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Favorite movies:   "An Italian movie that I've never, never forgotten – 'Passione d'amore' (1981), a wonderful film. It's about a soldier who falls in love with the homely woman. And all of [Japanese director Akira] Kurosawa's films are terrific."

Favorite actors: "Robert Duvall. He's a great actor. Emma Thompson, I like her work. Sean Connery in the last 10 years."

Q&A with Howie Seago

Out of Deafness

By Matt Slovick Staff
Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Howie Seago in 'Beyond Silence'
Howie Seago, left, plays Martin, the deaf father of Lara (Sylvie Testud) in "Beyond Silence." (Miramax)

About Howie
Birthdate: Dec. 15, 1953
Home Town: Takoma, Wash.
Current Home: Seattle
College: California State University Northridge
Marital Status: Wife, Lori
Children: Ryan, 12; Kyle, 8
TV Appearances: "Hunter" 1984; "The Equalizer" 1985; "Star Trek: The Next Generation" 1987

Howie Seago is a bilingual American actor. His speaks both English and Sign.

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?
My mother is hearing; my father is hard of hearing. And I have two brothers with hearing losses. My older brother is hard of hearing. My younger brother is deaf. I have two sisters who both can hear. My four uncles all have hearing losses. My father's side of the family has a genetic link for hearing loss.

Beyond Silence
Emmanuelle Laborit plays Kai and Sylvie Testud is her daughter, Lara, in "Beyond Silence." (Miramax)
Q. But both your sons can hear, as can your wife?
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?
Oh yes, there were a lot of similarities as a deaf father having hearing children. My own relationship with my father is very similar to the one in the movie. It's a little bit different because my father is hard of hearing. But we still have a very superficial relationship, the same way that the movie showed. I'm closer to my mother and the movie showed the same relationship of the deaf individual being closer to her mother.

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 sister played the guitar. And I watched her do that and enjoyed watching her perform. Sometimes I would feel the vibrations of the guitar by placing my hand on it. I just thought of it as that's their thing. My family is a very loving family, make no mistake about it. We're a very loving and accepting family on equal basis. My two boys like music, too. And I don't hold that against them. That's a good thing.

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?
Yes, a few. But it was already pretty well written before we started shooting. She sent me the first script, and I read it, and they did make some changes. But I can't remember if I made that many changes. There were a few things. I can't think of any examples.

Q. 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?
I can't really speak for all deaf houses. I'm sure it varies greatly. Some hearing families don't want grunge music played in the house, something like that. There's all kind of musical tastes. I do think that many deaf people feel somewhat removed when the hearing child is involved with something that is musically oriented. They really never totally, 100 percent understand it. I do understand the joy that they get from music. But to feel to same passion or emotion from it, no, to me it's, "What's the big deal?" But to forbid it from being played in the house, I don't think that would happen nowadays. Martin may be an extreme case.

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 mother. She directed me in a church play where I did a pantomime and she had someone do a voiceover. That got me started. I learned that I could actually perform on a stage. Also, when I went to college, I had a roommate who asked me to be in a play. At that time I did not know Sign language very well. I had been raised orally. I was an oral deaf person. And I told my roommate that I couldn't possibly sign onstage. And he explained to me that I would just learn the signs for the lines of the play and I would perform that same thing every night so I would be able to do that. I was a real exhibitionist, so I thought, "Why not?"

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?
The woman who played my wife in the film is deaf and is from France. She had her own French interpreter. I had an American Sign Language interpreter. Often they would find themselves competing for space inside the house or when we were filming a very tight shot.

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?
Yes, it is true. Not as many as they need, and not as well trained as what we have in America. They do have a few who are skilled interpreters. They are working on that situation now and trying to expand for the entire country. Here we have a lot more.

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.
Oh, yes, you can. You can sign under the table. If I have a coat on, I can hide behind my coat. Deaf families might have their own private sign. I don't want to give away all the secrets.

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.
Yes [pounding the table], yes [pounding the table again]. It definitely irritates me, wrangles me, wrangles my soul and the souls of all deaf people. That's why I really applaud the producer and co-producer and director of this film for using deaf actors for these roles. Hollywood still doesn't get it.

Q. To play devil's advocate, what if you were casting a movie and the deaf actors weren't that good?
I would go find another one.

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 camera cut off her interpreter. Many deaf people felt they were left out. We couldn't understand what she was saying. The skill of lip-reading is very difficult. And so, she planned to have the interpreter right next to her, but the camera came in so close on her. Of course, they wanted to look at the pretty lady. They don't care about this male interpreter standing next to her, so they did a close-up. That was one issue. It's really not fair to blame her totally for that.

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?
In the movie "Suspect," I almost got that role, but then they offered it to Liam Neeson. The suspect didn't have to talk. So, perfect. They could have made arrangements so when I had to react to things I was suppose to hear, I would have set up cues. So if I had to respond to something that I heard, I could have had someone there so that I would look in the right direction. [This was done when Seago appeared on an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," using a system of visual cues.]

Q. With the film getting an Oscar nomination, have you seen more scripts come your way?
No. None. I think Hollywood thinks I'm still a German deaf person . . . perhaps they'll find out that I actually am an American person living in Seattle.

Q. Does a deaf film community exist? Are screenwriters out there who are trying to break in?
I have several friends who are writing, trying to get in. It's very hard. Hollywood is a city in itself. It's very hard for any person, period. For a deaf person, it's even worse. But I'm very confident that one day there will be a great screenplay . . . a script written by a deaf person or using deaf characters and listening to the deaf people that are involved. There is a wealth of human interest stories within the deaf world, a wealth of them. For example, what happened [in 1988] with the deaf president, when Gallaudet University had the protest. They wanted to select a hearing president and the deaf students revolted and closed down the campus. What happened to that? Where's the story? They should make a movie about that.

Q. Are you excited about the opportunity to show the film at Gallaudet?
I'm very excited about the show tonight. These are my people – the deaf community. This movie is not really a deaf movie per say, it is really about the hearing girl. But it is a story about the child of deaf adults, what we call CODAs, which means Child Of Deaf Adults.

Q. How did you meet your wife? Did she sign or did she take it up after you started your relationship?
I met her in a Sign language class. I was a teacher's aide. And one day she wore a dress to class and I complimented her on her dress. And she became very embarrassed and immediately left the classroom. I didn't know quite what was going on so I asked her good friend what was wrong. And her best friend told me that she had a crush on me.

Q. Why was she taking the class?
Just interest. She saw Sign interpreters on the campus of the college I met her – California State University Northridge. And she saw an interpreter in a classroom and thought, "That would be a nice language to learn." . . . Many hearing Sign language students do try to gain a romantic relationship with a deaf person in order to improve their Sign language skills, and then once they are good enough or get certified, they dump the deaf person. It happens!

Q. Did you have a good time at the Oscars?
Yes. It was a real gratifying experience. Just being nominated for a Oscar was very satisfying. Just making the film in the first place was incredible. This was icing on the cake.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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