Millicent Simmonds is quickly making a name for herself in Hollywood.
The 14-year-old deaf actress from Bountiful, Utah, makes her breakout performance in the acclaimed new movie Wonderstruck. Simmonds plays Rose, a 12-year-old deaf girl living in the 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey, who runs away from home and wanders through New York’s Museum of Natural History. Her story is interlaced with another taking place in 1977 New York, focusing on a lost boy (Oakes Fegley) and mysterious older woman (Julianne Moore).
So who is the up-and-coming actress behind one this year’s most buzzed-about films? Here are 5 things to know about the budding child star.
1. She lost her hearing when she was a baby
“When I lost my hearing, my mom got a deaf mentor to come into the home,” Simmonds tells PEOPLE with the help of her interpreter, Lynette Taylor. “She would come once a week to teach the whole family sign language. My family is amazing. We can communicate very easily now. I’ve also gone to a deaf school all my life. I love all my friends there and it has been an easy journey. I’m very lucky.”
2. She never thought she would be an actress
“I never thought about becoming a professional actress. I thought I was going to be a cop or a fireman, something that involved danger,” she says. “But I was always comedic and would tell stories and use a lot of expressions. My high school drama teacher recognized that I had talent and asked permission from my mom so that I could join the drama club. I was in several school performances, mainly Shakespeare and comedic roles. I just accidentally became an actor. I totally didn’t expect this.”
3. She got acting tips from her co-star Julianne Moore
“She helped me a lot in finding connections to be able to relate to Rose,” she says. “Julianne’s character knew rose, so I found Rose through her. She is beyond amazing. She’s my favorite actress, I’ve watched all of her films. She’s so expressive and she emotes so easily. It’s so easy to understand her character at first glance, it’s amazing. Julianne is so kind and generous. She’s such a strong woman and I learned a lot from her being a strong woman. She’s also a very good signer and she picked it up very quickly for the film.”
4. She felt it was important that director Todd Haynes cast a deaf actress to play Rose
“There’s a scene in the movie where Rose is sitting in the museum and she sees three girls sitting on a bench, and she’s along and can’t be involved. I don’t know that hearing people have ever felt that experience of truly being left out. They have easy communication, while deaf people can’t join in. It takes more time to communicate with us,” she says. “Deaf people understand that moment. I’ve had that experience. Todd is brilliant and so kind-hearted and I think he knew that by casting a deaf person for this role, it was going to inspire a lot of other deaf people. That’s why I wanted to work so hard for him because he made that commitment.”
5. She’s become an advocate for the deaf community
“I want to see more deaf people have the opportunity to become actors,” she says. “And I want [hearing people] to know that it’s okay to learn ASL. 98, maybe 99% of deaf children with hearing parents, their parents do not learn sign language and the children are forced to speak and lip-read. At my school, I see all the deaf children who are frustrated because their parents don’t sign and they don’t communicate with them well. The oral approach to lip read and speak is very anti-sign language and I want to say, learn sign language first. It’s very easy for everyone to learn. No one is judging you and it’ll be an amazing experience.”
Wonderstruck hits theaters Oct. 20.