The world of acting has produced many memorable characters and poignant productions which have changed our understanding of the world around us. Part of this picture are the many individuals who have shown great character and determination while pursuing their dreams. This includes deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and actresses of diverse backgrounds who have demonstrated the great contribution that anyone can make to the profession - what matters most is talent!
The Crown Jewels
We are renowned in the UK for the quality of our performers. Take English actress Genevieve Barr. She was born deaf and has shown her skills in sport, writing and, of course, acting. She played rounders for England when she was 15 and studied English and History at Edinburgh University.
She’s best known for playing Amelia in the award-winning BBC series ‘The Silence’, a crime drama in which her character fights to integrate herself into a hearing world after receiving a cochlear implant. This role landed her a nomination for best actress at the BAFTA TV awards in 2010.
Barr has also taken on many other types of role, whether it be psychopathic Lisa in ‘Shameless’ or Maddy in the supernatural drama ‘The Fades’. Her other credits include ‘Call The Midwife’ and ‘Liar’.
She has also written for The Guardian, arguing that deafness should not limit the roles an actor or actress should be able to play. Indeed, the diversity of her roles and many achievements are a testament to that fact.
On our shores we also saw ‘The Silent Child’ in 2017. This is a British sign language short film, written by and starring Rachel Shenton. Rachel was inspired by her father becoming deaf when she was 12 after he underwent chemotherapy for cancer and she later became a hearing ally advocating for deaf issues.
The film stars Maisie Sly, a deaf six-year-old playing the silent child, Libby, who is taught sign language by a social worker played by Shenton. The film has won many awards, including an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film this year. Undoubtedly the film is a great example of how deaf and non-deaf talents can work together to produce an indelible film that makes a worldwide impact.
Across the Sea
When we look outside the UK, it’s not hard to find other deaf actors and actresses who have made a splash in front of the cameras.
New Yorker Nyle DiMarco has campaigned for deaf issues, boogied his way to victory on ‘Dancing With The Stars’ and even won ‘America’s Next Top Model’. Certainly nothing to be scoffed at.
He’s appeared in the family drama ‘Switched at Birth’, a show which has had many deaf and hard-of-hearing regulars. Nyle played Garrett Banducci, who was a romantic lead for one of the main characters, Bay. He’s also starred in the dark comedy series ‘Difficult People’.
In addition there’s Alex Jones, a deaf activist who co-founded Ai-Media. From 2001 to 2002 he played Lyle Slater on the popular Australian hospital drama ‘All Saints’. He also worked on ‘The Wild Boys’ from the Australian Theatre of the Deaf.
American actress Marlee Matlin is also a star – literally - she can be found on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The American actress has been deaf since she was 18 months old and has won Academy Awards and Golden Globes across her long and illustrious career.
As a child she played Dorothy in a production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and her film debut was playing a deaf janitor in romantic drama ‘Children of a Lesser God’ in 1986. She was nominated for an Emmy for her appearance in ‘Picket Fences’ in 1994 and has had recurring roles in ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Blues Clues’, as well as appearances on ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘ER’.
By pursuing their passions these actors and actresses have created exciting and varied opportunities for themselves. Others have had hearing loss later on in their lives and have continued to go from strength to strength.
Halle Berry lost the majority of her hearing in her left ear in her mid-twenties. She has appeared in multiple X-Men films, played the titular role in ‘Catwoman’ and was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood during her thirties.
Whoopi Goldberg is another figure who was one of the highest paid American actresses back in the mid-90s. She is well known for comedy classics like ‘Sister Act’ and for hosting American talk show ‘The View’. She uses digital hearing aids and will be appearing in London and Leeds during her next comedy tour.
Last but not least, Jodie Foster has used hearing aids since at least 2007. In the late 60s she was on the sitcom ‘Mayberry R.F.D’ and many other roles followed. She has appeared on episodes of popular Netflix shows such as ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘House of Cards’. She has also taken to directing in films such as ‘The Beaver’ in 2011 and ‘Money Monster’ in 2016, showing how her career has moved in new directions.
Continuing to shatter that wall
What’s notable, whether it be in the UK or abroad, is the teamwork of deaf and non-deaf actors, producers and writers has led to great drama for everyone. It’s been critically important that deaf actors and actresses have played these roles to do them justice and depict the world in all its diversity. Rather than remain in silence, deaf actors and deaf actresses have made their voices roar.
Of course we have been provided with all this great acting through their efforts and it’s crucial that captioning be provided so that deaf people can also enjoy the efforts of all actors in the theatre and cinema. Accessibility and communication is a two way street that we can all prosper from, so that we can all appreciate great productions and brilliant talent. Let’s keep smashing down that wall!