Representation in film and television is something that so many people have been striving for for decades now. There’s still work to be done within the industry to ensure that diverse experiences are being portrayed on screen, but Hollywood has made strides in recent years. The deaf community is such a group that has experienced an increase in visibility over the years, which has been a true joy to witness. And with this, viewers have gotten to see some incredible movie and TV characters played by deaf actors.
Even before this recent increase in deaf representation, there have been plenty of stellar performances by deaf actors. All of the characters they’ve played are layered and compelling, and also dwell within a variety of genres, ranging from drama to science fiction. In the process, they further drive home the point that the community is not a monolith but, like any other, filled with unique experiences and points of view. So, let’s take a look at some of these truly fantastic characters:
Sarah Norman - Children Of A Lesser God
When thinking about deaf characters, it’s honestly hard not to think about Sarah Norman from Randa Haines’ 1986 romance, Children of a Lesser God. Sarah is a closed-off janitor who works at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing and eventually strikes up a passionate romance with a hearing teacher who’s new to the school. What makes her such a great character is the simple fact that there are layers to her. She’s strong, passionate, vulnerable and very flawed. And in the context of a romantic movie, she’s not defined by the person she’s in a relationship with.
Who’s even more amazing, though, is the person who brought the character to life on screen – Marlee Matlin. This film was actually the actress’ first movie role, and it earned her an Oscar for Best Actress, making her the first deaf performer to even win an Academy Award. In the years since the film’s release, Matlin has continued to work extensively, appearing in films and TV shows like Hear No Evil, The West Wing and a certain Oscar-winning film we’ll discuss later. But above all else, she’s worked to open doors for other deaf creatives, something we can all be grateful for.
Emmett Bledsoe - Switched At Birth
ABC Family’s Switched at Birth featured a number of compelling characters, and Emmett Bledsoe is certainly one of them. The motorcycle-riding teen can put up somewhat of a tough front at times, but underneath his occasionally rough exterior is a sentimental young man battling his insecurities while dealing with problems at home and matters of the heart. Over the course of the show’s five seasons, Emmett experiences plenty of highs and lows, many of which involve his ex-girlfriend, Bay. Yet it’s his sheer resilience that makes him such a compelling figure to watch. Of course, Sean Berdy's approach to playing him is also phenomenal.
Though it was his role as Emmett that truly brought him to prominence, Sean Berdy has been acting for quite some time. Aside from the fan-favorite drama, he’s appeared on shows like The Society and Drunk History. He’s done great work, though I still hold a soft spot for his role as young ladies’ man Sammy "Fingers" Samuelson in The Sandlot 2.
Thad Stone - The Family Stone
In a film filled with strong personalities, Thad Stone manages to stand out from his somewhat eccentric, yet loving, family members. Thad is a warm presence in The Family Stone and his story is one that so many can relate to. The film sees him and his partner, Patrick, trying to decide whether they’d like to adopt a child all while dealing with the chaos of the holiday season. Stone is truly a breath of fresh air, not because of his deafness, but because of the fact that his deafness is not used as a plot device during the holiday movie.
Writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a nice job handling the character, but Tyrone Giordano’s performance is what makes Thad shine. The actor has some strong acting chops and has done great work on both the big and small screens. His best work, however, may be on the stage through his roles in Big River and Pippin.
Joe - Baby Driver
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver isn’t just a great film due to his sleek direction and high-octane action, it’s propelled by its memorable characters. CJ Jones’ Joseph, the foster father of the lead character, is definitely one of them. The witty older man may not get in on much of the action, but he crucially serves as Baby’s conscience and, ultimately, their warm relationship serves as an emotional touchstone within the movie.
CJ Jones, who wowed Edgar Wright from the jump, does impeccable work in the 2017 film, as he’s done over the course of his career. A veteran of the stage, he made one of his earliest TV appearances on the classic NBC sitcom, A Different World (which is where I actually saw him for the first time), and he’s since appeared on shows like Hulu’s Castle Rock and FreeForm’s Everything's Gonna Be Okay. Also, those looking to see more blockbuster work from him will get just that when he appears in the upcoming Avatar 2.
Regan Abbott - A Quiet Place
2018’s A Quiet Place was a revelation. Director/co-writer John Krasinski’s horror film delivered a compelling story, genuine scares and a rising star in Millicent Simmonds, who plays Regan Abbott. The eldest child of the Abbott family, the teen is a survivor who’s had to grow up in a world that’s been ravaged by vicious aliens. Though their situation is dire, she ultimately shows no fear in the face of danger and her roles as a protector and a savvy inventor are only amplified in the 2020 sequel.
Millicent Simmonds was praised for her work in both films, and it’s not hard to see why. The actress exudes both charisma and confidence, which is ever present on screen. She’ll next be seen in the Helen Keller biopic Helen & Teacher. Aside from her work in TV, film, and music videos though, she also advocates for the deaf community, even helping to create masks with transparent panels for lip-reading in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jia - Godzilla Vs. Kong
In 2021, MonsterVerse fans were gifted with another installment in the franchise in the form of Godzilla vs. Kong. Aside from a plethora of kaiju, viewers were also introduced to a number of new human characters, including Jia. The sweet young Iwe native, who was adopted by Dr. Ilene Andrews, notably formed a special relationship with the gigantic ape through sign language, and their relationship serves as a major focal point of the film.
Actress Kaylee Hottle deserves a lot of praise for her work, especially when you consider she had to act off of a digital ape for much of the movie. The rising star has a few TV and film credits under her belt right now, and I’d imagine that after her work in the blockbuster, more could be on the way.
Zuzu - Feel The Beat
Zuzu is among one of the most lovable characters featured in Netflix’s dramedy, Feel the Beat. Played by rising star Shaylee Mansfield, the young lady aspires to be a professional dancer. Smart, funny, and sweet, Zuzu is committed to her craft but also supportive of her colleagues. She also makes it clear to her peers that her deafness in no way prevents her from enjoying music. As she signs to her teacher in the movie, she feels the vibrations.
Shaylee Mansfield, a former YouTuber, is a star in the making and does quite a bit with her role in the Netflix movie. In addition to her work as an actress, she continues to encourage kids around the world on social media through the use of ASL. She was also instrumental in encouraging Instagram to provide a captioning method for its videos. I’d say this young lady has a bright future ahead of her, in both the worlds of entertainment and advocacy.
Makkari - Eternals
Over a decade into its existence, the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally introduced its first deaf superhero in the form of Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari in Eternals. The heroine, who’s been on Earth for thousands of years, is a skilled speedster with a cheeky sense of humor. She also has a fierce sense of loyalty that helps make her one of the most endearing characters the MCU has ever produced. Writer/director Chloé Zhao handles her beautifully, while Ridloff effortlessly brings her to life.
The actress has made quite a name for herself, particularly through her roles on The Walking Dead and in the 2019 drama Sound of Metal. Her Marvel role has only helped elevate her star, and she’s using her increased visibility to do some serious good. One of the things Lauren Ridloff has been doing is encouraging hearing people to learn American Sign Language, which has seen a huge spike in interest. She even taught it to Eternals co-star Lia McHugh on set. All in all, Ridloff is a true hero both on and off screen.
Maya “Echo” Lopez - Hawkeye
Makkari wasn’t the only deaf hero to be introduced to the MCU in 2021, as Disney+’s Hawkeye marked the debut of Maya Lopez a.k.a. Echo, played by Alaqua Cox. An enforcer for the Tracksuit Mafia, the young woman seeks vengeance against the man who killed her father: Clint Barton. Though, she eventually learns that all is not what it seems. Maya’s an intensely focused young woman, if not somewhat reckless. She’s extremely loyal to her allies and potentially deadly to those who cross her.
The MCU show marked the first time Alaqua Cox had ever acted professionally, and she made quite the impression. As a matter of fact, the Native American actress, who is also an amputee, is set to reprise her role in her own solo series, titled Echo. The character is sure to grow in some interesting ways, and let’s hope that as time goes on, Cox herself is able to further evolve as a performer.
Frank Rossi - CODA
CODA, written and directed by Sian Heder, made a major impression in 2021, which isn't too surprising given there’s a lot to love about the family dramedy. One of these elements is the character of Frank Rossi, played masterfully by Troy Kotsur. Frank, a hardworking and proud man, works to provide for his family and keep their fishing business afloat. There are so many little quirks that one can’t help but love about the patriarch, from his affinity for rap music to his somewhat raunchy sense of humor. But, what’s especially great about him is his fierce love for his family and his special connection with his hearing daughter, Ruby.
To put it simply, Troy Kotsur is a force in the movie and manages to give an incredibly well-rounded performance. It’s honestly no surprise that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the second deaf performer (after co-star Marlee Matlin) to win an Academy Award. Over the years, he’s also appeared in stage productions as well as other notable films and TV shows. His star will hopefully rise following his acclaimed turn in CODA (which also won Best Picture), and maybe we’ll see him taking another gold statue back to his hometown down the road.
One can only hope that we get to see more dynamic deaf characters in cinema and television as time goes on. And, should that be the case, let’s also hope that Hollywood continues to make efforts to cast deaf talent in the roles.
Covering superheroes, sci-fi, comedy, and almost anything else in film and TV. I eat more pizza than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
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