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March 12, 2003

Marlee Matlin fits acting career with her family life

From: Manila Times, Philippines - 12 Mar 2003

Aside from playing a recurring role in The West Wing, the Oscar-winning actress is starring and producing a TV movie for The Disney Channel

By Jane Wollman Rusoff

MARLEE Matlin may be an Academy Award winner, but more importantly she's a mom. So one Saturday last summer, she was with her daughter at the Gap, when Sarah, 7, spied an ad blow-up showing Mom modeling Gap jeans while proudly baring her eight-months-pregnant belly.

"I was in line just minding my business. The place was packed. Sarah saw the (counter) card, held it up and screamed, 'Mommy! Look at you!' in front of the whole store. I was, like, 'OK, Sarah, I got it!' I was very embarrassed," says Matlin, 37, laughing.

The actress, deaf since the age of 18 months, is relating this story via her interpreter and "left-hand man" Jack Jason. She's on the phone from New York's JFK Airport, about to board a plane home to Los Angeles.

At 21, Matlin won a Best Actress Oscar for her first film, Children of a Lesser God, in which she played a deaf woman working at a school for the deaf. Since then, she's starred as an assistant D.A. in the hit TV series, Reasonable Doubts, and made more movies, including Hear No Evil and It's My Party. Her latest TV work: recurring roles on The West Wing and Blues Clues.

After delivering her and husband Kevin Grandalski's third child last July?big brother Brandon is 3?Matlin is back making movies: the feature What the $! Do We Know!, Sound and Fury?based on the Oscar-nominated documentary?for Showtime and Eddie's Million Dollar Bake-Off, which she's producing for the Disney Channel.

In What the $! Matlin stars as a photographer. "The character wasn't written deaf, but they're making it fit me," explains the actress, who's never let disability stand in her way.

"The deafness itself isn't a big deal. I do everything except pick up the phone and listen to the radio. ... Other people's attitudes about deafness is a bigger hurdle to overcome, but I can't do everything if somebody says, 'No, you can't because you're deaf.' Some people ... don't seem to have a clue," she says.

"For example, here I am with an Oscar, with movies I'm in and producing, and this one particular person with a well-known talk show had the power to say, 'Absolutely not. Marlee Matlin will not appear on this show.' And this was without an explanation or reason. That makes me think, maybe they have an issue about me being deaf. But you know what?," says Matlin. "I feel sorry for them, and I just move on."

She's always been outspoken and shown a steely independence. These traits she's given to the hero of her first novel, Deaf Child Crossing (Simon and Schuster 2002), for kids 8-12. The book, loosely based on her life growing up in Chicago's su-burbs, is about the friendship of two 9-year-old girls, one deaf.

"When I was a kid, whenever I'd meet people for the first time, I wouldn't tell them I was deaf because I wanted to see if I could communicate without having them think, 'Oh, she's deaf.' I didn't want them to think they had to talk differently to me," Matlin recalls. "I wanted them to treat me like they treated everybody else."

She composed Deaf Child Crossing on a computer, then "worked with a writer to smooth out all the rough edges," she says. Matlin calls the computer "the best thing that was ever invented. I'm on it every day. It's how I communicate with a lot of people instead of having to rely on the phone or someone to interpret for me."

Matlin lives with Grandalski, a police officer whom she wed nine years ago, and children in LA. The whole family routinely takes after-dinner walks?hardly routine in this auto-oriented city?around the neighborhood. "It's a nice way to end the evening. We love it. We say hello to the neighbors and relax and talk about what was interesting in our day. It's a nice time to get out of the house," says Matlin. The tree-lined streets remind Matlin of Morton Grove, Illinois, where she grew up.

Family is what this Hollywood star is about. Last summer, Sarah and Brandon welcomed 6-pound, 10-ounce baby Tyler with open arms. "They love him. Sarah is like a little mom to him. When I'm in the middle of doing something and may not see the light flashing to tell me he's crying, she always brings him to me. And Brandon will tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Tyler is crying.' They're great!" Sarah is fluent in sign language and Brandon is learning it?plus Spanish from his bilingual nanny.

Born in Morton Grove, Matlin was left profoundly deaf as a toddler after taking ill with a form of German Measles. "I have 20 percent of hearing in my left ear," she says. "With my hearing aid on, if you yell at that ear, I can hear sounds. Occasionally, I can make out the words."

But Matlin says she has little interest in receiving a cochlear implant?an electronic device that, in some instances, can improve hearing?because "first you have to get rid of the hearing you have. I'd hate to do that because I've relied on it for so long. To try something like that, if it didn't work, I'd be stuck."

Matlin was 8 when she began acting with a Chicago children's theater, then toured the Midwest performing mainly at schools and hospitals. Later, a casting director discovered her in a Chicago production of the play, Children of a Lesser God. She landed the lead role, opposite William Hurt, in the film version. Off-stage, the two actors shared a stormy live-in romance.

Professionally, Matlin went on to score Emmy nods for playing Mayor Laurie Bey on TV's Picket Fences and guest starring on The Practice and Seinfeld.

Watching television in bed?sans kids?is her favorite way to kick back. As for movie-going, she hasn't been to a theater in three years. "I want my husband and I to go to a movie, but we can't because movies aren't subtitled for the deaf," she says. "They should be open-captioned?or something should be possible for deaf people to go to the movies." Matlin was instrumental in getting 1995 legislation passed mandating that most TV sets be made with closed-captioning capability.

She is serious about helping the hearing-impaired but keeps a sharp sense of humor. "One time," she says, "I was driving in the car and calling my manager. He didn't know that Jack was with me signing. So we were talking back and forth and suddenly my manager stopped and said, 'Wait a minute! How can you hear me? How are you talking on the phone?'

"I said, 'Oh, I can hear on Thursdays.' "

Copyright (c) 2001 The Manila Times