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September 24, 2003

Shoshannah Stern, Threat Matrix

From: Jewsweek - Sep 24, 2003

For years, Marlee Matlin was the only name in town when it came to filling parts for hearing-impaired actresses. In fact, Matlin's name was repeatedly invoked as a means of discouraging Shoshannah Stern from pursuing a lifelong dream. "All my life people told me, 'No, It's not realistic. There's only one deaf character maybe every two years. We already have Marlee Matlin. We can't have another one.'" Stern, however, didn't take no for an answer, and her determination paid off with guest roles on Providence, Boston Public, ER, and (with Matlin!) The Division. This season, Stern gets her first regular series role as Holly Brodeen, a member of an elite government anti-terrorist task force in ABC's Threat Matrix.

"I am the visual interpreter, trained by the NSA. I analyze pictures and images -- my talents are in analyzing satellites," explains Stern through a sign language interpreter. "I'm able to really catch the details of the visual images on the pictures that other people can't." It's a role created for her by the drama's producers, after a director who'd worked with her on The Division recommended her, and it doesn't make a big deal of her deafness.

"It's part of who she is, and maybe it will shape her choices, but it's not about being deaf, how she handles her deafness or how other people handle it," says Stern. "It's the closest character I've played to myself, only I can't really work on computers."

Stern has some residual hearing and uses a hearing aid at times, can lip-read, and has an interpreter with her on the set. She isn't a candidate for (and would regardless not consider) the cochlear implant surgery that helps some deaf people. "I'm secure in my deafness and I see no reason why I should try to cure it," she says, noting that it's hereditary in her family: she's fourth generation deaf, and both her parents and brother and sister are deaf.

Born in Walnut Creek, CA, Stern was raised in Fremont, where she and her siblings attended a school for the deaf that employed her parents as teachers. "Because they were deaf and had deaf parents themselves, they were able to give me the guts to be able do something different, to work outside of the box," she believes.

Her education continued at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., a liberal arts school for the deaf, where she majored in English and acted in plays. "I had so many mentors," she says. "They gave me support and they kept telling me, 'I know you can do it,' before I thought I could do it." In her senior year, she was invited via e-mail to audition for the sitcom Off Centreon a recommendation from Gallaudet and the National Theater for the Deaf. She got the part, moved to L.A. in 2002, and has worked steadily ever since.

She admits to having "a lot of second thoughts, doubts and fears" in the past, but as it happens, "Being deaf has really helped me as an actor," she says. "I'm able to find so many different types of roles. I've played a high school student, a college student, a mom, a rape victim. They're all deaf, but I've applied myself to each one of those characters. I bring truth to the characters."

But at the same time, she believes, "There's no reason why I should be limited to roles that are deaf. I live in the hearing world. I function just fine. My friends know me as Shoshannah, not as a deaf person."

Raised with Jewish traditions, Stern attended synagogue on the holidays and observed Shabbat at home, but was not, regretfully, bat mitzvah. "It had a lot to do with how involved I would be because there wouldn't be an interpreter present," she explains.

Her Threat Matrix character Holly isn't Jewish, but Stern hopes to play a particular Jewish role someday: her grandmother, the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. "She won't talk about it. I've gotten a few major details out of her and hopefully that will be enough to write her story. Every time I see her I pester her about it. It's my dream to get her story told, soon enough that I could act in it."

Stern, who enjoys yoga, listening to music like Coldplay (even though she has trouble understanding lyrics), and spending time with her boyfriend (he's hearing but can sign), hopes that Holly becomes a role model for young deaf actresses -- the way Marlee Matlin has inspired her. "I have so much respect for her as a person and as an actor," Stern says. "I really believe if it weren't for her I wouldn't be here today. She broke through and I'm able to follow in her footsteps, hopefully."

Threat Matrix airs Thursdays at 8 PM on ABC.

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