Seago, who has been deaf since birth, stars in the German film "Beyond Silence" ("Jenseits der Stille"), which earned an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film this past year. The movie follows 10 years in the life of a girl named Lara, who has deaf parents. Seago and French actress Emmanuelle Laborit, who also is deaf, play the father and mother.
Most families struggle with communication and avoid the label "dysfunctional." Children constantly tell their parents, "You don't understand me." Lara's parents literally live in a different world a world without sound. They don't hear the thunder that scares their daughter, the rustling of flags in the wind, the music Lara loves passionately.
Plus, the parents are dependent upon their 8-year-old. Since translators are not common in Germany, Lara must be the voice and ears of her parents at the bank, on the phone and at parent-teacher conferences. She even translates the dialogue of romantic movies on television for her mother.
The filmmakers also had to deal with the challenge of making a movie with an international cast that is deaf. All the actors needed to learn German Sign Language (DGS). Seago uses American Sign Language; Laborit uses Langue des Signes Francaise (LSF). Director Caroline Link had to give all instructions in German and English since neither of the actors' interpreters spoke German.
In 1994, almost 9 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 20 million people, were hearing impaired. About 29 percent of those older than 65 had a hearing impairment. Deafness the inability to hear and understand any speech affected more than 550,000 persons in the United States.
Seago was in town recently for an educational conference and screening at Gallaudet University, the world's only university for deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students. The interview required a translator, but Seago requested that I look at him when asking questions or listening to a response.
That part was easy. I couldn't keep my eyes off him. Seago was animated, articulate and funny. "I can eat and talk at the same time," he said before taking a bite from his sandwich. He shared stories about attending the Oscars, showed ways in which the deaf can "whisper" and displayed his displeasure about hearing actors who play deaf roles.
Q. Do you have hearing parents?
A. I was a little disappointed. I thought maybe they would be deaf. That is a deaf cultural thing. Deaf parents do tend to want deaf children.
When I was with my girlfriend, my current wife but before I married her, we talked about having children. We talked about whether we preferred a boy or a girl, or one of each. I said something about having children who were deaf because many of the children in my family have been deaf or have hearing losses. And when we found out that the children were not deaf, I was awe-struck. I had never even thought about the possibility.
Q. Did you see similarities between your life as a child and Lara's life in the movie?
Q. Did you have a passion as a child like Lara did for music that your parents didn't understand? Or vice versa, did your parents have something in their lives that you couldn't understand because of your deafness?
My oldest son has a passion for Magic Trading Cards. They are not cards for a magician. It has to do with sorcery and all of that. I have no idea what that is all about or what the rules are or any of that stuff. He collects them, buys and trades them. You also play a game with them. He tried to explain it to me. It went right over my head. I could not figure it out at all. But I don't think it has anything to do with hearing it. I just couldn't understand it.
Q. Did director Caroline Link accept any suggestions from you during the filming?
A scene in the movie shows that Martin didn't want his daughter to play music in the house. Is that common in a deaf home or is that just one way of developing Martin's character?
However, his fear of losing his daughter to the outside world that is a very common universal feeling. We all have that fear of losing our hearing children out there, that they won't come back home, that they won't stay in the deaf world. I have that with my two boys. When they grow up, they will probably marry hearing girls. Will their wives know Sign language? Will my grandchildren know Sign language? Will I be left out?
Q. There aren't a lot of famous deaf actors and actresses. What inspired you to get into acting?
My major was psychology. I realized there was a lot more psychological good that I could provide to deaf children and deaf people by performing onstage. And I have found that to be true. But I don't earn as much as the psychologists . . .
Q. The production notes mention a situation when the interpreter went to get a cup of coffee, the actors weren't looking at the director and no one knew the camera was rolling. Can you remember any other such moments of miscommunication that occurred during the five weeks of filming?
There were some frustrations when Caroline, the director, was speaking to the cinematographer or speaking with someone else, and they were speaking in German. And I would be sitting and waiting for instructions. I would ask the interpreter to tell me what they were talking about. And the interpreter would say, "It's in German." And I'd keep forgetting that when I saw people talking around me that it was German. Hearing people from all around the world look the same. No matter what language they're speaking, it all looks the same to me.
Q. The movie pointed out that there weren't a lot of translators or interpreters in Germany. Is that still true?
Germany has had a long history of oral oppression, forcing deaf people to lip read and speak, and they are educated through the oral method and forbidden to use Sign language. So now they are starting to break away from that and starting to sign in public. It used to be that if they signed, they signed in a very hidden manner. Or they would not sign in public. They would try to get by and talk to one another. They didn't want hearing people to know they were deaf out in public. And a lot of that has to do with Hitler, who wanted to kill all imperfect people. Finally, now, they are starting to be more comfortable signing in public, fighting against the school system to allow Sign language to be used in the classroom, and making moves in that direction.
Q. I've watched deaf people at the train station hold conversations across the room. With Sign language, you don't have to yell. You can't whisper, of course.
Q. Does it bother you that some deaf roles are played by hearing actors? Stacy Edwards and "In the Company of Men" comes to mind.
Q. To play devil's advocate, what if you were casting a movie and the deaf actors weren't that good?
Q. When Marlee Matlin won her Oscar for "Children of a Lesser God," she spoke. Apparently that bothered some members of the deaf community. Your thoughts?
The other part is that it was her decision to talk instead of signing. She was trying to make a professional career move. She was trying to let Hollywood know that she could do something else other than sign. And she wanted Hollywood to think of her as an actress first and a deaf person second. I couldn't do that. I want Hollywood to think of me as a deaf person first. That's who I am. I can't make myself be something else. Of course, I would like to play a hearing character that has nothing to do with deafness if there was a way to portray that character reasonably.
Q. Could you give an example?
Q. With the film getting an Oscar nomination, have you seen more scripts come your way?
Q. Does a deaf film community exist? Are screenwriters out there who are trying to break in?
Q. Are you excited about the opportunity to show the film at Gallaudet?
Q. How did you meet your wife? Did she sign or did she take it up after you started your relationship?
Q. Why was she taking the class?
Q. Did you have a good time at the Oscars?
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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