Marlee Matlin was a 7-year-old at summer camp when the acting bug bit.
“It fell in my lap,” Matlin said last week from her office in the Beverly Hills home of her sign language interpreter, Jack Jason. “They asked me to do a poem in sign language. When I saw people smiling and clapping, it totally hooked me. It was instant gratification.”
If you’re a hearing-impaired little girl looking to connect, and you feel like an outsider, acting is the perfect thing, Matlin said. She could pretend to be whatever she wanted to be.
When she was 13, actor Henry Winkler came to speak to the children at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Northbrook, Ill. He saw Matlin perform and couldn’t take his eyes off her. Afterward, she boldly walked up to him, saying, “I want to be an actor like you in Hollywood.”
Her mother, Matlin said, tried to temper Winkler’s enthusiasm for her dream. Mom was afraid she’d be disappointed down the line. Nobody back then believed an actor who was deaf could succeed in Hollywood.
But Winkler, who was dyslexic as a child, was having none of it. He knew all about overcoming barriers, including parents who told him he’d amount to nothing. He told Matlin he had succeeded, so why not her, too?
“Eight years later, I was on a stage with an Oscar in my hand,” Matlin said. “He knew what he was talking about.”
Marlee Matlin was 21 when she won best actress for “Children of a Lesser God” in 1987. She’s the youngest best-actress winner ever. Also the only deaf person to win an acting Oscar.
She and Winkler still go out on the road, often together, to talk about the importance of mentoring children who don’t have the same opportunities as others. When Winkler had to bow out of speaking at the Omaha Home for Boys’ fundraising dinner Sept. 26 (a movie filming conflict in London), Matlin readily agreed to take his place.
She does a great deal of charity work for children, serving on the boards of Easter Seals and the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation. Why are children’s causes so dear to her?
“At the Center on Deafness, we’d always visit hospitals and schools. I love to perform for kids because it reminds me of that. Henry Winkler visited me, so I like to pass that message along.”
Her message to the Omaha crowd, she said, will be all about the importance of mentoring and supporting kids who don’t have as much.
That’s just what the Omaha Home for Boys has been doing since 1920. Its main campus at 52nd and Ames Streets houses 56 boys and soon will expand to 64. Once largely an orphanage, it now cares for at-risk youth and kids who have been part of the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Additional programs that teach life skills and how to get a job serve an additional 300 young men and women each year as they transition to independent living.
“Henry and I put out the same message,” Matlin said. “You can do anything if you set your mind to it. Look out for kids, help them dream and be inspired. We teach calculus in schools, but I believe the most important formula is courage plus dreams equals success.”
Talk to deaf people, Matlin said, and the last thing they think is that they are disabled. “We aren’t handicapped in any way except by what other people think,” she said. “Focus on people’s abilities. I can’t be on ‘American Idol,’ but there’s all kinds of stuff I can do.”
Like competing on “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Apprentice.” Or winning an Oscar.
Matlin was playing a small role in Chicago in the play “Children of a Lesser God,” whose central character is deaf, when a national casting search was underway for the movie. A film crew came to tape the cast. She didn’t think anything of it. But the casting director noticed her in the background. She was flabbergasted when she was asked to audition for the movie’s lead role.
“Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Canada for filming,” she said. “I was very fortunate.”
Luckily, she said, she was too naive to grasp what an Oscar nomination meant. Today she’d worry about what to wear, what to say. But back then, she was simply honored to keep company with veteran nominees like Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek and Sigourney Weaver.
And then she won, one of only four first-time lead film actresses to do so.
“It’s like a blur, a dream. So many cameras. So many people trying to get a piece of you, to touch you, to touch the Oscar, to congratulate you. It’s just surreal. I couldn’t believe I was the winner.”
It was no fluke. Matlin won a Golden Globe for the same film. She has since snagged four Emmy nominations and has an extensive list of movie and television credits, including “Switched at Birth,” a prime-time ABC Family series that includes many deaf characters.
She disproved those who said she was a flash in the pan, she said, “because I have the Matlin and Winkler attitude of never giving up. And because I worked at it. And because the Oscar validates your work. I can’t deny that gives you a leg up. It’s not the be all and end all, but when people try to handicap you, you just throw the Oscar in their face.”
Matlin’s recent autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later,” reveals that she was in a drug rehab clinic when her Oscar nomination was announced. “It was just time” to stop her use of cocaine, she said. “It didn’t fit in my life anymore. I didn’t need drugs to cover up the pain. I was ready to talk about it.”
The book also reveals she was sexually abused as a child. Her message now is to never be silent. Her life, she said, is a metaphor for what happens when you don’t stay silent. Speak up, without shame. Ask for help. Say no. And you change everything. “Silence is the last thing anybody will hear from me,” she said.
Matlin, 48, has four children with husband Kevin Grandalski, a police officer. What are the most important messages she wants to give Sara, 17; Brandon, 13; Tyler, 11; and Isabelle, 9?
“Clean your room,” she cracked without missing a beat. “Do your homework. Finish school. Kids today think everything comes easily because of the images they see on TV of instant celebrity. You have to work at it, have a head on your shoulders. It’s not about twerking.”
And what messages would she push in the TV and film industry if she were queen for a day? “Greater diversity. I think they’re so concerned about demographics. They’re too comfortable relying on the same formulas. If you do a puzzle one too many times …”
Instead, she said, the industry should get a step ahead of its audience and challenge us, with more women both in front of and behind the camera.
“I wouldn’t mind teaching them a thing or two about diversity,” she said. “I’d like a more accurate reflection of America than we see now.”