Marlee Matlin Reflects on History-Making 1987 Oscar Win (Exclusive)

More than 30 years after winning the Best Actress Oscar for Children of a Lesser God, Marlee Matlin could be in an Oscar-winning project again with her new film CODA, which centers on the deaf experience.

CODA follows a teenage girl named Ruby (Emilia Jones), who is the child of two deaf adults (CODA for short) and the only hearing person in her family. Matlin plays Jackie, her mom. The film is already generating Oscar buzz, and Matlin shares with ET why that type of recognition means so much.

“Well, because so many people in this entertainment industry, you know, are keenly aware of the Oscars and the recognition that one gets from being nominated, it would be great to have this film being nominated for an Oscar,” she tells ET’s Rande Iaboni. “I think particularly for our community and the disability community, but also it would open doors to be able to create further employment for people like us.”

Matlin reflects on the unforgettable moment when she won the Best Actress Oscar for Children of a Lesser God in 1987.

“I had no idea where the time went, I mean, it’s flashed by so fast,” she says. “What’s most amazing to me, to be honest, is that I’m still here. I’m still here, I’m still working in Hollywood, probably one of the hardest careers that anyone could ever choose in their life, and I still think about those days of shooting Children of a Lesser God. It’s still very, very memorable for me because it was my first film, my first everything in Hollywood and it stuck with me ever since. I still talk about it with my kids or anyone who cares to listen to me. But it’s a very important film because it’s where it all began, where the door opened a crack and let me in and let us all in, and look where we are today.”

When it comes to her new film, 55-year-old Matlin says she can relate to the character Jackie to an extent given her own experience as a mother, though her husband, Kevin Grandalski, is not deaf. The couple has been married since 1993 and have four children together.

“I think it’s only natural for a mother to have that instinct that you want the best for your child and in real life with my four kids, they’re all hearing, they’re all CODAs,” she shares. “I mean, I’ve been the only deaf person in my family and everyone else in my family is hearing. My husband is hearing so I can’t really say that I identified much with Jackie except as a mother who has a mother attitude, mother behaviors, mother protection, that’s what I identified with Jackie.”

Matlin had a lot of fun shooting the film, including cursing in sign language and teaching sex education. The movie also portrays what dating is like in the deaf community for Jackie’s deaf teenage son, Leo (Daniel Durant), who goes on Tinder.

“It was a beautiful thing to do and to watch because I got it, I was in my culture,” she notes. “I mean, humor is so important in that culture and to be able to play it out on screen was absolutely perfect. The doctor scene, the making love scene, uh, making as much noise as we did and not care if anybody heard us or not, to use protection while having sex with the condom, I mean, you couldn’t top those scenes in the movie, you really couldn’t top them.”

“Actually, a lot of people who’ve never seen deaf people or seen American Sign Language will go, ‘Oh, really? They’re just like us,'” she adds. “They go on Tinder, they have sex, why not? I mean, we’re no different from anybody else except we can’t hear, basically.”

Later, Matlin gives her advice to her on-screen daughter, 19-year-old Jones, who’s gaining popularity in the business.

“Well, first of all, you have to have your head on your shoulders and in the right place,” she shares. “It’s a tough business, but, you know what, she’s a wonderful woman. It’s hard for me to say woman because when we shot the film, she was a girl, but now she’s a woman. It’s two years later … [she was] 17 years old, now she’s 19 years old.”

“She’s one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with, knowing at her age, you know, it might be new to her and you’re still learning,” she continues. “At lunch she was telling me that she never had a press junket like this before and I said, ‘Really? But you seem to be a pro at it,’ and I said, ‘You know what? The best I can tell you is to have fun, try to experience as much as you can and if it makes sense for you in terms of a role then go for it and if it doesn’t, then move on. As long as you’re having a good time, as long as you have your head on your shoulders and you have your feet firmly planted in the ground, just be humble and it’ll all be good.'”

CODA premieres in select theaters and on Apple TV+ on Aug. 13.

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