August 11, 2021 12:20 PM EDT

Everyone knows who Marlee Matlin is. In 1987 she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her unflinching turn in Children of a Lesser God, as a custodian at a school for the deaf who has a romance with a hearing teacher, a speech pathologist played by William Hurt, though their ideologies on speech and deafness clash.

At 21 Matlin—who was born in born in Martin Grove, Ill., and who lost most of her hearing when she was 18 months old—was the youngest actor to have won the award, as well as the first deaf actor to do so. The word first implies the promise of a second. But if Matlin is hardly the only deaf actor working in movies, television or theater, how many of the others can most of us name? It’s only very recently that deaf actors like Millicent Simmonds (from the hugely successful Quiet Place franchise) or The Walking Dead‘s Laura Ridloff (who will play a superhero in Marvel’s upcoming Eternals movie) have become familiar to mainstream audiences, and even they aren’t yet big stars. Matlin’s early fame came with an unspoken hope: once audiences had seen, and responded to, a deaf character played by a deaf actor, surely a floodgate would break, and stories about—and featuring—people who happen to be deaf or disabled would no longer be a rarity.

Some 35 years later, we’re still waiting for that floodgate to bust, and Matlin is too—though her latest project, the Sundance hit CODA, just might finally crack it open. “I think people who have the power are just afraid when it comes to deaf and disabled characters in feature films. It’s just the way it is,” Matlin says in a recent conversation, via Zoom, from her home in Los Angeles. “But hopefully, people will watch this film and say, ‘Oh you can tell a story with deaf characters in it. And tell it really well. And”—she adds, with a mischievous glint—“sell it for a lot of money!’”

Tracy Nguyen for TIME

Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA was a Sundance favorite that also happened to prompt a very big deal: Apple picked it up for a record-breaking $25 million. (It opens in theaters and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on Aug. 13.) Matlin plays Jackie, the mother of 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), who’s torn between sticking with the family’s fishing business in Gloucester, Mass., and leaving home for a shot at becoming a singer. Ruby is the only hearing member of her family, and the others rely on her as a bridge to the hearing world. What will happen if she leaves them? She’s not sure, and they’re not either.

To call CODA—its title an acronym for “child of deaf adults”—a story about a deaf family is to miss the point: it’s about a family, period, albeit one facing specific challenges. “There are a lot of people who think deaf people are all the same. This is just one type of deaf family,” Matlin says. The family in CODA, as part of a small-town fishing community, have made choices that other families might not. They have limited contact with the hearing world partly because they know they can rely on Ruby to interpret for them, using ASL. And because she can hear, she can pick up instances in which her father, Frank, and older brother, Leo (played by Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, respectively, both of whom are deaf) aren’t getting fair prices for what they catch. “They’re hardworking people, they’re very close knit, they depend on each other. It just so happens that they depend on their hearing daughter because of where they live,” Matlin says. “One thing I love about this film, and that I hope most people will see, is that deaf families are just like any other families out there. It just takes one person to make a change, and suddenly the whole family dynamic changes. And there’s a great story in that.”

The point, Matlin says, is that you can get good stories no matter what kind of character you put onscreen. She’s been lucky enough to work with producers, directors and writers who have felt that way, people like Ilene Chaiken and David E. Kelley, creators of, respectively, The L Word and Picket Fences, two shows on which she’s had recurring roles. And from 2000 to 2006, she played no-baloney pollster Joey Lucas on The West Wing—a character who’s great at her job and who also happens to be deaf.

Matlin concedes that there’s more openness to the portrayal of deaf characters on television than in the movies, probably at least in part because taking chances on television involves less financial risk. “With theatrical releases, they’re thinking about box office, and about reaching the largest audience possible, the biggest common denominator,” Matlin says. “I think deaf characters don’t fit into that, and I think it needs to stop.” She notes, too, that even if television has been more generally inclusive, we haven’t seen an ensemble of deaf characters carry a television show or a movie as they do in CODA—and even that presented something of a battle. Matlin was one of the first actors cast for the movie, and when Heder faced pressure from some of her producers to cast a hearing actor in the role of Frank, Matlin put her foot down.

“You can’t have hearing actors play deaf characters,” she says. “Regardless of how big of a name you put in there, or box office. Playing a deaf character is not a costume you can put on or take off at the end of the day.” It’s even possible, of course, to rewrite a hearing character to be deaf, thus creating a role for a deaf actor. But Matlin found the idea of casting a hearing actor in this particular role “outrageous,” and threatened to leave the movie. “I don’t really have the luxury to do that all the time,” she says. “But in this case, I knew it wasn’t right. I believed in this, and I fought.”

Even through that dismal life-flattener known as the Zoom screen, Matlin is a radiant, passionate presence, simultaneously magnetic and open, the kind of person you’d want to sit next to on the first day of grade school. (Her longtime business partner and sign language interpreter Jack Jason was also present on the call.) But you also wouldn’t want to mess with her: as a working actor and an activist, she clearly knows how to fight for things that have meaning for her. A few years back, Matlin was approached by a film producer to coach a hearing actor—one she respects and admires—on how to “play” deaf. It’s slightly scorching, like finding yourself in the hot sun without sunblock, to watch Matlin sign her dismay and outrage as she recalls the exchange. “I said, ‘No, you’re kidding, right?’” It wasn’t a joke. “‘Well, you know my answer, right?’ I said to the agent. No, it’s not happening. Thank you very much, but no. You can’t teach someone who’s not deaf how to be deaf, how to play deaf, how to act deaf. No.”

Some of that fire comes through in Matlin’s portrayal of Jackie in CODA: She’s a former beauty queen, now the wife of a fisherman (married for years, the two are still madly in love), and ever-ready to cajole her kids out of a bad mood. In an early scene, the whole household clatters with noise as Jackie gets the family dinner ready—no one except Ruby cares, because who can hear it? But in one of the movie’s most searing sequences, Jackie tries to talk Ruby out of pursuing her love of singing. (She has a shot at attending Berklee College of Music, in Boston.) Via sign language, Jackie says to Ruby, “If we were blind, would you want to be a painter?” Jackie tries to make the line seem like a joke, but the maternal anxiety behind it is clear.

Matlin, a mother of four herself, found that scene difficult to play. “That’s probably one of the most selfish things anybody could ever say when talking about her daughter. And I struggled with that as an actor, because that’s not something I would say as a mom,” she says. But she also knows that playing characters doesn’t involve judging them—and the whole point of acting is to illuminate some of the more complex angles of human behavior.

She wants more chances to do that, even as she recognizes that landing jobs becomes harder for women actors as they age. She knows the grandmother roles are coming—and here she does the universal eye-rolling thing that’s pretty much involuntary among most women over 50, actor or not, when the subject of aging comes up.

Still, her plan is to keep doing the work she loves, and learn some new skills along the way. Last year she served as an executive producer on Doug Roland’s moving Oscar-nominated short film “Feeling Though,” featuring deafblind actor Robert Tarango. And she’d like to try her hand at directing, too. She would need to enlist the help of a director friend to learn the ropes, and to have an interpreter with her—but those are merely facts, not obstacles. Matlin knows that making her own films could change the landscape of storytelling, and whose stories get told, significantly.

Matlin was the youngest of her parents’ three children, and she concedes they probably doted on her a bit. But they also had firm ideas about her capabilities, and chose not to send her away to a special school for the deaf: they wanted to raise her themselves, and they also wanted to know she could do anything she put her mind to. “My father’s favorite word was try,” Matlin said. “And he would spell it with his hand. T-R-Y. He would say to me, if they can do it, you can do it. Why would you let being deaf get in the way?” That’s how you become the world’s most famous actor who is also deaf. It’s also how you open the door wide for others, even if that means pushing at it, persistently, for more than 30 years.

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