Deaf Actress Marlee Matlin Broke the Sound Barrier with New Love and Lesser God Co-Star Bill Hurt
Some interviews make you nervous. Like this one. Marlee Matlin, just turned 21, is the hot new actress of the moment, thanks to a performance in Children of a Lesser God that has already started Oscar talk. She is gifted with talent, intelligence and sex appeal. She is also almost completely deaf, and rather than speak, prefers to communicate in sign language, aided by an interpreter. In the film (based on 1980’s Tony-winning play) Matlin plays a stubborn ex-student at a school for the deaf who refuses to lip-read since the hearing world refuses to learn sign language. Does she share her character’s strong feelings, and if so, can her interpreter adequately understand and convey her passion? Before shooting began in Canada last year, Matlin fell in love with her co-star, William Hurt, the Oscar winner for Kiss of the Spider Woman who plays her equally stubborn teacher. After shooting was completed in November 1985, Matlin left her family’s home in Northbrook, Ill. and moved into Hurt’s Central Park West apartment in New York City. Can an interpreter really suggest the delicate structure of such a real-life romance? The time has come to find out.
Standing at the door of her press agent’s Manhattan office, Matlin seems younger, more petite (she’s 5’4″) than in the film. Her hazel eyes seize an observer’s gaze and hold it. Matlin shakes hands, then plops down on an earth-toned couch that almost swallows her up. Across from Matlin sits her signer, Jack Jason, a graduate student in educational TV at New York University. The first impulse to put questions in the third person is corrected by Matlin in rapid sign language that Jason interprets. “Don’t say she,” is her reply. “Speak directly to me. Hearing people use their ears instead of their eyes more because they’re lazy,” she says. “I watch how you react to me when I speak.”
Behind Matlin is a large window overlooking a garden, where a rude wind is tearing leaves off the trees. As she signs, the leaves flutter in the air behind her, as if imitating the animated movement of her hands. She says she is not totally deaf. With a hearing aid she has 20 percent hearing in her left ear. Unlike her character, she can also read lips and speak, though not with great clarity. At home she uses her voice as best she can to communicate with Hurt, who learned the rudiments of sign language for his movie role. (“Bill asks me, ‘Why don’t you sign instead of talk and make me learn?’ It’s because I sign fast and he can’t understand me. It’s boring for me to sign slow.”)
For a time Matlin could hear perfectly, but she has no memory of it. At 18 months she developed a severe case of roseola, an illness that usually strikes children. With a high fever, she traveled with her parents by plane to California to visit her grandparents. Soon after, an audiologist diagnosed her deafness. A native of the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Matlin started acting at age 8, when she went to summer camp. “Believe it or not, I sang with the other [hearing] girls,” she says. Matlin tries to remember the song. Finally it hits her and she begins to sing in a vigorous voice: “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave.” For the next eight years Marlee starred in such productions as The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan for the Children’s Theater of the Deaf.
Like her film character, Marlee sometimes proved a handful for her family, all of whom learned sign language. “My parents went through a lot with me,” she says, communicating once again through sign language. Marlee’s father owns a used-car dealership, and her mother works in a jewelry store. She has two brothers, Eric, 33, a stockbroker, and Mark, 30, a waiter. “When I was young I knew I was deaf,” says Matlin. “I couldn’t accept it. I was very angry until I did accept it, which wasn’t until maybe two years ago.” Matlin had just dropped out of junior college and was playing a secondary role in a Chicago revival of Children of a Lesser God. That led to a trip to New York, where she auditioned with Hurt. “The sexual chemistry between Marlee and Bill was there from the first screen test,” recalls director Randa Haines, who flew Matlin to L.A. for two more readings before hiring her to make her screen debut. Haines sees the relationship as “a plus for Marlee. Now she wasn’t acting with a movie star but with her best friend.”
Matlin is reticent about discussing the effects of her relationship on the film. “Whoa! Hold on,” she says, jumping off the couch and leaving the room momentarily to find a match to light her cigarette (she learned to smoke for the movie and hasn’t yet quit). Matlin shakes, as if trying to get rid of a pesty fly. “Why are people so interested in other people’s relationships?” she asks. “It’s like stealing.”
The words seem expertly coached by the intensely private Hurt, now in Yugoslavia filming Destiny with Stockard Channing. Those close to Hurt say his silence may be the actor’s way of showing his distaste for personal revelations or an indication that his love affair is waning. Last year when Marlee moved in with him, Hurt (divorced from actress Mary Beth Hurt in 1982) was customarily cautious. “It’s too early to speak about us,” he told a PEOPLE writer at the time. Matlin expressed herself with remarkable maturity: “It gets better or it gets worse,” she said. “It’s all a part of growing.” About their age gap—he’s 36—she added: “We’re familiar with it. I don’t intend to change him. We try to complement each other. Things just burst out of me. I think that’s loosened him up. I don’t know if it shows on film but it does in real life.”
Another major adjustment for Mar-lee was dealing with Alex, Hurt’s 3-year-old son by his ex-girlfriend, ballet dancer Sandra Jennings. At first she felt “a little apart, but I tried to be Alex’s friend, and now I love him very much.” The threesome enjoy walking in Central Park or spending time at Hurt’s home in New Hampshire. When Hurt is away, they often communicate via a Teletype machine that prints messages. Matlin credited the idea to Bill. “He is so full of love. Bill has been more than willing to make changes in his life to accommodate me.”
If Marlee, too, is reserved about their relationship (“I keep it hushed”), it is not just to accommodate Hurt. For newcomer Matlin, there is the danger of being defined by a relationship with a famous man, of being in demand only for those very few Hollywood movies that deal with the problems of the deaf. She’ll have none of such pigeonholing. Matlin feels strongly that success for Children of a Lesser God will lead to more acting assignments. Interpreter Jack Jason keeps talking as Matlin hands out her feelings for the future. “I think this film will open up the world to hearing-impaired people who are actors and actresses,” she says. If not, Marlee will keep at it until that goal is reached. The depth of feeling in her eyes speaks eloquently of her determination. Some interviews should make you nervous. Not this one.