Nyle DiMarco on Telling His Own Stories and Why He's So Proud of 'Deaf U' (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
After first winning cycle 22 of America’s Next Top Model, becoming the first Deaf person to take the title of the long-running reality competition, Nyle DiMarco has continued to break barriers and forge a new path for Deaf storytelling on and off screen. In the years since, he’s won Dancing With the Stars, produced the Tony-nominated revival of Children of a Lesser God and returned to acting on series like Difficult People, Station 19 and This Close, which was created by and stars Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. Now, DiMarco is executive producing projects of his own, including a new scripted series loosely inspired by his own experiences and the Netflix docuseries Deaf U.
Following the lives of a tight-knit group of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students of all different races, classes and sexualities attending Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, Deaf U offers an unexpected and intimate look inside the Deaf community. In addition to being a huge leap forward for representation onscreen, the series also entertains, striking the tone of early, beloved seasons of The Real World, which set the original mold for the genre.
Now that the first season of Deaf U is streaming on Netflix, DiMarco took the time to answer a few of ET’s questions about this watershed moment for representation, pushing Deaf storytelling past the tipping point, and life after modeling.
ET: You previously said “the point of [Deaf U] is that deaf people are human.” From your perspective, how does this series achieve that?
Nyle DiMarco: The series showcases that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people navigate through life exactly the same way as hearing people do. They fall in love. They talk while driving. They face and address obstacles. They struggle. Unfortunately, there is a common trope in the entertainment industry that portrays Deaf characters as one-dimensional and the show offers a look at real people who definitely don’t fit that singular mold. People are complex, and the show really gets into that.
For me, even though I am not Deaf, I really enjoyed connecting with the cast of characters, who reminded me of so many people I know and my experiences of living in Washington, D.C. What do you enjoy most about watching the show?
I truly enjoyed being able to watch the TV without having to switch back and forth between the captions and the show. That experience alone for me was euphoric!
Are there any moments from this season that surprised you?
This is a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t watched yet, but I think what surprised me the most is that Alexa ultimately went back to her ex-boyfriend. After digesting, I went like… of course! Braxton is the perfect person for her; He makes every effort. Great job, Alexa!
Deaf U is a great watershed moment not only for Deaf storytelling, but for reality TV. How do you hope this show will impact the current television landscape?
Most, if not all, Deaf characters are portrayed telling a singular story about their Deaf struggle. I truly hope the show will set a precedent and help spark ideas to stretch Deaf experiences in film/tv shows. I’d love to see a sitcom with a lead Deaf character, Deaf legal dramas, or procedural shows, you name it! We’ve got plenty of stories to tell and amazing Deaf actors and creators to tell them.
Given movements like #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, what do you think it will take for the Deaf or disabled community to get its own movement or reckoning, particularly within Hollywood and the entertainment industry?
Deaf and Disability inclusion in Hollywood is still a work in progress and there is a huge need for diversity across the board. No one’s life experience is one size fits all and I think it would be extremely beneficial for networks and studios to welcome Deaf/Disabled influence into their content, writers' rooms, and behind the camera. The more people we have in the room and who are part of the process, the more we can grow in this industry. I’m hoping Deaf U might be a stepping stone in that direction and inspire more Deaf productions to be made.
We have to keep working! We’re going to keep pushing for our stories to be told, encouraging executives and studio heads to hire Deaf/Disabled crew, and creating our own productions when opportunities aren’t available to us. Deaf U had a 50 percent Deaf production crew, which is unprecedented, but we knew that we needed "deaf eyes" to tell the authentic stories we wanted for the series. I think that’s the movement, aiming for true inclusion at all times, and it starts with us.
I can’t say too much just yet, but I’m really excited about this project. It will be loosely based on my life as a Deaf man in a hearing world and I can’t wait to get back in front of the camera.
What are you most excited about when it comes to the series: starring in your own show or being able to produce your own stories?
I think I’m excited about leading a show! My acting debut was on Switched at Birth and ever since then I was hooked. There is something about acting that is very cathartic. After Switched at Birth, I made it a goal to be a series lead, and to have it now be my own series is the cherry on top!
Since you're friends with both and have appeared on This Close, have you turned to Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern for help or advice when it comes to developing your own projects?
Of course, I have! And I will be bothering them more than they’d probably like! This Close is Hollywood’s first-ever show that was created and written by Deaf people, I believe. They have enormous experience in this landscape and are great role models for me as a creator of how to navigate through this space.
Speaking of Josh and Shoshannah, This Close brought together so many great actors within the Deaf community, them, you, Marlee Matlin, CJ Jones, Millicent Simmonds. How close is the acting community -- and how important is it to have that support system?
It is extremely important to band together, especially when there’s emerging Deaf talent we can support. Deaf people are hyper-marginalized from mainstream representation, so even though there might not be a lot of us, any experiences we can share through a community support system helps one another navigate further. We are also entering a unique time where Hollywood is becoming more interested in sign language and Deaf stories and while this is uncharted for all of us, we need every support we can get to build each other up.
Considering you’re producing Deaf U and Audible, the upcoming immersive Netflix film about Maryland School for the Deaf high school athlete Amaree McKenstry-Hall, and developing your own series, is film and television where you see your career continuing to flourish? Is modeling and fashion completely behind you?
I mean, I would still love to pull a Chris Pine and star in an Armani fragrance campaign! Or Matthew McConaughey in an ad campaign for Lincoln driving a Cadillac all the while dispelling the myth that Deaf people can’t drive. Wouldn’t that be hilariously clever? In all seriousness, I do hope to see my career flourish in the film and television world. Deaf U only scratched the surface and I’d love to delve deeper into our multifaceted community.
It’s been five years since the first time you came to the ET office for an interview about your time on America’s Next Top Model and you taught us how to sign “top model” phrases. When you look at where you are today, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in that time and what are you most proud of accomplishing?
The biggest lesson I learned from that time is that Tyra Banks was right when she said on the first day of ANTM to never take "no" as an answer. I have internalized that for every obstacle I encountered in the industry. Her advice has helped me get this far, and I never would have imagined that as a Deaf person who was immediately thrust into a hearing world.
Deaf U is my latest project that I’m the proudest of. I cried and then laughed so hard when I first watched it. Deaf humor is sublime and it was the first time the show felt real and raw, so that hit me in the feels like… I can’t believe I made this. To finally feel represented was powerful.