Pam Spaulding: Your character, sculptor Jodi Lerner, is involved with The L Word anchor character Bette Porter. What drew you to this character and what do you think her impact has been on the show?

Marlee Matlin: The character was unlike anyone I’ve had a chance to play before; an artist with strong opinions who happens to be gay. I’ve always asked for the opportunity to play strong female characters and when I had a chance to watch my first “L Word” episode, I was fascinated how this was a show about women and not necessarily just about lesbians. I had heard that the issues with being lesbian and deaf might be touched upon and as far as I knew, this had never been done before in either TV or film. I was eager to be part of a groundbreaking character and jumped on board immediately.

PS: You said in an interview that the L Word scripts are “not like any I’ve done.” How so, and how is the dynamic different from the other sets you’ve been on (such as The West Wing)?

MM: On The West Wing, I played a pollster whose job it was to spit out statistics and numbers at the expense of revealing her character. There was a great dynamic with other characters on the show but there wasn’t much in the way of showing the audience who she was and what made her tick, particularly after Aaron Sorkin left the show. On The L Word, my character goes through a whole range of emotions and we have an opportunity to see what makes Jodi tick. And the dynamic between women that we see in everyday life but which seems to be missing in a lot of Films and TV shows is right there on The L Word. I love working in that kind of setting. There are women producers, women writers, women directors and the cast is practically all women. There is no other show on TV which represents the range of women so well as The L Word.

PS: In one episode of The L Word, during an intimate scene between Jodi and Bette, there was an interesting use of both sound, silence and camera angles to help convey to the audience the verbal and non-verbal communication that occurs between the characters during such a scene when one can hear and the other cannot — it’s something that one normally doesn’t think about if you aren’t deaf. How did you feel about the scene and did you have any input in its portrayal onscreen?

MM: I think that’s a testament to how the writers “got” Jodi. When the season was being formulated in the writers’ room, I was invited in to give some input on what it’s like to be deaf. The writers and Ilene were able to process it right there. They explained to me that a lot of the issues related to deafness are many of the same issues related to the LBGT community but that deafness brought a fresh perspective. I liked that. When it came time to filming scenes between deaf and hearing characters, their sensitivity and understanding of issues related to deafness came into play and they were able to create things that had not been done on TV before. What a fantastic feeling that was for me to see it on the screen as only I could’ve imagined but that other writers and filmakers were never able to articulate.

PS: What has the feedback been like from the 1) the deaf community, 2) the deaf LGBT community, 3) the general LGBT and straight audiences to your role on the show? Have you noticed any interesting or different reactions among those groups that stand out?

MM: I think it’s been positive but I don’t read the boards really to get the specifics. The deaf community members I’ve met since my episodes have aired have been very positive and the LGBT community members who are deaf have both been very supportive. I’ve gotten a few letters from people in the straight community who complained that I am sullying my wholesome reputation as a mom and wife of a cop by playing a gay character but I don’t listen to them just as I don’t listen to people who don’t understand that deaf people can do anything except hear.

PS: SLDN is saluting The L Word for its portrayal of life under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for one of its characters (Tasha) and its impact on some of the characters — politically and socially. Given the fact that the DADT policy is making headlines of late, with the comments by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace (that homosexuality is “immoral”), what do you think about the debate over this issue of lesbians and gay men being able to openly serve their country? Is the country ready to have a healthy discussion about this, in your opinion?

MM: I think it’s healthy only because it exposes the real dirty secret that’s out there: that prejudice and discrimination against LGBT members of the military is still out there even if they think it can be resolved with a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. It’s time to end the policy and let LGBT serve without having to hide because the consequences of silence are far worse than dealing with the truth. The fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed his opinion about gays in the military while gay men and women are serving in Iraq got little criticism from those in charge didn’t even cause a ripple (when any other sort of criticism of our troops would never be tolerated) by policy makers was evident of a maddening double standard. It’s time for the policy to change and in some weird way, I’m glad Pace said what he said because you can’t heal a wound if you keep it bandaged up too long. Open it up for all to see and let the healing begin, that’s what I say. 

PS:  My partner is an audiologist and she works with children in a local public school system. As you know, medical advances (both in hearing aid technology and with cochlear implants) have made it possible for more and more children with hearing loss who would have normally taken a traditional path of socialization and education — using sign language to move to hearing-based language acquisition. Some in the deaf community see that as having a overall negative impact on deaf culture. What are your thoughts on this? The larger society is woefully undereducated about the conflicts and issues raised.

MM: It’s a matter of individual opinion and more than anything I find it distressing when both sides complain loudly when an individual or parent makes a personal choice as to communication / language acquisition choices. Parents usually know what’s best for their children and whether it’s sign or speech, hearing aids or cochlear implants, no one has a right to tell them how to raise their children. At the same time, I would hope that parents and individuals can make informed choices and that each side makes themselves as available as possible so as not to polarize and create confusion. I believe all modalities should be used in communication because that’s how I was raised. If someone disagrees with me, that’s fine, as long as they don’t try to shove it down my throat (or in my ear!) and try to diminish my viewpoint or treat me as I need to be “fixed.” The Deaf Community spent over 100 years having decisions being made “for” them by hearing people who had no interest in the needs and desires of deaf people. It’s pretty clear that they react they way they do when hearing people today try to tell them what they think about how deaf children should be raised. The Deaf Community needs to make those choices themselves and it’s up to hearing people to respect that. It was an issue nicely highlighted in The L Word episode when Jodi tells Bette pretty much that Jodi can make her own decisions without Bette feeling the need to control what Jodi hears and what Jodi understands. That’s why I love The L Word so much. Ilene and the rest of the cast and crew GET IT!


Back to coverage of SLDN’s 15th annual national dinner.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding