hearing aids, I can actually learn to hear music by having the lyrics in front of me, and I can match the lyrics that I see to when I hear those sounds. So, for example, Billy Joel is my favorite singer. For some reason, I can recognize the voices and the sounds and the music, and I can sign to his music. Music is a very important part of deaf people’s lives, and I appreciate it in my own, deaf way.
You have this wonderful monologue in CODA where you tell your daughter that you wished she was born deaf, due in part to your own insecurities in being a mother. Did you have similar feelings when you were giving birth to your children?
It was one of my favorite scenes. It was about the message. A lot of people watching will identify with what Jackie said, and where she comes from. Jackie was scared of the fact that people would judge her, as a mother who happens to be deaf, and who wasn’t able to control a child who happened to be hearing, because they didn’t have anything in common. Jackie was always praised for her beauty, yet people only looked at her for how she looked. If Jackie’s baby happened to be born deaf, there would be no differences amongst them. On the other hand, I have children who are all hearing, and I actually never even thought of—or hoped—that my children would be deaf or hearing. It never even occurred to me. I was taught that you take care of any child one way or another, regardless of what the child has. So, my kids, being that all four are hearing and have their own identities, I’m very proud of who they are as people. And a lot of times, they wished they were deaf, because then they wouldn’t have to hear me telling them to clean their room. [Laughs]
Going back to the Best Actress win, you really landed with a splash in Hollywood. You’re still the youngest person to win Best Actress—and the only deaf performer to do so. After winning, do you feel you were afforded the roles and opportunities that should have come a Best Actress winner’s way?
You know, it’s funny—I had nothing to compare it to when I got the award. There were no deaf nominees before me, so there was no blueprint to follow. I understood the enormity of it when it happened, and it was nice to be in the history books in that way, but it was a really tough time for me. Listen, I got nominated when I was in rehab. And I was busy and focused on taking care of myself. Then I win an Oscar, and it all happened so fast. So then I thought, OK, what am I going to do about work? I got to work in a film with Ed Harris [Walker] right after winning the Oscar, then I moved out to California and I lived with the Winklers [Henry and Stacey]. They invited me out for the weekend to think about my career prospects, and two days turned into two years living with the Winkler family. They said, “Clean your room, Marlee, it’s been two years!” [Laughs]
But I realized very quickly that I had to roll up my own sleeves and get creative myself and meet with people, because things weren’t coming to me. I had to create the ideas. Work wasn’t coming to me. I’d only had the opportunity to do victim roles or little episodic roles, and I took almost anything that came my way, because the opportunities were so limited. And then Jack [her translator] would be the one who would look at scripts and break them down to find roles that could easily be turned into deaf characters, even though they weren’t written as deaf. For example, in The Piano, the character didn’t speak. Holly Hunter played the role brilliantly, but I thought that theoretically, I could play the role. We had a meeting with Jane Campion, and she was lovely at the time, but she was afraid that audiences would see the deaf actor on screen and know that she can’t hear in real life; that I was labeled “deaf,” and that would be the way it would be for the rest of my life.
There were other roles like this. There was a role that was recently taken away from me. It was a four-episode arc on a show playing a judge, and the only reason it was taken back is, even though he offered me the role, when we talked about how I would play the role with an interpreter, he said, “No. We can’t do it with an interpreter. It’s not going to work.”
What show was that?
If you look around, you can figure it out.
Speaking of the Oscar win, I read your excellent biography I’ll Scream Later prior to this interview, and the way your partner at the time, William Hurt, treated you on Oscar night was deeply cruel. You wrote that he berated you on Oscar night, in the limo as you left the awards ceremony, saying, “What makes you think you deserve this?” That must have been incredibly difficult, especially given how young you were at the time.
I’m smiling right now, because if that happened right now, things would have turned out much differently. I would have slugged him. [Laughs] Yeah, I was very young, as you said. I sat in the limousine, took off my shoes, and was like, “Holy shit! How did this happen? I’ve got an Oscar!” and I’m looking at him, wondering what he’s thinking. And he goes, “So many talented actors have worked so hard to get this award you just got. What makes you think you deserved it?” I’m loud and I talk a lot, but I could not say a word when he made that comment. And you know what? I understand very clearly now that that was an oppressive relationship, but at the time, I just didn’t know what to say. All I can say is, that would never happen to me today. Never.
There’s been renewed accountability in Hollywood with #MeToo, but reading I’ll Scream Later and the things that William did to you—physical abuse, sexual assault, awful things—do you feel he’s had to answer for his behavior?
I think it’s because it happened so long ago—it was way back when—and I’m not going to excuse his behavior nor am I going to judge his behavior. It’s something that’s with me and stays with me, and I think about it from time to time—I do—and sometimes I get PTSD from it, but I’ve grown up, and I’ve learned, and I know how important it is to stand up for yourself, and I’ve passed along that message to my daughter. I know what happened. I can’t change what happened, but I can hopefully change my own attitude about it and my experience and move on with my life. And I’m there for anybody who’s gone through similar circumstances. I’m right there if a friend is in a similar position, because I’ve been there.
Back in 2010, you shopped a reality show, My Deaf Family, to a bunch of networks—but they all said no. What was that experience like?
I’m telling you, Marlow, it was a no-brainer to me. It was a show that had a similar concept to CODA, but the networks at the time thought it was “too soft.” They wanted “freaks.” They wanted strange families. They wanted funny-looking families. They wanted drama. They wanted conflict. They wanted ugliness. And yes, there are some deaf families who have their own shit, but I’m not going to focus on those kinds of families or put them on TV—I didn’t want to give them that! There are so many wonderful, beautiful deaf stories that are the same as hearing stories, just told from a different perspective. Netflix did Deaf U, and then there was an episode of high school football kids called Audible, but none of the networks seem to be interested in showing the dynamics that take place in deaf families. I’m still trying to get that across to people and make it happen, but it seems like nobody’s willing to listen. There’s so much on TV now. How can it be that there’s no space for something like that? It doesn’t make sense.
You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. You know, speaking of reality TV, one show I did watch you on was Celebrity Apprentice. Was it particularly surreal for you to have the host of this gameshow you were on become the president of the United States?
I can laugh about it now because it was then—and look at what we’ve come to now. But I was doing the show for my charity. It was for the Starkey Foundation to give out free hearing aids to deaf people in developing countries, and also in the United States. But I have to tell you, I was surprised about the cast; I was surprised about all the rules you had to adhere to; I was surprised about all the mind games. Sometimes, I would just look at people and go, really? If this was how you had to play the game, fine. I’ll play the game, as long as I’m willing to raise money for my charity. That was all I cared about when I did that show.
And the $1 million you raised is a single-day TV fundraising record. I wanted to ask about this, because we were the first to report on this at The Daily Beast, but a number of former Celebrity Apprentice staffers came forward to discuss the way Trump treated you on that show. From what I understand, he called you “retarded” and generally spoke about you as though you were mentally handicapped.
In all honesty, I was surprised. I still say to this day allegedly, because there were five or six crew members who confirmed to me that he wrote out, “Is she retarded?” But if that were true, I only knew him casually throughout the years and he was nothing but nice to me to my face. I never had an opportunity to sit down and talk to him, so I was surprised. Maybe I was ignorant and didn’t know. But he never in person spoke down to me. He responded to what I said by saying, “I never said that to that woman,” and he never expanded, so I don’t know what that means. Maybe he did say it and just wanted to refute it. But I didn’t want to waste too much of my energy on it other than to say, it’s not something you should say about anybody. And I just moved on.
On a much more positive note, you were incredible during the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump. I re-watched it prior to this interview, and you held your own against some of the top stand-up comics. And you will always have said to Trump, “Now, please stop staring at my tits.”
It was fun. No one knew that I had a sense of comic timing, or that I could deliver comedy like that while also being very dirty. That night was a blast for me, because I got to show a different side of me. I was happy to show off my comic chops. I was supposed to say, “Fuck you!” to Trump, but I said, “No, I can’t do that. You know what? Let’s make fun of how he looks at women”—or supposedly looks at women.
I wanted to go back to you staying in Henry Winkler’s house for a bit after winning the Oscar. I read that he was the one who “discovered” you at the ICODA theatre when you were younger. How did that happen, and how did you end up living in The Fonz’s house?
I looked up “Henry Winkler” in the phonebook, I called him up… [Laughs] No, I didn’t. I knew that Henry Winkler was coming with his wife Stacey to visit the ICODA theatre, and when I found out he was coming, I thought, OK, this is my ticket to Hollywood. And I was a fan of Henry Winkler’s. So, I was doing the Marlo Thomas song, “Free to Be… You and Me,” and I signed my heart out, and I was looking straight at him and his wife. After the show was done, I found Henry and his wife, went up to them and said, “I want to be an actor in Hollywood just like you when I grow up.” And he said, “Marlee, do whatever you’d like to do.”
We stayed in touch over the years and when I wrote him, he’d write back, without fail. When I had the issue with [critic] Rex Reed, where he said I won the Oscar “out of pity,” and after what happened with William Hurt, I moved to California to restart my life and it was Henry who welcomed me. He said, “Let’s make a change in your life,” and that weekend he invited me to stay turned into two years. Every night, we would talk over the dinner table. When it was eventually time for me to leave the nest, I said to Henry and Stacey, “I need to move.” They thought they’d done something wrong and were bad parents, but I said, “No, no, no! It’s just time for me to leave and grow up!” I got married at his house—they insisted I get married at their house—and he’s like my second father. I’m very, very grateful for the role that he and his wife played in all my life.
That’s lovely. But wow, I can’t believe Rex Reed said that. He’s said some pretty terrible stuff over the years.
Didn’t he get busted for shoplifting or something? [Laughs] I don’t care, it’s just an example of the ableism that happened in Hollywood at the time—that he thought somehow, by playing a deaf role, I wasn’t acting. But I try to get rid of all the isms that I encounter in Hollywood. It’s time to move beyond them. Break through them, mow them down, and just move on.
I had read that as a young child, you and your family flew from Chicago to Los Angeles, and in L.A. your family came to the realization that you were deaf. Does it feel strange—and almost poetic—to now be living in L.A. as an Oscar-winning Hollywood star?
In actuality, we had a lot of family in Los Angeles so it was inevitable that we would go to Los Angeles to visit them; but yes, I believe it was my first trip out of Chicago, when I was 18 months, and one of my brothers told me that I had a fever on the way to Los Angeles, and maybe I became deaf in the process of flying there. There’s no proof, and I can’t ask my father because he’s passed away, but my brothers told me I was sick, and that I came to L.A. hearing and I came home deaf. So, maybe it was meant to be? Who knows? But my life has been great.