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 excited.
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.
What was it like meeting Gaga?
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!”
Tell us about the picture you posted of you and Jay Z. Were you able to hang out with him and Beyoncé during the game?
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 intense!
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 the stadium.
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 musical?
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.