Marlee Matlin on Lady Gaga, Performing at the Super Bowl, and Her Broadway Debut
By Stacy Lambe
Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award winning deaf actress probably most famous for her
recurring role on The West Wing, was also one of the big stars to grace
the stage during Sunday’s Super Bowl -- but you probably didn’t see her.
On behalf of the National Association of the Deaf, the
50-year-old actress joined Lady Gaga on stage to perform the national anthem in
American Sign Language. It was her third time at the big game, having
previously interpreted for Garth Brooks in 1993 and Billy Joel in 2007.
“With social media, it became even crazier,” Matlin wrote via email to ETonline about this year’s game. “I'm lucky to have worked with three superstar performers! Now if I could figure out how to get a GRAMMY out of this.”
In addition to Sunday’s performance, the Academy Award winner has earned rave reviews for her Broadway debut in the revival of Spring Awakening, which featured both hearing and non-hearing actors in the rock musical.
Following the Super Bowl, Matlin opened up to ETonline about her pre-game performance, hanging with music’s biggest divas, and how she channeled Eddie Van Halen on stage.
ETonline: What was it like to perform at the Super Bowl
with Lady Gaga?
Marlee Matlin: It was spectacular and an honor to be
part of the festivities celebrating Super Bowl 50. I could feel the electricity
when Gaga entered, even during rehearsal, and it's not often you get the chance
to perform in front of an audience of over 100 million people. I was very
How did you get involved this year?
I was approached by the National Association for the Deaf,
the country's oldest civil rights organization for people who are deaf or hard
of hearing, as they have been coordinating the signers for the Super Bowl for
the last seven years. I've done advocacy work on behalf of the NAD, so it
seemed a natural fit they would ask me to do it this year, especially since it
was Super Bowl 50, a big milestone for the NFL.
She was so lovely. When she finished the national anthem, I
turned to her and signed, "I love you," and she signed it right back.
Later in her dressing room, she and I had a chance to speak, and I told her my
kids were big fans of hers. She couldn't have been nicer. I told her anytime
she wanted to learn to sign to give a call, and she said, "Yes!"
That pic of me and Jay Z was for Billy Eichner, because he
referred to me in one of his on street interviews as rapper, "Lil'
Marlee." It was hilarious. I didn't get to hang with Jay Z or Beyoncé,
even if they were just feet away from my dressing room. Their security was
Fans online were clearly bummed that they didn’t get to
see more of you on TV. Do you think networks should do a better job of showing
signers as well as singers during these kinds of events?
I wasn't surprised by the huge number of responses on social
media by fans -- thousands of deaf, hard of hearing and hearing alike -- who
were disappointed in the decision to not show me signing during the TV
broadcast. Interestingly, in the stadium, the video of me signing was visible
100 percent of the time -- picture in picture on the stadium’s Jumbotron -- but
for whatever reason, it was not visible during the TV broadcast. With 35
million deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S., their families and
friends, and a focus on diversity that's been a hot topic in the news, I was
genuinely surprised that the broadcast didn't feature me in a split screen or
square. But ultimately, that decision was not mine to make. I'm just so sorry
for the millions of people watching who would've benefited from seeing the
national anthem and “America the Beautiful” signed, just as it was visible in
You made your Broadway debut in Spring Awakening.
What was it like to work on such a production?
I never thought I'd ever be returning to the stage. The last
time I worked on stage was 30 years ago before I did my first film, Children
of a Lesser God. But everything came together this past summer, with a
hiatus from Switched at Birth, an opportunity to be on Broadway with a
fantastic production put together by Deaf West and director Michael Arden, and
my family and friends like Henry Winkler and Kristin Chenoweth saying,
"Go!" This was a fantastic group of actors -- deaf and hearing -- that
I worked with, and I'll never, ever forget it. I can't wait for the rest of the
country to see it when it tours in 2017!
What was the biggest challenge in pulling off this
For me, it was getting accustomed to realizing that every
night was like one take in a movie or TV show. I had to get over the fear of
forgetting my lines. But thank goodness the cast and crew were supportive, and
they kept telling me it's true for everyone. I loved how each night was
different -- the audience, the energy. It ended up being one of the best
decisions I've ever made.
You also played a mean air guitar!
My character, Frau Gabor, rocked it! I loved that scene
where I went crazy, dressed like a German woman of 1891 but rocking the house
like Eddie Van Halen, and I loved breaking down preconceived notions of what
people think a deaf person could and couldn't do! That's my style.
Is there any more theater in your near future?
For now, I'm happy to return to acting in front of the
camera and producing. Maybe sometime down the line, but it has to be the right
time, right project, just like it was for Spring Awakening.
Finally, it’s been 10 years since The West Wing
went off the air. What do you think Joey Lucas is up to today?
Vying for a job in the Fitzpatrick White House on [ABC’s] Scandal.
Watch highlights from Gaga's Super Bowl performance below: