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Marlee Matlin remembers being reluctant about her role-model status: ‘I can't do this by myself’

Marlee Matlin says she's been outspoken about past abuse because
Marlee Matlin says she's been outspoken about past abuse because "I don't want anyone to go through what I went through. Simple as that." (Photo: Getty Images)

Unapologetically is a Yahoo Life series in which people get the chance to share how they live their best life — out loud and in color, without fear or regret — looking back at the past with a smile and embracing the future with excited anticipation.

Marlee Matlin has well-established skills in front of a camera. But she's also a pro at using her voice behind-the-scenes, where she's long been an advocate — for more authentic representation of fellow deaf people in Hollywood, for the closed-captioning needs of people watching at home on streaming platforms, and for women and girls who, like her, have endured abuse.

"I am the kind of person who doesn't hold back when I know something is important to talk about [just] because it may be taboo," Matlin, 57, tells Yahoo Life through her longtime interpreter, referring to incidents she's gone public with, including in her 2010 memoir, over the years — from child sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter to partner abuse by William Hurt when she dated the late actor and co-starred with him for her Oscar-winning performance in 1986's Children of a Lesser God.

"I knew that if I talked about them, talked about my time with William Hurt, that I would inspire women … to be able to have the courage to go out and ask for help," she says. "And that was my purpose in telling the story. I wish I'd had that at the time. I did not." Learning of Hurt's death on Twitter just as she arrived at the Critics Choice Awards in March 2022, she recalls, was surreal.

"I was in shock. And two minutes later I got out of the car and everybody was looking at me differently. And the first question I got was, 'What do you think of William Hurt's death?'" Inside, she says, "people were looking at me with hugs and sympathy and I wasn't sure what they were thinking. Wasn't sure if it was that they were expressing sympathy for the fact that 'you're free, Marlee, from this memory!' It was so weird, so strange. I'm still digesting it."

Marlee Matlin directing behind the scenes in an upcoming episode of Accused.  (Photo: Fox Media LLC. CR: /FOX)
Marlee Matlin directing behind the scenes in an upcoming episode of Accused. (Photo: Fox Media LLC. CR: /FOX)

But, she adds, "yes, I do talk about it. I don't want anyone to go through what I went through. Simple as that."

Now Matlin, a mother of four, is helping to shine a light on more issues she's passionate about by trying her hand at directing — for an episode of the Fox series Accused, airing on Jan. 24, that tells its story from the perspective of a young deaf woman, Ava (played by Stephanie Nogueras, who is deaf), who becomes a birth surrogate for a couple after a childhood cut off from communication in a hearing family who did not teach her to sign. Though the character's experience was quite different from that of Matlin's, Matlin admits she can relate.

"Communication was always a barrier," she recalls of growing up with parents and siblings who could hear after she lost her own hearing at 18 months old. "They didn't intend to shut me out. This is before they were really tuned in to the importance of accessibility and including me in everything that was going on, and representation … We didn't even have those words available to us. If I asked [what I missed], they said, 'Oh, it's not important' … and there was no mean intent there."

Her world changed completely, she recalls, when she was first exposed to American Sign Language at the age of 5. "It meant that I was able to understand who I was," she says. "When I was exposed to sign language, my world opened up and that was my true, authentic self … and then when I became actor in the industry, that's where I really took advantage of using the media as a source of talking about my authenticity, what I saw needed to be done, and how things could improve."

CODA, 2022's Best Picture at the Academy Awards — in which Matlin starred as the deaf mom to two kids alongside deaf-in-real-life Troy Kotsur, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as her husband — was in some ways a culmination of all she's worked for as an industry role model. That’s something that at first was foisted upon her, she says, bringing immense amounts of pressure.

Marlee Matlin signing,
Marlee Matlin signing, "I love you'” backstage after her historic win at the Academy Awards in 1987. (Photo: Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images)

"I remember when I got the Oscar, and all the attention that was put on me was a bit overwhelming," she recalls of being the first deaf actor to win an Oscar (remaining the the only one until Kotsur's win) and the youngest-ever Best Actress winner in 1987. "A lot of people in the deaf community said, 'OK, well, now you're representing us.' And I said, 'Wait a minute. I'm 21 years old. This is my first movie. This is a whole new world. I can't do this all by myself. I still have a lot to learn on my end…' And they said, 'You could do it. You're supposed to represent us.' And I said, 'Fine.'

"So, I did the best that I could, I maneuvered through the business. And the older I got, the more I realized that it really is just not all about me. It really takes a lot of us … And now I am fortunate that there are so many voices out there."

Having to learn so much along the way, she says, gave her the foundation to build a truly solid career, "to not sit back and say, 'Well, this is just how it is.' … So, by the time I got to CODA …it was great for me to be able to watch [other deaf actors] bloom, to watch them thrive." But it's also important to remember that they, like her, had trouble finding work opportunities.

Marlee Matlin with CODA costar Troy Kotsur after their film won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2022. (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Marlee Matlin with CODA co-star Troy Kotsur after their film won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2022. (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

"I think that's something that we still have to focus on, that it's just not available right now," she stresses. "People are still coming up to me and saying how much they love CODA, and it reminds me of how much they really loved Children of a Lesser God. But we're talking about two films that were separated by 35 years. So, what took so long for us to get to that point? I mean, listen, I'm not going to look back. I'm not going to dwell on it. But I think we need to keep the momentum going."

That's the approach she's personally taken to her decades-long career, which has seen her with TV and movie producer credits, and star in an exhaustive array of on-screen roles, including movies In Her Defense (1999), Some Kind of Beautiful (2014) and Multiverse (2019), and in TV series like The West Wing, Nip/Tuck and the L Word, in which she broke ground playing Jodi Lerner, the artist girlfriend of cult-favorite Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals).

Marlee Matlin with L Word costar and longtime friend Jennifer Beals in 2008. (Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage)
Marlee Matlin with L Word costar and longtime friend Jennifer Beals in 2008. (Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage)

"The character was so fascinating to me. For one, we'd never seen a deaf lesbian on television before, that's for sure … It was fun to play gay. And who wouldn't want to play with Jennifer Beales?" she says, noting that off-screen, they’ve been good friends for 35 years. "I loved every moment on that set," including delving deep into LGBTQ culture, which she'd already been familiar with because of having a gay brother.

"And my son just came out last year," she adds, "And it's just beautiful. It's a beautiful relationship with his partner."

While diversifying her roles and abilities has been a way to stay relevant as an aging woman in Hollywood, she says, "I'd be lying if I said that I didn't have any insecurities, that's for sure. I do have insecurities in every aspect of life."

Being a mom of four — Sarah, 27, Brandon, 22, Tyler, 20 and Isabelle, 19, with husband Kevin Grandalski — has kept her out of her own head, for the most part. "My focus has been on my kids and their schooling," she says. "They're at the point that they're adults and I'm looking at the life choices they make. So, it's a little bit of a reawakening … I do have moments where I look at myself and I go, huh, I wish I started running a long time ago. I should have put more emphasis on sunblock [but] there's so, so many things that are going on in my life where I can't really dwell too much on my appearance.

"What's important today, I think, is more about the things that are outside of myself — my children, my husband, my mental health issues that I think that may come up having do with my kids. That's more important to me than obsessing on my looks."

For anyone affected by abuse and needing support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or if you're unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

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