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October 12, 2002

Breaking the sound barrier

From: The Tennessean, TN
Oct. 12, 2002

Staff Writer

People will soon be calling Deanne Bray a ''star.'' She won't hear it. But she'll know it. She'll also know she's a role model to deaf of all ages.

Bray makes big strides in both the stardom and role-model areas tomorrow night in a new TV series.

The deaf actress portrays Sue Thomas in Pax's new series Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, inspired by the true story of the first deaf woman to work surveillance for the F.B.I. The show makes its debut at 8 tomorrow night on WNPX-Channel 28.

Bray is not intimidated by the fact that she is something of a trail-blazer.

''I don't feel like a TV star. I've been told, 'Your life is not going to be the same.' I remember when I first auditioned, I didn't know what I was getting into. I thought maybe a movie of the week. And so I just went with the flow and I enjoyed my ride. I am enjoying the journey, and now we have 13 episodes, and it may continue for five years, depending on the ratings,'' said the former math and science teacher to deaf and hearing-impaired high school students in east Los Angeles.

She said that despite work in several series ''it was always in my head that I would never be the lead.'' When she found out that she won this role ''I thought, 'No way, a deaf person being the lead.' I was not used to that. The only place you could be a lead as a deaf person was at Deaf West Theater (in Los Angeles). I never thought it would happen out in production where there are no deaf persons involved,'' said Bray, who can talk.

(The interview was conducted over the telephone as Bray used a hearing aid and an amplifier on her phone from Toronto.)

''We believe this is a precedent-setting series,'' Dave Alan Johnson, series creator, says in a press release. ''Never before has there been a television show about the real-life experiences and career of a deaf person — who also is portrayed by a deaf actor. When Deanne came in and auditioned against numerous other actresses — both hearing and deaf — she won the role. We knew right away what an incredibly gifted woman she was and that she perfectly embodied the persona of Sue Thomas.''

In the two-hour pilot, Thomas, a sheltered young deaf woman, leaves home for the first time to live alone with her hearing-ear dog, Levi, a golden retriever. Her first job takes her to Washington, D.C., where she studies fingerprints for the F.B.I., a position she finds boring. Then, when agents discover she can read lips, the agency moves her to surveillance, where the action really heats up. As the character develops, viewers find that Thomas' life is marked by a strong faith in God.

''It's like Touched by an Angel, . . . but this is Sue Thomas. This series was inspired by Sue, and some of these scenes are true. It's written in a subtle way,'' said Bray, who was born deaf.

''From what I've learned, they felt I was right for the part. I found it interesting that when Sue viewed the audition tapes, she was looking for two things: She looked in the eyes of the actresses, and she was looking for loneliness and strength. I did two different scenes, and she saw that and had tears in her eyes and said, 'You got yourself an actress.' ''

Thomas came on the set the first week of filming in Toronto and gave Bray some pointers.

''She watched me closely, how I associated with Levi. I even asked her questions about the dog, and she would tell me and I would try to make it like it was. I watched her and how she interacted with her dog. I've never had a hearing dog, so I had the opportunity to study her and listen to her story.

''Sue is a phenomenal, spiritual kind of person, a positive energy. Any time she goes into a room and says something, I always see people smile. She knows how to light your heart up. She's like a big sister to me. Our training growing up is similar. The only difference is I was exposed to American Sign Language (ASL) at a much younger age than she was. How we interact with hearing people is similar'' Bray said.

The greatest challenge she has found in this groundbreaking role is speaking.

''Ever since I left high school and went to college, I used my voice less, and I started to have no desire to reach out to the hearing community. I was very happy where I was, being involved in the deaf community. I had always had deaf culture and hearing culture growing up, but when I left home it was less hearing culture — until four years ago, when I started teaching high school. My students were my teachers. It changed my heart, and I have learned to become a better advocate for them and that is to work with everybody, hearing and deaf in a positive way. So the challenge with this film is that I have to speak so much, which is good. . . . But I will still not forgot where I came from — the deaf community.''

Bray lives in North Hollywood with her husband Troy Kotsur, also a deaf actor. They met in Connecticut at National Theater for the Deaf and have been married one year.

Even the fact that she's working in Toronto while he's in L.A. doesn't dim her excitement about this show.

''We're excited. It's a big break for both of us. He was just here for four weeks with me. He did one episode with me. He plays a bad guy but becomes a good guy in episode six, The Signing. I will be doing a whole lot of signing in that episode. It will be the first time the deaf community will see the character of Sue is fluent in ASL.''

As for the real Susan Thomas, she has authored her autobiography, Lip Service, and is currently completing her second book. She lives in Ohio with her golden retriever and travels extensively through her speaking engagements as an ambassador for Christ.

Tuning in

Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on WNPX-Channel 28.

© Copyright 2002 The Tennessean
A Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper