- Guest Columnist
My name is Amelia Hensley and I am a professional deaf actress currently based in Los Angeles. I am a proud member of Actor’s Equity and recently starred in Deaf West Theatre’s “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, playing the role of Thea. I grew up with a theatre background, studied Theatre Arts at Gallaudet University and have been involved in numerous shows and independent films. But, despite my experience, I am constantly fighting for my spot in the casting room. Though the entertainment industry has made significant strides toward including the deaf community in film and on stage, deaf roles are still played by hearing actors far too often.
I recently attended the premiere of Todd Haynes’ film “Wonderstruck” and left with mixed feelings. The best part was watching Millicent Simmonds, a 14-year-old deaf actress, who played a depression-era runaway named Rose. It is not often you see deaf talent on screen and watching her shine made me smile. Honestly, she was the only reason I made it through to the end of the movie. Without her, I would have walked out. Why? Because the film cast Julianne Moore as the older version of Simmonds’ character, a deaf woman who communicates using American Sign Language (ASL).
But this article is not about her performance or why her performance failed. Hearing people playing deaf characters is wrong. Hearing actors can never truly understand what we have to go through every day living in a world that doesn’t speak our language. They can’t pretend to walk in our shoes just to expand their range. Being deaf is more than just an acting exercise.
Don't get me wrong, I'm happy deaf talent was given an opportunity in the film, but what’s not right is that the deaf actors were only cast in hearing or mute roles. No deaf actors used ASL. On the other hand, Julianne Moore had lines in ASL after spending only a few months learning it. Of course, we appreciate anyone learning our language, but it’s hard not to feel like these roles could have easily been played by seasoned deaf actors. Why is it OK for hearing actors to sign on screen while us deaf actors can’t?
Simmonds’ performance is a beautiful example of what deaf actors can do. We can follow the story by just watching her marvelous facial expressions. Deaf people use our whole face to communicate and we always emphasize how important facial expressions are in our language. That's something hearing actors like Julianne Moore will never be able to emulate in a short amount of time. As ASL interpreters know, it takes many years of practice to understand facial expressions and when to use them. Julianne Moore is a great actress, but it just doesn’t look natural to me and to other deaf audience members.
“Wonderstruck” was made under made Amazon Studio and one of their goals is to “look for compelling new voices, characters that you can't find anywhere else.” Then why are they encouraging inauthenticity?
It’s important to think about who is on screen but also who is in the audience. For deaf moviegoers, it’s not fair to watch a hearing person playact real pain and hardship they have to go through every day. At the same time, hearing audience members lose out on a correct representation of deaf people and deaf culture, especially since our depiction in media is already scant. For people who don’t have much contact with the deaf or others within the community who communicate using ASL, films like “Wonderstruck” are their only windows into our life. To have our experiences, culture, and language represented by a hearing person who is not fluent in ASL is a disservice to both deaf and hearing audiences alike as well as personally devastating to me.
On top of that, we don’t have many role models in the industry other than Marlee Matlin (Oscar-winner for “Children Of A Lesser God”) and Nyle DiMarco (model and “Dancing With The Stars” champion).
Is there hope? The bottom line is that Julianne Moore was picked because is she a marketable star. Producers want to make money and are probably worried that an (unknown) deaf actress wouldn’t make the film as profitable. But as a deaf actress, I have a question for casting directors and executives: how will you know if you don’t try casting a deaf performer instead?
Times are changing. Movies like “Wonder Woman,” a superhero film with a female lead and a female director, made over 400 million dollars domestically at the box office. “Get Out,” made by African-American writer/director Jordan Peele, recently became the highest grossing debut film of all time. Hollywood is starting to see that movies with diverse casts can be highly profitable and popular. But that hasn’t really happened yet for disabled or deaf actors. For every Marlee Matlin or Russell Harvard (who played a deaf hitman on “Fargo”), there are many more performances like Julianne Moore’s. Deaf actors are often overlooked, even when their life experience would benefit the movie. Rinko Kikuchi was nominated for an Academy Award playing a deaf teenager in “Babel,” while 2016’s “Hush” had a hearing actress portraying a deaf lead character.
So how can we elevate deaf talent if opportunities keep getting taken away from us? One way is to better educate hearing actors. It shouldn’t be just us deaf actors speaking up. Hearing performers should let casting directors know they won’t take deaf roles. We often use the hashtag #PassOnTheRole to promote this idea. If hearing actors turn down the chance to audition for deaf parts, it will really make an impact and make casting directors think twice about authentically casting the role. I’d guess that many hearing actors have auditions weekly, if not more often, while most deaf actors only get the opportunity to go in for roles every three months or less.
I still encourage people to watch “Wonderstruck.” It’s truly a beautiful story and a terrific showcase for Millicent Simmonds, who has already been cast in another film directed by John Krasinski. “Wonderstruck” kickstarted Simmonds’ career and her presence probably made a lot of people want to see the film. But there is no doubt it would have been more powerful if they used a deaf actress for Older Rose. Not only would it have been a great role for a deaf actress, but it could have launched a new performer’s career. Instead, it’s just another movie on Julianne Moore’s long resume.
What deaf talent is asking you to do is to stop giving our roles to hearing people. We continue to be overlooked, but we are right here, ready to give it our all.
Upon Ms. Hensley’s request, this article was edited and expanded by OnStage columnist and theater critic Noah Golden, but the final product expresses her views and authorial voice. She also wishes to thank Shawna Voragen and Sandra Mae Frank for their help.
Photo: Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff in Children of a Lesser God at Berkshire Theatre Group / Matthew Murphy