Your kids know Marlee Matlin as the deaf lady from Blues Clues. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know her as an actress skilled at taking the world by surprise. As a twenty-one-year-old in 1986, she won an Oscar for starring in Children of a Lesser God, her first major role, opposite William Hurt (she’s still the record-holder for youngest winner in the Best Actress category). Later, she traversed the prime-time landscape with parts in everything from Seinfeld to Desperate Housewives to The L Word. Just last year, the mother of four wowed reality-TV viewers with a sassy and effortless-looking cha-cha-cha on Dancing With the Stars. And now she’s written a tell-all: I’ll Scream Later, out this month, lays down the facts about her onetime drug and alcohol addictions as well as her abusive relationship with Hurt.
As expert as Matlin has become at keeping fans guessing, though, she’s never unpredictable when it comes to discussing her disability. Deafness, she’s quick to point out, does not define her. In a recent email exchange with Babble, she outlined how it seeps into her life as an actress and as a mom – for instance, sign language comes in pretty handy when you’re out on the town with a five-year-old who doesn’t want the rest of the world to hear what you’re saying. – Tammy La Gorce
You’re only forty-three, but you’ve already had an extraordinary life – a Golden Globe (for Children of a Lesser God). An Oscar. Wild praise for your moves on a nationally televised dance floor. Four kids! And now you’ve written a book. I’ll Scream Later is getting a lot of attention for the straightforward approach you took in describing your abusive two-year relationship with William Hurt in the late 1980s, even though that may not be the part of the book you’d like readers to focus on. Why did you feel it was important to tell that story?
It was time to tell my truth. After having been on Dancing with the Stars, where I literally got thousands of emails and letters telling me that my dancing to music that I couldn’t hear was so inspiring, I wanted people to see that there was more of me than just that. I think it was actually playing myself for the first time as opposed to a character in a movie or TV show that allowed me to look into myself. Also, with my daughter turning thirteen – which is the same age that I began all of the addiction in my life – I had a chance to reflect and the book was the best way to just put it out there and release what was pent up in me so long.
Sarah Rose, your oldest daughter, is the one who just turned thirteen. Has she read the book? Had you talked to her prior about your former drug and alcohol abuse, which is also outlined in I’ll Scream Later?
She is familiar with the fact that the book is out there, but my husband and I didn’t want the book to distract from her studies. So we’ve told her that she can read the book this summer. But bits and pieces have seeped into her consciousness as some of her friends have told her what their parents have read. My husband and I sat her down and had a very straightforward conversation on what the book was about and what to expect. We felt the best way to watch out for her was to tell her the truth. And she was absolutely fine with it.
Are people surprised to learn about your relatively wild past? Do they typically think of deaf people as living calm, sheltered lives?
That was the point of writing the book. I wanted people to know that deaf people like myself lead complex and varied lives just as people who can hear. As I said in the book, though I am deaf, it is but one part of who I am. I have never defined myself by my deafness. But it is part of who I am.
You’ve been married to Kevin Grandalski, a one-time policeman, since 1993. Congratulations! That’s a long marriage, and not just in Hollywood terms. Parents with young kids are prone to marital struggles: the kids come along and the marriage takes a back seat. Have you been able to avoid this scenario in your marriage? How?
Marriage is a commitment that my husband and I do not take lightly. We work at it. We also work at being a family and we always make sure that one of us is with the kids at all times, rather than throwing them to nannies or sitters. I had plenty of time to make sure Kevin was the right man for me and I know he did the same. Family is number one for both of us, and though we know that work is a big part of our lives we do our best to balance both. I think we’ve done it pretty well!
One of the things we learned from reading an excerpt of your book is that you and Henry Winkler are thick as thieves – you and your husband even got married in his backyard. Did the Fonz take you under his wing back in the ’70s? How did you become so close?
Henry is the kind of guy who us Jews call a “mensch.” That means someone who’ll walk you across the street if you need it, who will rescue a cat or dog that needs a home; someone who’ll reach out and give a kind word or lend a hand when you least expect it. He was the one who encouraged me when I was twelve years old to follow my heart when others thought that I might have been dreaming too big, dreaming too fast. We met when he was at the height of his fame, and the fact that he took time out of his busy schedule to always see me when I visited California, the fact that he was always there with advice, told me that I could look to him as a mentor. He and his wife have reached out to many people as mentors, not only me. Maybe it’s because he recognized in me the same sort of struggles he went through with his own barriers that dyslexia posed for him growing up. And I saw in him a light and a positive energy that was so wonderful to follow. There isn’t a nicer guy than Henry Winkler. I am forever indebted to him and his family.
Your first performance was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at age seven, in a children’s theater production near your hometown of Morton Grove, Illinois. Are any of your four kids – Sarah Rose; Brandon Joseph, eight; Tyler Daniel, six; and Isabelle Jane, five – interested in acting? Would you encourage them if they were?“I don’t live my life as Marlee, Deaf Woman!”
My daughter Sarah is interested in dance and hip-hop and if she were interested in acting, my husband and I would encourage her to take acting classes at school, join the drama club, etc. But we wouldn’t want our daughter to be a professional actor at this age. The pressures would be too much, we think. Even I wasn’t acting on a professional level until after I graduated high school. We’d like our children to do that as well.
You’ve played a lip-reader on Seinfeld, a gay deaf sculptor on The L Word, and a public defender on My Name is Earl in addition to some roles, like the one you played on Desperate Housewives, as a mother. It seems you’ve avoided the trap of being typecast as a mom, even though you are very much a mom. Are you glad?
I’ve never avoided it. I’ve just not been asked. I did play a mother on CSI: New York but she was nineteen! I’d love to play the mother of young kids as I do in real life! Maybe I can do the story of the Octomom! Hahaha!
Another thing that makes your ability to play roles outside the mom zone amazing is your full-on embrace of mom-type projects. Not only did you star in three Baby Einstein videos (both designed to introduce sign language as a form of non-verbal communication), you also had a recurring role on Blue’s Clues. Did you do Blue’s Clues because one of your kids was obsessed?
I wanted to share with kids the idea that sign language was fun just as it was for me growing up, and that you don’t have to be deaf to enjoy it. Both Blues Clues and Baby Einstein approached me, and I was glad to do them. I also appeared on Sesame Street. Anything that teaches kids the fun of sign language, I’m on board for!
Are any of your kids hearing impaired? Do they all know and use sign language regularly? During family dinners at home, do you sign across the table?
Our children are hearing and they don’t sign fluently, but they are familiar with signs. That’s because Mom speaks and reads lips a great deal! We sign at the table and in public places, particularly when we don’t want people to know what we’re saying. It’s a great way to communicate in noisy environments or quiet places too!
Would you say your own kids have better than average self-esteem as a result of being the offspring of a hearing-impaired mother who’s accomplished so much?
They have good self-esteem because my husband and I make sure of it, and it has nothing to do with my being deaf. Again, I don’t go out of my way to remind them that Mom is deaf and I don’t live my life as Marlee, Deaf Woman! It’s only a part of who I am. Strong self-esteem in children grows from just good parenting, deaf or not.
Where can we see you next? Book signings? A movie? More reality TV?
I am developing a half-hour comedy for the Showtime network with writer-producer Carol Leifer of Seinfeld fame – she wrote my Emmy-nominated episode of Seinfeld called “The Lip Reader.” It’s going to be a hoot!