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The Society’s Sean Berdy on ASL Representation, Teen Activism and His Buzzy New Netflix Drama

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There are plenty of despicable characters in The Society, Netflix’s new apocalyptic teen drama that imagines a present-day, Lord of the Flies-inspired crisis in a small New England town. But Sam, a deaf teenager played by Sean Berdy, is not one of them: after the town’s parents disappear, he acts as a steady moral center as the community around him descends into ruthlessness and egotism.

Berdy, 25, spent five seasons playing the teen heartthrob Emmett Bledsoe in the Freeform family drama Switched At Birth. During that run he became a prominent face of an ASL (American Sign Language) community hungering for representation. But in 2018, he announced that was stepping away from acting due to his struggles with bipolar disorder. “I may look like the happiest and silliest man on earth, but that is an artist’s art of hiding,” he wrote on Instagram. “I have been hiding for so long and I’m done with it.”

The Society marks Berdy’s first major role since his hiatus. In a phone interview conducted with the assistance of an interpreter, Berdy talked about returning to acting, the atmosphere on set and the increasing visibility of the ASL community in film and TV.

What parts of The Society feel most similar to our own society?

The society in the show is actually based heavily on the politics of today. We have this gun violence epidemic, we have domestic violence increasing. We have social justice and the hate for socialism. I think the creators tried to include a lot of those issues to bring the story to life.

Last year you wrote on Instagram about your struggles with bipolar disorder. What have the last few years been like for you?

To be honest, I had hidden my struggle with my bipolar situation for over a good 14 years, I would say. It is a battle from from the moment I wake up until the end of the day. It feels like you’re in a bubble at times and you’re trying to get out. You stretch the bubble and want to break out of it—but you’re back inside and in the darkness at the end of the day. That has been difficult for me. I am very fortunate to have my family who’s supported me.

How did you decide you were ready to return to acting?

I think acting is in my blood—I am always ready to perform when I feel it. I took a good three years to focus on myself.

I guess you don’t really know when the time is right until the material presents itself. This script came to me, and therefore the time was right. When I read the script, I thought, “Wow, This is different. This is a story that is going to be a big hit once it goes out into the world.” I believe that.

My struggle has been up and down. It’s a situation where I live day to day. But with a daily focus and working with such a great cast and crew who supports me, they understand that some days aren’t the best for me and they’re there for me.

You’ve described your character on Switched at Birth as the “deaf James Dean.” How is your new character, Sam, different?

Sam is very aware of the fact he’s always been different from everyone where he grew up. He’s the only deaf guy in a hearing family. He thinks outside of the box, and really cares about people more than he cares about himself, in many ways.

The Society is unique in that virtually all of its characters are teenagers. What was it like filming with a cast of of exclusively young actors?

We were all meeting at this place for the first time and learning how to be a family. We were away together for four months filming these ten episodes that had all these heavy emotional scenes and required a lot of mental preparation. That helped us get closer quicker.

We would eat dinner together. We would have house parties. We had a lot of fun while working very hard. We spent four months away on the East coast, shooting in 20-degree weather with the wind chill factor making it maybe 10 degrees. We were wearing parkas. We had to rent a charter bus to sit on with the heater between takes.

It was a lot of fun, and we do feel like a family. Chris [Keyser, the show’s creator] and the producers have given us these opportunities to run wild, to be creative with our characters. They believe in us. This show is a heavy show. We’re putting all of our emotions out there and giving it our all.

The house parties on the show are pretty crazy. How did the ones in real life compare?

Those parties were pretty tame: board games, spaghetti dinners, or we’d order Chinese takeout. They were very traditionally oriented and warm gatherings, as opposed to the show, where you’d have these wild get-downs. In the first episode, we’re partying in a church—that’s about as wild as it gets. It’s probably about as wild a scene as I had ever filmed.

Your character mostly communicates with the other characters using American Sign Language. Did the other actors know how to sign before the show started?

They literally knew not one sign. We had an ASL coach on set who was responsible for teaching the lines in sign language to the cast. They had to have lessons during their free time and sometimes had to work extra over the weekends. I’m so proud of the cast—It’s not easy and they’re doing a great job on the show.

I admire Gideon [Adlon, who plays Becca] so much. She showed up cold and impressed me with how motivated she was to learn the language. Basically for each episode, she had a week-and-a-half or two weeks max to learn all her lines in sign language believably. That’s a lot of pressure—and she nailed it every time.

How did you draw on your own experiences with deafness to inform this character?

Sam’s story doesn’t exactly parallel my life because I’ve always been able to hear a little bit. I love music. I consider myself bilingual: my first language is ASL but I do have the ability to speak.

Has ASL visibility increased in Hollywood since you started your career?

I can say that Hollywood has recognized ASL finally. Two recent movies, The Shape of Water and A Quiet Place, were both beautiful movies featuring sign language in different ways.

In fact, I’m writing a movie right now that uses ASL. It’s a love story, and I hope to go into production in the next couple years. ASL is hot right now—but it’s my life language and it’s a beautiful language.

We have seen teenagers stepping up and becoming activists for change regarding issues like gun violence and climate change. What impact can teens have on the discourse?

For young people, this world is just getting crazier and crazier. It’s very hard for me emotionally, personally, to see things that are happening the world right now. I hope this show speaks for itself and illuminates what’s happening and helps the audience see we need to take care of some issues. I think that young people can inspire the world by sharing the message of love.

How would you fare in the world of The Society?

I’d lead. I’d jump right in and take a lead position, simple as that.

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