In her bedroom at her family’s Benicia, Calif., home, Dionne Quan keeps on video dozens of Disney movies that she has watched over and over, dreaming of one day performing in the kind of films that have captured her imagination since she was a child. But she watches them in her own unique way, pressing her face right up to the picture tube. “My nose is right next to the TV so I can see whatever I can see,” says Quan, 22. “Whatever I can’t see, I manage to figure out.”
Visually impaired since birth, Quan has never let her disability stop her from pursuing her dreams. Now, with a voice-over role as Kimi, an energetic Japanese toddler in Rugrats in Paris, the latest animated feature based on the Nickelodeon hit series, she’s living them. “She’s an incredibly talented kid,” says the film’s voice director Charlie Adler, 44. “There was no doubt when she came in. She wanted this. She had the ability to do this.”
And do it well. Producers had to make some minor adjustments to accommodate Quan’s disability while they recorded, repositioning the microphone so it wouldn’t pick up the sound of her fingers on her braille script; they also avoided last-minute dialogue changes. But before long, any difference between Quan and her castmates melted away. “She gives a fresh immediacy to all of her lines,” says her voice teacher Mike Matthews. “I forget she’s not sighted. She actually sees more, if you will, than most of us do.”
That insight has developed through hard work and dedication—both from Dionne and her parents, Daryl, 46, and Lori, 44, who run a sewing machine and vacuum store in nearby Vallejo. The older of their two children (brother Daryl is 20), Dionne seemed healthy at birth. But four months later Lori noticed that her daughter’s eyes weren’t following the mobile twirling above her crib. A CAT scan showed she had some brain irregularities, and at 6 months she was diagnosed with hypoplasia—or underdevelopment—of the optic nerve. The unusual condition left her with extremely limited sight, allowing her to make out only some colors and vague shapes.
Determined to help her daughter succeed, Lori rearranged her life to focus on Dionne, speaking to her all day and describing everything she did and saw to orient the child. “I wanted to help her as much as I could so she could achieve her dreams,” says Lori, who told her daughter: “You want to act, go act. You want to play ball, go play ball.”
Quan didn’t take long to choose. Drawn to reading, having learned braille at age 7, she liked to act out the characters in her storybooks. At 10, she enrolled in an after-school program at a San Francisco drama school, where she learned how to make her way around a stage. “Obviously things like pantomiming didn’t work so well,” she says, “because I couldn’t imagine something in my hand when it really wasn’t there.”
Then, when Quan was 12, her father heard voice-over teacher Samantha Paris on a radio talk show and took Dionne to study with her. “It just opened up a whole new world,” Dionne says, “because I didn’t have to worry about gesturing.” In fact, her impaired vision may have heightened her other senses. “She has an incredible ear,” says Paris. “To hear this girl sing makes you cry.”
Having found her niche, Quan flourished, landing her first commercial job at 14 in an ad for a health maintenance organization. Voice-overs for such projects as jelly bean ads and children’s cartoons, including Nickelodeon’s The Wild Thorn-berries, followed. By the time she auditioned for Rugrats, Quan was a pro. “It was a challenge to find a voice that would meld with the ensemble and have the same youth, the innocence, the vitality,” says talent director Barbara Wright, who chose Quan from 200 hopefuls. “Dionne had a unique, very dear quality.”
So dear, in fact, that she was promptly offered—and accepted—a recurring role on the Rugrats television show. Early next year Quan plans to move out of her parents’ home and into one she will share with brother Daryl, a UCLA student, in Los Angeles, which presents its own challenges. “It’s going to be a good experience,” she says. “But in a way it’s scary.” To prepare, she got special training in programs that teach blind people basic skills. And for the first time, she learned to write in conventional script—for the express purpose, she says, of signing autographs.
Frances Dinkelspiel in Benicia