How American Sign Language Masters Are Transforming the Culture for Deaf Actors
Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal,” Julianne Moore in “Wonderstruck” and Henry Zaga in “The Stand” all portraying deaf characters/Amazon/Roadside Attractions/CBS
Why Hearing Actors Playing Deaf Characters Still Sparks Backlash
TheWrap Special Report: “We know right off the bat whether the intents of the artists are genuine,” Deaf West Theatre artistic director DJ Kurs says
This story is the third in a three-part Spotlight on Deaf Actors
When deaf actress Deanne Bray was auditioning for the PAX crime series “Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye” to portray a real-life deaf FBI agent, she was alarmed to encounter more hearing actresses auditioning for the part of a deaf character than actresses like herself.
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“I remember showing up and waiting in the lobby witnessing voice coaches working with hearing actors to sound more deaf-like. To find places to lessen their speech skills,” Bray told TheWrap. “I was disappointed seeing that. Growing up for 18 years learning to pronounce parts of speech in school in speech sessions and not being able to speak like a hearing person. Not sure how I felt witnessing that in the hallways.”
Bray eventually won the role, and the show was a success that ran for three seasons from 2002-05. But even two decades later as the conversation on representation in Hollywood has evolved significantly, the question of whether a hearing actor should be considered for a deaf role still sparks debate.
Bray will be the first to tell you that job opportunities for deaf people are “still ridiculously low” in every area of Hollywood, whether on screen or behind the camera, and that a majority of the deaf community strongly opposes the casting of hearing actors as deaf or signing characters. Yet even Bray and others are torn when it comes to sensitive and acclaimed portrayals like in last year’s Oscar-nominated drama “Sound of Metal.”
Like any underrepresented group, the deaf community is not a monolith, encompassing deaf or culturally deaf individuals as well as those who just identify as “deaf,” “hard of hearing” or “hearing impaired.” And cases like “Sound of Metal,” in which Riz Ahmed plays a rock drummer who loses his hearing during the early scenes of the film, complicate the question about Hollywood’s history of “cripping up” — a term often used when able-bodied actors take disabled roles. (More on the response to that film in a moment.)
The question of who can authentically portray deaf characters is increasingly fraught. “With more accessibility and the ADA law, it is natural for deaf talents to make noise about the truth of portraying deaf signing characters,” Bray said. “On the contrary, this has been an ongoing controversy between this concept and what is good acting?”
As recently as last December, many in the deaf community boycotted the Paramount+ series “The Stand” when it cast hearing actor Henry Zaga as a deaf character, accusing the show’s producers of not auditioning deaf talent for the role. (CBS All Access planned to meet with the boycott group, and Zaga previously told TheWrap he spent a year learning American Sign Language and hoped to play the character “respectfully and as honorably as possible.”)
And while Todd Haynes cast teenage deaf star Millicent Simmonds in his 2017 period drama “Wonderstruck,” the film faced criticism for having Julianne Moore portray the character as an adult. (Moore responded at the time by saying it was an “incredible privilege” to play the role but acknowledged she was “never going to fully understand” the deaf world). She was part of a long history of hearing actors playing deaf characters, going back to “The Miracle Worker” in 1962, which won Patty Duke an Oscar for playing Helen Keller.
While many in the deaf community don’t see being deaf as a “disability,” deaf performers still look for authentic portrayals and proper representation. The details may seem small, but deaf actors often pick up on errors in a hearing actor’s use of ASL, either in their language or grammar, and their performance rarely reflects the deaf experience, they say.
“We are discerning consumers and we know right off the bat whether the intents of the artists are genuine,” DJ Kurs, director of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, said. “Very few of these projects transcend the tropes that have been associated with our community and I am most excited by the projects where there are more than one deaf person on screen because that is our natural state.”
The National Association of the Deaf even keeps track of movies in which hearing actors have “stolen” parts from deaf actors, citing recent movies like 2018’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” or “The Silence” with Kiernan Shipka from 2019. NAD even sent a letter to the Motion Picture Academy earlier this year saying that 59 able-bodied actors have been nominated for Oscars for playing characters with disabilities or deafness, and only two (Harold Russell in 1947 and Marlee Matlin in 1986) were actually disabled or deaf.
The association also called out “Sound of Metal” and its Oscar-nominated stars Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed. Howard Rosenblum, the NAD’s CEO, told TheWrap that the film was “problematic” on many levels and called it “offensive” that a major film about the deaf community only cast deaf characters in supporting roles.
“This is offensive to our community that a major movie production was only willing to cast deaf actors for background roles,” Rosenblum said. “When we, deaf and hard of hearing people, see other deaf and hard of hearing people out in the mainstream, we feel seen. Such representations celebrate our ‘differences’ which help others realize that we’re not so different. Young deaf and hard of hearing children should see more and more representation in all aspects of society. Representation matters.”
Others within the deaf community see Ahmed and Raci’s work in “Sound of Metal” differently. Chelsea Lee, a deaf actress who co-starred in the film, said in an interview last December she initially bristled at either actor taking the part but was won over at the “passion” and “ability” of their performances.
Bray echoed the praise for both Raci and Ahmed, whose character loses his hearing early on in the film and then struggles to adjust to his new condition, and praised the film for providing opportunities for deaf performers.
“[Raci’s] acting was fabulous and he earned that role from his long journey in the entertainment field. I believed his work,” Bray said. “Riz Ahmed, the lead of ‘Sound of Metal,’ was incredible and was observant with his eyes as a person who was hearing and then became deaf. His transition throughout the film was specific and done well.”
Raci in particular is a real-life CODA, or a child of deaf adults, and he’s grown up within the community his entire life. In speaking with TheWrap, he recalled how he would bang the table if he wanted someone to pass the salt, just as is seen in “Sound of Metal.” He even asked director Darius Marder if his character, Joe, could be changed into a CODA so that he could bring in more of his own life experience.
But Raci defended his casting in the film, explaining that like Ahmed’s character, Joe is a late-deafened person, and he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be taking away a role from a culturally deaf actor.
“If the person’s culturally deaf in the script, meaning that he just uses sign language, it’s gotta be a deaf actor. It has to be. Hard of hearing actor, it’s got to be a hard of hearing role. You have to match these things,” he said. “That’s the hard-line rule that just has to be followed. And I think deaf people are a little bit sick of losing roles to people that pretend like they’re deaf and just do sign language. It doesn’t work on screen. It doesn’t come off as authentic.”
Raci also said the deaf community faces its own issues of representation, sometimes overlooking people like his character in “Sound of Metal.” “Joe represents a large population of deaf people that are ignored because they speak and they read lips and they don’t look deaf and they don’t sound deaf,” he said. “But this is truly a large part of the deaf population that culturally deaf people don’t really pay attention too much.”
Jade Bryan, a Black deaf filmmaker and the founder of the Deaf Talent Movement, argues that deaf talent who are also people of color can also be overlooked in the industry. “When it comes to the deaf cast, they promote which person they value. BIPOC talents are often not valued. Now this gives Hollywood the impression that Black deaf talents are unworthy,” she said. “In Hollywood, the producers seem to always have a penchant for casting white deaf actors to be the majority of representation of deaf people in film and television. They do not represent our experiences.”
But perhaps the bigger challenge facing the deaf community is eliminating the stigma that some creators still have toward deaf or disabled talent being too great a challenge for the production. Numerous experts expressed frustration that producers don’t carve out money in their budgets for interpreters or consultants or that time isn’t allotted for the cast and crew to adapt to working in a new language like ASL.
“Sue Thomas” co-creator Dave Johnson was initially skeptical that his team would ever find the right person to portray the title character, a real-life woman who became the FBI’s first deaf agent. But he changed his mind when he met Bray, a deaf actress who had the ability to not just act but lead a show.
Johnson and “Sue Thomas” writer Joan Johnson told TheWrap that working with Bray had transformed their approach to casting — and now they lobby other creators to hire deaf talent for more than just the random issue-themed “very special episode.”
“There’s this thing of if you needed a deaf actress, let’s go look for them. But no one has ever said, Well let’s just cast her in any role,” Johnson said. “As a creator, I understand it. You have to go into the script and deal with it in a different way, and you don’t want it to interfere with the story you’re telling, and suddenly it looks like you’ve shined a light on something, so it has to be organic. So it takes a little thought, it takes a little effort, but it’s certainly doable, and I’d love to see more of it.”
Read more from TheWrap Special Report: Spotlight on Deaf Actors
Part 1: Are Deaf Actors and Stories Finally Breaking Through in Hollywood?
Part 2: How American Sign Language Masters Are Transforming the Culture for Deaf Actors
Part 3: Why Hearing Actors Playing Deaf Characters Still Sparks Backlash