Marlee Matlin on 'Celebrity Apprentice,' Raising 4 Kids and Being a Role Model for the Deaf

Filed under: Celeb Parents, Celeb News & Interviews

Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin. Credit: WireImage

Marlee Matlin has always refused to let her deafness stand in her way.

The actress won an Oscar at the tender age of 21 for "Children of a Lesser God," and, since then, the 45-year-old has appeared in dozens of TV movies and series.

She's also no stranger to reality show competitions. In 2008, she was a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars," and Matlin currently is impressing Donald Trump on "Celebrity Apprentice."

Married since 1993 to police officer Kevin Grandalski, Matlin is the mother of four children -- Sara, 14, Brandon, 10, Tyler, 8, and Isabelle, 7.

ParentDish recently caught up with the star after she had just returned from Uganda where she had been giving out hearing aids to deaf children. An edited version of the email interview follows.

ParentDish: Did you feel like you had entered an insane asylum when you started "Celebrity Apprentice?"
Marlee Matlin:
Let's say that I found myself in an environment where people dealt with each other in a manner that was completely foreign to me. But that's what I liked about it. I might be deaf, but I found a way through the noise and chatter to do my best work with everyone on my team. I hope I completed the tasks we were given. It may have been crazy, but it was crazy good.

PD: Who surprised you most on the show?
Though I have known him for 20 years, Mr. Trump surprised me the most. I knew he was a smart business man, but he has the most acute ability to read people and get out of them what they would never really say. I pride myself on reading people's body language, being that I use my hands and face to communicate, but Mr. Trump seems to have the ability to read minds just based on what they say.

PD: Who have you become friendly with from the show?
I've kept in touch with several members of the cast -- John Rich, Meatloaf and all of the women. But I have to say because my husband and I consciously chose to live outside Hollywood, I haven't found that many occasions to hang out with the friends I've made on the show. But we do communicate by text and email. And, in my case, being deaf, that makes the most sense rather than talk on the phone.

PD: Did you ever feel like running your fingers through Donald Trump's hair to see if it was real?
I have run my fingers through his hair at Mr. Trump's request to prove that it is real. Wait, that sounds odd! Ha! In actuality, it was all very innocent and part of the show and I have to say his hair is soft like a baby's head of hair. His hair is really misunderstood by America! Ha!

PD: Going into it, were you confident you could win?
I came to play the game because I was confident I could win and prove that I was a formidable player when it comes to raising money for my charity. Whether I won or not was up to the other players each week, and, ultimately, up to Mr. Trump. But I for sure brought the attitude that I was deserving of being considered a winner.

PD: You won at Oscar when you were only 21. Did it go to your head?
No, my Oscar went to the top shelf of my desk. Seriously, I had the opposite issue when it came to winning Oscar. I was more than happy to embrace the win as recognition of my work, but some in the industry, certain critics, were not willing to give me the victory. Some said my win that night was a pity vote and that I shouldn't really have won because I was a deaf person playing a deaf role. Others said, because I didn't speak, I would never work in Hollywood again.

Well, firstly, if they knew the story or knew me, they would've known that the character I played was nowhere close to who I am in real life, so I was acting. And, secondly, speaking in a different way never stopped me before, so why should it stop me in Hollywood? But I let them get to me and it took me a couple of years to accept the fact that I was deserving of the Oscar and that I wasn't DOA -- deaf on arrival. It's been 25 years since my win, I'm still working and I'm still here.

PD: Is it ever daunting to be such a public figure for the deaf community?
I like to say that I'm a role model for myself and my family and just happen to be part of the larger deaf community. Unfortunately, as one person, I can't be everything for every person, just as anyone who is member of a minority community can't represent their entire community. I'm just an actor. And there are so many different types of deaf people and I can only represent who I am.

But I do hope example proves that deaf people can do anything and that the barriers they face are not in their ears, but in the minds of people around them who wish to handicap them. That's the best I can hope for.

PD: Do you think your kids are more sensitive to people who are different because of your deafness?
It's not just my deafness that makes my children understand the importance of diversity. My husband and I have made a conscious effort to help them understand that everyone deserves love and respect regardless of ability or difference. But I am glad they have the opportunity to have me as their mom so they can experience life from a different perspective and incorporate it into their lives as they grow up.

PD: You have four kids. Do they ever gang up against you?
How much time do you have? Ha! Sometimes I feel like Carol Brady, but with the kids from "Married with Children." It's crazy, and yet I wouldn't have it any other way. They may think that Mom is deaf and they can get away with saying things behind my back, but I've got eyes in the back of my head and catch them every time! Actually, it's because I'm Mom and I've been around a long time that I know all the tricks, having tried to pull the wool over my own mom and dad's eyes when I was young. I won't tell them that, even though it's 2011, their tricks are at least as old as I am and that I know every one of them. Nothing gets past me.

PD: You have such a busy career. How do you manage it all?
A good husband, a great set of in-laws and family members who pitch in when I have to travel. And a Red Bull -- diet, of course -- here and there.

PD: Are you a strict mother?
I'm a Virgo so I'm a very precise mother. My husband is more of the authoritarian in the house, more of the game/rule keeper. He's the one who isn't willing to bend as I might when my children give me a look that says "Mom!" But the good cop, bad cop routine works for us -- particularly because my husband is a cop!

PD: Does that get you out of speeding tickets?
I admit that I do show my husband's business card if and when I've been pulled over. I do that more when the officer wants to communicate with me and, seeing as most don't sign, I show it to them if they'd like to call my husband to tell him what's up. If I've been speeding, I certainly would say I deserve a ticket but I'd also like to think that every once in a while, one gets a stern warning. I think they can be every much as effective as a fine. At least that's what I keep trying to tell the officer who's pulled me over.

PD: In your book "I'll Scream Later," you write very honestly about your problems with drugs. How do you talk about that part of your life with your kids?
The same way I wrote about it in my book. First, I don't force it down their throats because I think a child has to have the emotional maturity to understand it before one can explain not to do drugs. But once they're old enough, I have no problem saying straight up: Mom did drugs, but Mom made a mistake and Mom hopes and would like you to not make the same mistake. It's important to communicate and important to create an environment where my kids can feel free to ask me questions about anything, as opposed to asking friends who might have fallen into the wrong places when it comes to things like drugs and alcohol.

PD: Where does your incredible drive come from?
My incredible drive comes from my Russian/Polish background. My grandparents and parents dealt with a lot of adversity, world wars, discrimination, immigration under tough circumstances and poverty. In my case, they grieved when they first found out I was deaf and they might have felt guilty or sorry for themselves, but they soon turned it all around. They decided that I was going to be raised just like any other child should be raised and that no one was going to treat me any differently simply because I was deaf. Some call it determination, others call it will, but my grandmother would've called it "chutzpah."

I was reminded of it just the other day when I met Helena Bonham Carter for the first time and the first thing she said to me was, "I met your parents and they came right up to me to say they were Marlee Matlin's parents." The fact that Helena remembered something from so many years ago just proved that my parents certainly have chutzpah. That's the drive they shared with me and which taught me to never take no for an answer.

PD: What's the scariest thing you've done?
I was tempted to say, deliver an Oscar speech at the young age of 21 to people I had looked up to and watched for years on movie screens, but in actuality that was more humbling that scary. I think in reality, I'd have to say dance live in front of 25 million people to music I hoped would match my feet on "Dancing with the Stars." But I did it. Now the next scary thing is walk into the board room in front of Mr. Trump with the hopes I don't hear the words "You're fired!"

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.