Karmen Ratkovic is a political activist in Croatia, working with non-governmental organizations ( NGOs ) on a wide range of issues. She is also a Deaf lesbian activist, and has been working to expand the visibility of lesbians in her country. One way she has done this is through sports, in organizations such as qSPORT and Bura, a lesbian soccer team, that played in the Gay Games last summer in Chicago. The following e-mail interview was conducted with actor Marlee Matlin in early September.
Second photo, from left: Marlee Matlin's brother Eric; his wife, Gloria; Matlin's brother, Mark; and his partner, Jay Goldstein at the HRC gala. Photo by Kat Fitzgerald
Academy Award winner Matlin will be in Chicago for a gala benefit featuring her co-stars from The L Word ( Jennifer Beals, Daniela Sea and BETTY ) , along with comic Marga Gomez, Sat., Oct. 6, at The Chopping Block, 222 Merchandise Mart. Chefs Art Smith and Shelley Young will also be featured at this Celebrity Cook-Off benefit for Gender PAC, a national gender-rights group. See www.gpac.org .
Karmen Ratkovic: How do you live in the surrounding of hearing people? Do you have anybody who is Deaf, that is, do you have any contact with Deaf people?
Marlee Matlin: My family [ husband and children ] are not deaf and most of my friends at work and at home are hearing. I grew up in Chicago, where my entire family was also hearing [ mom, dad and two brothers as well as various aunts, uncles and cousins ] . But most of my friends growing up in Chicago were deaf and my classmates were deaf as well. Today, I have some close friends who are deaf, but again, most of my daily friends and acquaintances are hearing. I do well going back and forth between Deaf and hearing worlds. It's the way I've always been.
KR: What was it that moved you to be an actress? Is your choosing the career of the actress in any relation with your Deafness? How has Hollywood stereotyped you and what roles are available?
MM: I've wanted to act since I was seven years old; that's when I did my first play, The Wizard of Oz. My mother said she took me to the International Center on Deafness and the Arts because she saw a desire in me to perform in front of people, and ICODA provided opportunities for deaf children to participate in the arts and drama. But I don't know if I chose acting because I was deaf. I chose acting because I was good at it!
As for Hollywood stereotyping me, Hollywood stereotypes everyone—men, women, young actors, old actors and actors with disabilities. Hollywood is all about fantasy and drama, and that means we all play characters that are larger than life. Often, this includes stereotypical behavior, behaviors that audiences can easily identity with. As for me, I shun stereotypes and I refuse to take roles which make me look silly or stupid as a Deaf person. It's also the reason why a lot of the roles I take are ones that I have created together with the writers and producers. Whether it's been the Dancing Bandit character I played on Picket Fences or the pollster I played on The West Wing or Jodi Lerner from The L Word, the characters I've played have avoided the stereotypes of Deafness and have broken new ground in the portrayals of Deaf characters. I'm proud of having opened the doors for other actors in Hollywood who are Deaf.
KR: Your brother is gay. How do feel about that? What can you tell us about the relationship with your brother in regard to your Deafness and his homosexuality—is there any influence in any direction? How about your view of gay people; how do you understand/see them, their challenges, problems, etc.?
MM: My brother is my brother, gay or not. His being gay never factored into how we thought of him in our family or how much we loved him. However, you could say our relationship has been defined by the fact that I'm Deaf and he's gay because we both come from communities that are in the minority. I think that has drawn us closer to each other. And as Ilene Chaiken, the executive producer of The L Word, said to me as she was developing my character, the issues facing Deaf people parallel the issues facing the LGBT community because both operate as minorities who are misunderstood by the general population. I found this fascinating but not surprising. In any case, as Matlins we are a very close and loving family, and whether we are Deaf, gay, Jewish, etc., we lived by the idea that every person deserves love and respect despite what people label as 'differences.'
KR: Here in Croatia, we've got no opportunity to see your acting in The L Word, but I'm fascinated by your roles in Children of a Lesser God and recently in What the Bleep. Anyway, I want to know what moved you to choose to join The L Word. How do you feel in this role?
MM: I was challenged by the very nature of the role in The L Word. It was so different than anything I had every played before. I've always asked to play roles that were new and challenging and playing a lesbian artist is certainly new for me! I was fortunate to have been cast alongside my friend, Jennifer Beals, who made the transition into playing a lesbian quite easy. She was assuring, as well as funny and she put my mind at ease when it came to playing something I had never played before. I love the cast and crew of The L Word and the role of Jodi Lerner is one of the most fascinating characters I've ever played!
KR: Since taking on The L Word role, you have attended many gay and lesbian events and benefits [ in various places ] , including Chicago, your hometown, where your brother introduced you. Can you tell us how being seen as more of an 'activist' on the issue of gays and lesbians feels?
MM: I've always been a supporter of minority communities and issues, so when I was asked to come out and support the LGBT community, I was glad to lend my name and presence. I don't necessarily consider myself an activist as much as I consider myself as a woman with an opinion. I wish I had time to be a full-time activist but I'm not so good at politics. But I am good at speaking my mind and my mind has always told me that no one, whether straight or gay, has the right to be discriminated against simply because of their sexual preferences. So, if there's discrimination out there or people are not realizing their rights, I'm happy to speak out on their behalf and use my public position to focus attention on the issue. That's what I can do best as an actor!
KR: Can you tell us any favorite parts about playing opposite Jennifer Beals on The L Word, and where this role is going this coming season?
MM: We loved laughing and giggling when we first worked together. Jennifer had already been playing a lesbian for three years on the show and this past season was my first time. She made fun of the way I kissed and held her, and she challenged me to do it better—to do it right. But I told her that I was doing it right!
All through my process of learning, she put my mind at ease and made it so easy for me to slip into the role of the lesbian artist, Jodi. We also playfully argued about who had the better clothes ( Jennifer chic, Marlee funky ) and our past roles. I often kidded her about Flashdance ( she pretended she didn't like to talk about that movie ) and she often kidded me about Children Of A Lesser God, which I made when I was 19 and looked very different! She is so much fun.
As for this coming season, I can't say what's going to happen, but I can tell you it's going to be very intense—more so than last year—and if you have a chance to watch, tune in!
KR: In your role on The L Word, are you happy with the way the writers have handled your Deafness, making it a critical part of your character and her politics?
MM: The writers on The L Word have been nothing but 100 percent open to incorporating accurate portrayals of Deafness. They've brought in other Deaf actors, [ and ] they've asked me to help them with storylines; it's been a dream! There's nothing on the show that I am embarrassed about [ regarding ] the way Jodi Lerner is portrayed. She is an accurate and very real example of a real Deaf character on television and I am very proud of having the opportunity to portray her.
KR: What do you think of the recent controversial issues in America, including the arrest and resignation of a U.S. senator for bathroom solicitation, and the potential approval of same-sex marriage in Iowa? Where do you think the gay movement is headed in terms of acceptance, and do you see any parallels with the Deaf community?
MM: All of the controversy about how nothing ever changes in terms of how people view gay people doesn't surprise me. It's been the same for the Deaf community. As Deaf people, we have had to constantly struggle to be respected and afforded our rights; the same goes for members of the gay community. I've learned that the struggle for equality and respect is an ongoing one and it's the same in the gay community, too. People's memories are short and every few years there's an issue ( like the Gallaudet University uprising or the Matthew Shepard case ) that serves to remind us that we will always have to struggle for our rightful place in society. I believe we should never get complacent or comfortable because before you know it, public opinions can change and/or those who make laws or lead us may come into power that takes away everything that we've achieved. It's a never-ending struggle and that's unfortunate. But it has made me strong and I'm sure that's the same for any member of the gay community that seeks to make a difference and live a life equal to their straight brothers and sisters.
KR: You are coming to Chicago for a benefit for Gender PAC. Can you explain your support of GPAC, especially as it relates to understanding transgender and gender identity issues?
MM: GPAC is all about gender equality and I'm all for that. As I said, no person should be denied their rights for love and respect simply because of their gender or sexual preference. GPAC works to make sure that no one should be discriminated against simply because of who they choose to love. And in particular, GPAC is working to make sure that LGBT teens—people who need positive reinforcement the most as they grow into adulthood—are afforded love and respect. Too often it is the community of LGBT teens that we see high rates of suicide because of society's unwillingness to accept them for who they are. GPAC is there to protect and support them—and I'm there to support GPAC.
KR: Thank you very much for your time. We would love to have you in Croatia anytime.