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Shoshannah Stern — Ready for Prime Time

I was reclined, watching this show on cable just to wallow in entertainment, taking it in for white noise or a lullaby. Then a captivating girl, deaf like me, appeared on screen, rebuking the clumsy advances of a high school boy and bringing looks that kill to uncharted brazenness.

The show airing was Showtime’s Weeds, featuring Shoshannah Stern as Megan, a deaf high schooler and a certifiable cutie. Picked up for a second season, Weeds chronicles the struggles of recently widowed mother Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) and her adolescent sons Silas and Shane (Hunter Parrish and Alexander Gould). Thrown into emotional and financial turbulence, Nancy starts dealing marijuana to make ends meet and soon finds herself in a social network quite different from her former life, with repercussions for the entire family.

The twist here is that Weeds is no inner-city tale. Opening credits show the fictitious city of Agrestic, a suburbia generica populated by conformists—morning commuters pulling out identical black SUVs from their driveways onto a winding street of McMansions, white oxfords-and-black-tie types sipping lattes, and trophy housewives jogging with iPods latched to their waistbands. In short, Agrestic is one of those planned townships that suffocate.

Megan, as played by Stern, is the girlfriend of Silas, the elder son, who at the same time contends with the loss of his father and the small-but-magnified hazards of high school and puberty. In episode three, he meets Megan, who paints him for an idiot in more ways than one. Over the remainder of the season they come to better terms and fumble with a relationship, battling hormones, communication issues and the permeation of marijuana. As Megan, Stern delivers her lines in several ways: through expression, via pager or instant messaging, in sign language and with her voice.

Along with Stern, Parker, Parrish and Gould, the superior cast includes Elizabeth Perkins as Celia Hodes, Nancy’s friend/nemesis, and Kevin Nealon as Doug Wilson, Nancy’s perpetually stoned accountant and business advisor.

I was hooked. I ate up the show, watching it until the season closed and waiting in eager anticipation for the next chapter.

Like Megan, Stern herself is a compelling character, and she is no stranger to acting. She got her break with a guest role on the cable show Off Centre and subsequently appeared as a regular on the short-lived network TV show Threat Matrix. Additionally, she joined Matthew Broderick for a cameo in the feature film The Last Shot and has garnered guest roles on Providence, Boston Public, ER and The Division, in which she was excited to act opposite Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actress to have won an Oscar. This fall Stern will also appear on the CBS pilot Jericho, making her the only deaf actor in American TV history to simultaneously carry regular roles on two prime-time shows.

A long way to Hollywood for a girl from…well, okay, only 357 miles away. But her route was as roundabout as travel can go: Stern grew up in Fremont, California, where she attended the California School for the Deaf and was a mainstay in the school theater, then defected to the East Coast (Washington DC) to attend Gallaudet University, the world’s only four-year liberal arts university for the deaf, where she was critically celebrated on stage.

As it turned out, that stage was her launchpad. Straight from the Gallaudet University campus, she ascended to the screen.

Recently, Ms. Stern sat down with me in Los Angeles to recount for ABILITY Magazine her meteoric path from suburban Fremont to Hollywood.
Glenn Lockhart: You took the Hollywood plunge by leaving college weeks away from graduation. How did you decide to take that risk?

Shoshannah Stern: I left halfway through the spring semester of my senior year, approximately five years ago. Over winter break, I got an opportunity from Warner Brothers to audition for a guest-starring role on one of their sitcoms. I’d knocked on doors when I’d gone to theater school in Los Angeles the summer of my junior year, trying to find an agent and submitting headshots, but nobody would see me and I knew it was virtually impossible to get an audition if you didn’t have an agent. So when the Warner Brothers opportunity came up, I wanted to just go and get the experience of a professional audition under my belt. I never thought I’d even get called back, much less book the role.

After the role filmed, I thought that was it—a one shot thing. So I went back to college. But then an agent heard about my work on the show and flew me back to book me. Then a couple weeks later I had another audition lined up, so I flew back for that. At that point I just commited myself to going full-steam into acting. So I moved to Los Angeles in time to shoot my second television show.

GL: You eventually got your degree, but weren’t you busy with one or two pilots in the duration?

SS: I finished my degree a year ago, in English with a focus on writing and literature. I finished by correspondence thanks to a special agreement with Gallaudet University, for which I’ll never stop being grateful. I had some down time because my show, Threat Matrix, had just ended and pilot season was slow for me that year. So I decided to use the time to my advantage. The timing was really perfect, because I think not even a month after I finished, the audition came for Weeds.

GL: How did it go when you read for the character?

SS: From the moment I got the materials, I just thought to myself, “Oh my God, oh my God, I just HAVE to do this.” I showed my brother, who was staying with me at the time, and he was like, “Are you kidding? This role is yours.” But I’m really superstitious, so I thought he’d upset the cosmos by saying that, and I got really angry with him for potentially jinxing me.

I loved the audition because much of the time in the scene I got to fill out the character without even saying anything. Most of the time I get auditions for deaf characters where the scene has them communicating in really convoluted ways, like reading lips from across the room when the other person’s back is turned or having other people parrot what they say. I loved that I got to portray Megan without saying anything. It brought so much more depth to her character, because the scene was focused on who she was and not how she communicated.

I got called back on the spot, which is always such a great feeling. Then my agent told me I was the only one they called back.

GL: How do you like Megan? She’s a firecracker, and a huge dimension of her character is nonverbal.

SS: I love Megan. She has so much spunk and personality, and she doesn’t take anything lying down. She has so much confidence and really knows who she is, even though she’s so young. I love that she’s smart and unafraid to make fun of herself.

GL: Does anything in the character remind you of yourself at that age?

SS: I grew up in the suburbs of Fremont, in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is kind of reminiscent of Agrestic. I was there when I was in high school, and Megan is in high school now, so I can totally relate to how she feels growing up in a place like that, safe and reasonably well-to-do, but where there’s nothing around except a Starbucks on every corner. It can sometimes feel claustrophobic—you just want to go crazy and bounce off the walls.

GL: (laughs) That’s probably why you live in a big city now. It’s about stimulation for some people. What was it like to work on the first season of the show?

SS: It was amazing. I went to the table read, and there were all these great actors—I couldn’t believe I was sitting there with them. I felt like I was Shoshannah Squarepants, just soaking up everything I could from them like a huge human sponge. And it’s not just the actors—don’t even get me started on the writers.

GL: Okay, so you love the writers, but they probably don’t have the intimate understanding of living deaf that you do. How much input do you have about Megan’s character—what happens to her, how it happens, how she communicates, etc.?

SS: I’m an actor, not a writer. I’d be pretty annoyed if the writers tried to come in and hang over my shoulder telling me how to act, so I don’t go in and tell them how to write. I feel I should defer to the writers and the directors because they’re the ones who have the complete vision. They see things through from the beginning to the end. I’m responsible for one small part, so my scope is much more limited than theirs.

With that said, the writers and directors really make themselves available to me. If I ever have questions or suggestions, they’re always open to discussing them. I think Megan communicates in the most organic way I’ve seen. In the beginning, when she had just met Silas, she talked with him a lot via pagers and two-way messaging because she wasn’t comfortable enough with him yet to speak. As you see their relationship becoming closer and more serious, she gains confidence, so she speaks more and more. I think that adds so much depth to their connection.

If Megan communicated the same way I do, since I basically sign almost all the time in my personal life, I wouldn’t be acting. I’d just be playing myself, which would be much less interesting.

GL: What have you heard from deaf people who have seen you on the show?

SS: Most of them just want to see more of Megan. They love that a show of that caliber has a deaf character, and they just want to know more about her and what makes her tick. They’re curious about how she feels about apparently being the only deaf person in Agrestic. A lot of my friends have ordered Showtime just because of the show. In general, though, I think the show has kind of flown under the radar with the deaf community.

GL: Has you had people recognize you when you’re out in public?

SS: That happens at least once a week, believe it or not. I think it’s kind of hard to miss me because I’m always signing. People say they love the show and ask if Megan’s coming back. I had one woman act out the spray-painting scene I did in the first episode I was in, and that was a keeper. They really like how Megan doesn’t take any crap—that’s the response I get the most. I’ve also had people ask me if I am deaf in real life! That makes me laugh, but I think I’d probably ask the same question if I didn’t know anything about deaf people myself.

GL: What response have you gotten from your family about the career path you’ve chosen?

SS: They’ve been unbelievably supportive. I think I’ve wanted to be an actress since the day I was born. I even asked my parents for an agent for my seventh birthday! I have no idea how I knew what an agent was, but I guess I’d figured out that I needed one. Of course they said no, so I had one of my well-practiced tantrums. That scene repeated itself in some way basically every year, but they just wanted me to have a normal life and have the time to make a good decision on my own. They really did the right thing for me.

I have a feeling that if I’d started when I was younger, it would probably have been too overwhelming for me. Plus, my parents were afraid about the ups and downs of the business. But when I made up my mind about moving to Los Angeles they were nothing but supportive. My older sister has been working in the art world in London for the past five years, writing about art and now creating art of her own, so there’s a lot of similarity and support there.

GL: Your deafness is hereditary, going back several generations, but hearing loss comes in many shades, doesn’t it? You’ve leapt from an environment surrounded by sign language to the mainstream of Los Angeles, where networking and first impressions are survival tools for any actor. Have you had to make any adjustments?

SS: Well, this is kind of a funny story. I am fourth-
generation deaf, which means everyone in my immediate family is deaf. So I grew up always having 100 percent accessibility to language and communication, which was wonderful and something so many deaf people don’t have. On the flip side, even though I had some hearing, I wore hearing aids only when watching movies, because hearing was really more of a distraction than a benefit for me. I had no reason to hear since everyone in my world was deaf and I went to a university for the deaf.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I decided I should probably start talking to people. I’d had some speech training when I was a kid but I hadn’t really kept up with it. So I kind of re-trained myself by watching movies and reading the captions. I could match the words to the sound I picked up, and then rewind to hear again how the word was spoken. Now I always have an interpreter on set with me, but I’m basically okay with one-on-one conversations without an interpreter. I’m grateful for that because situations come up where, unfortunately, an interpreter can’t always be present.

GL: Just as your deafness is an inheritance, so is your Jewish heritage. Your last name, Stern is Hebrew for star, which I hope will prove prophetic. What about the rest of your name—any story of intrigue there?

SS: Shoshannah means rose in Hebrew. My younger brother and older sister also have Hebrew names. We always had two birth certificates, one Hebrew and one American. I decided to adopt my Hebrew name when I was eleven. I just felt a deeper connection to it. My parents were completely supportive—in fact, they wished they had gone with the Hebrew name from the get-go. They’re both children of Holocaust survivors, and I think there might have been a subconscious need to assimilate by giving their children non-Hebrew names.

My middle name is Oppenheimer, which is the maiden name of my paternal grandmother. She was born in Berlin and lived through the Holocaust, and the deafness in my family extends past her, to her husband’s mother, my great-grandmother.

GL: Deafness must add another layer to the immigration experience. How did your family come to America? How did they get established—communicating, finding employment, getting an education?....Continued in ABILITY Magazine

by Glenn Lockhart

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Brian Wilson issue include Letter from the Editor Health and Happiness; Congressman Etheridge — Volunteerism for All; Headlines — AT&T, A&E, Accessible Tent, Fibromyalgia; Humor Global Warming; Employment — The ADA and People with Hearing Loss; Google — New Accessible Search; Freedom For Life — Accessible Adventure; Staglin Family Vineyard — Good Wine & Good Causes; Schizoaffective Disorder — What You Need to Know; Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home; Book Excerpt — You're Stronger Than You Think; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from the Brian Wilson issue: (2006)

Brian WilsonA Powerful Interview

Dr. Ernst Katz — 70th Anniversary of the Jr. Philharmonic

Aloha— Hawaii's first ABILITY House

Shoshannah Stern — Ready for Prime Time

Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home

Book Excerpt — You're Stronger Than You Think

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