Next Big Thing: ‘Eternals’ Star Lauren Ridloff on Becoming Marvel’s First Deaf Superhero – Hollywood Reporter

Being a superhero wasn’t part of Lauren Ridloff’s plan. The Eternals star wanted to be a children’s book author before an American Sign Language tutoring gig for the director of Broadway’s Children of a Lesser God led to a starring role in the show’s revival.

Theater, she says, is a “much more natural and inviting medium for deaf actors,” and the production came fully staffed with a toolbox ready to support its deaf and hearing artists. But coming off that critically praised performance in 2018, Ridloff wasn’t sure she wanted to keep acting. TV and movies weren’t a place she had seen herself represented growing up, instilling the idea that it couldn’t be part of her dream.

Yet, after scoring The Walking Dead as her first TV role, Ridloff found herself in demand. Now, she’s set to star in the Chloé Zhao-directed Marvel movie that will take her and deaf representation to marvelous new heights when it releases on Nov. 5.

During her transition from stage to screen, Ridloff says she’s felt like she wanted to prove she’s easy to work with, something that has led to her not always advocating for what she needed as an actor. But being on this massive Marvel production full of A-listers who “know exactly what they want” helped change her outlook.

Ahead of The Eternals’ anticipated release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Ridloff about her journey from stage to screen, how working on a blockbuster as an emerging actor changed her perception of self-advocacy on set, and why the Eternals cast wasn’t sure what to expect in the final cut.

Your journey to acting was a bit of being in the right place at the right time. Before that Broadway break-out, what were your acting ambitions and how have those changed?

My goal growing up was to write a book. That’s why I studied English and creative writing in college, and that is a big reason I started teaching. I wanted to write children’s books. I felt that the best way to understand how a child thinks in their mind is to be with them all day. So I started teaching because of that. I didn’t dream of acting. I didn’t want to pursue acting. I had some acting experience — your basic high school play, or I was a part of a performance group in college, a dance group. I just didn’t see enough people on the screen like myself. Every once in a while, like maybe Marlee Matlin, I saw on the big screen, and then years went by, and you would see somebody appear on one episode of a TV show or another episode there. Acting on Broadway came so completely as a surprise to me. It wasn’t part of my plan.

And, yes, absolutely, my goals have changed since I’ve gotten into acting. When I was on Broadway, my manager was interested in pursuing and looking for other projects, and I told him to then I didn’t know if I wanted to continue acting. Maybe this was just a one-time thing. I wasn’t even sure if it was my thing. But then, when I saw the theater audience full night after night, and I saw the lines forming at the back door, I realized that my classroom just got a lot bigger. I made a bigger impact here. It seems like I can act, and I enjoy the opportunity to fully immerse myself in a character, which is very connected to reading and writing. When you write, you need to drop into that character and how it represents itself on the page. So I felt like it was a very natural leap into acting because of that.

Children of a Lesser God is written around a deaf character and had staff, tools and policies to support your work in the show. As you pivoted to TV with series like The Walking Dead and now movies like The Eternals, are the same systems to support you available? If not, do you think it’s changing?

I was very fortunate when I came into Children of a Lesser God. The production team was already completely staffed with support elements for the deaf actors, the hearing actors and the director. They didn’t start with the idea that everybody involved in this production wouldn’t need support. It wasn’t just, ‘What does the deaf actor need.’ They thought everybody needed the support, so what do we need to share in this space with the deaf characters, the deaf storyline and the deaf actors. When I came into Children of a Lesser God, they had a consultant already set up. They had a very nice group of interpreters ready to be onstage and work with us, and they had a clear vision and strategy established to make this work and be successful.

So when I made that leap coming into TV, it was almost kind of like uncharted waters. I have learned thus far after the last few years that in TV and film, the needs are really unique to each production. It’s basically a bespoke situation, and I definitely feel like [things] continue to change. I think one of the main characteristics of TV and film is problem-solving. That just comes with the territory. People within production think, “OK, so what do we need to do in this situation?” One thing that I’ve learned as a deaf actor is that often those responsibilities fall on me. I have to provide them with the resources and the support. As a new actor in this field, I don’t always have the answers immediately because I didn’t have enough experience to predict what might be needed. I have learned it’s an endeavor for both myself and also the production team. It’s definitely been very positive.

In a New York Times interview, you said, “I got to set believing that I had to show how easy I am to work with as a deaf person. I was concerned about seeming too fragile.” Was this a feeling you’d had before The Eternals, and what was the moment you stopped being concerned about seeming that way on set?

My first TV experience was on The Walking Dead, and I had this mindset of showing them that it would be easy to work with a deaf actor. I felt that affected my work because I didn’t want to complain. I didn’t want to ask for too much. Of course, I was just grateful at that time that I had this role of that significance. Then when I got to The Eternals, I thought, “Wait, this is a Marvel production. This is massive. I’m working with A-listers here who are very accomplished, and they know exactly what they want.” So while I was working during the production, I developed relationships with my castmates, and I started to realize, wait a minute, “They all have their own needs, and they have their own specific requests.” At the end of the day, it seemed very similar to what I was going through. The common shared goal for all of us is that we want to be able to deliver. How do I deliver? I need these certain things in place. That moment of realization came to me while I was sitting in hair and makeup right next to Brian Tyree Henry, and he was talking about Black hair. I realized at that moment, he had very specific needs, and there was no shame in asking for what he needed so he could deliver. I think that was a huge moment for myself.

You’ve also shared that you and your Eternals co-star Angelina Jolie developed a laser pointer technique to help you hit cues on set. Were there any other tools you developed while filming? 

We definitely had the laser pointer, and it was a lifesaver, but also, we had an ASL consultant who was on set, who just happens to be my husband, Douglas Ridloff. He’s such a talented ASL consultant. He works on several other projects. He was very significant in providing support to the hearing actors who wanted to sign their dialogue or who wanted to have that chance to do improvisational things during the shoot. He was there to teach them how to adjust their signs for that, so it wasn’t my responsibility as a deaf actor to teach other actors their lines. I just had to work on my lines. I just had to deal with my work. That was a valuable resource. I feel that Hollywood is just starting to learn about what an ASL consultant is — or even that title in itself is changing because I’m not sure if that encompasses all of what their job is as an ASL consultant.

Sometimes they work with the director in video village just to observe how everything is framed on the screen. Whether it works, if there’s enough ASL actually onscreen to be able to share that with the director and say, “Maybe Lauren messed up her lines.” If not for that, the director wouldn’t know. The ASL consultant also informs different nuances of acting incorporated in American Sign Language, which helps the consultant and director match up with what the director’s vision might be. As a consultant, they can actually look back and see if the content is appropriate or culturally sensitive or authentic representation of the deaf character. That’s invaluable.

What was the audition process like for The Eternals and Makkari? 

I didn’t audition for the role of Makkari. I was tapped, you could say. I was called for a sit-down meeting with Chloé and [producer] Nate Moore about a new untitled Marvel project. During that meeting, they introduced The Eternals to me and tried to capture the story and the people that make up the Eternals. The conversation shifted to Makkari, who Makkari was in the comics and would be in the film, but it was all broad strokes. Chloé wanted to know who I was, so we spent some time talking about my upbringing, my interests, my passions. I told Chloé my passions: reading, running, the arts. They weren’t committing to anything specific during the meeting.

I wasn’t sure what was going on — it felt like just a conversation, more along the lines of, “Hey, what do you like? Who are you? We’re interested in you, maybe, for this film. Do you know anything about Eternals? Makkari? We have ideas, and here are our ideas.” I did not know much about Makkari or Jack Kirby’s Eternals before meeting with Chloé and Nate. After the meeting, I went down The Eternals rabbit hole and read as much as I could, both Jack Kirby’s version and Neil Gaiman’s version. The next time we connected, it was to offer me the role of Makkari!

How much did you get to collaborate with director Chloé Zhao on shaping your character onscreen? Were any changes made from script to final cut?

It was such an honor to work with Chloé Zhao. When I started working with her, I thought one of her talents truly is interacting with people who are not professional actors. She has a lot of patience and willingness to work just to get the best performance possible. We definitely talked about Makkari and her relationship with the other characters and how she interacts with the other characters, who she’s been with for thousands and thousands of years. So, whether she would use American Sign Language or some form of another sign language. We did talk about how Makkari’s powers work with her deafness. So, if there were any changes that were made from the script to the final cut, yes, definitely, there were a lot of changes. The final cut is so different. It’s so funny because the cast actually had a hard time before we actually saw the movie agreeing on what exactly the story was going to end up being.

The power of superhero metaphors is that they’re ultimately about the human experience. All of The Eternals characters will speak to some element of that. What human metaphors does your character speak to, and what other metaphors are you excited for people to see from your co-stars?

This is a big question. Let’s just talk globally about the movie. What makes this ensemble so unique is that we are not portrayed as perfect beings. We’re not. I think that what helps carry the story is that we show our vulnerabilities. We also show the power in our vulnerabilities. What happens when we work together with others? Our vulnerabilities then become our strengths. I was watching another person being interviewed a lot — Alok V. Menon. I was watching one of their interviews, and they were talking about how oftentimes we use not understanding as an excuse, as a reason for not showing our support or our love. It’s, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. So I’m sorry I can’t help you. I can’t do anything because I don’t understand. My hands are tied because I don’t understand.” The important thing to remember is just showing up and being kind. I think that with The Eternals, really that’s where it focuses, on that love. I’m excited about the audience seeing that and just seeing the different talents and skills coming together from a place of love, as opposed to misunderstanding.

With the increasing representation of deaf culture onscreen, movies and TV shows are leaning more into telling stories the way deaf people experience the world. Does The Eternals illustrate the world as your character experiences it — if you can speak to that without spoiling? 

I can’t speak to this, but I can talk about my experience on The Walking Dead. I play Connie, who is deaf. She’s a survivor of the apocalypse, and there are moments when they had to shift the whole experience to Connie’s POV, meaning that there’s no sound involved. It’s been very effective, and it seems like the audience reacts so positively to that when they are able to experience things from a deaf perspective or from that POV. I think that’s what I love so much about TV and film, even the stage. Growing up, I’ve been told that it’s not polite to stare, so I’m assuming it’s the same with other people, and if you see a person who has a disability, you’re told don’t stare. It’s not polite. But TV and film allow people that opportunity to just gawk and to watch and to learn and to find that commonality, that common ground to relate. I think that TV is such a powerful tool in finding those connections between communities.

Your Eternals role is an example that adapted characters don’t have to be carbon copies of their originals. There’s room for more interesting, inclusive choices during the adaptation process. Makkari is a woman of color whose deafness is a feature of her power. Why is she important in terms of representing deaf people onscreen?

I feel like seeing Makkari on the screen is, first of all, so important for the deaf community. We need a superhero that represents us, and as I said before, growing up, I didn’t dream of becoming an actor because I didn’t see enough of myself on the screen. I didn’t get to dream that big, so now, with The Eternals, I’m hoping that more people will be able to dream bigger. If I can do it, they can do it. What’s powerful about Makkari is being adapted from this hearing, blond-haired, cisgender, straight white man to myself, I think shows what we call Deaf Gain. In the deaf community, we talk a lot about Deaf Gain when there are times that we’re just lucky to be deaf.

I honestly wake up in the morning, and I don’t think about my deafness. I get up and I don’t think about, “What do I need to overcome today?” It’s just not how I function. So, you wake up and go through your day, and yes, there are moments when my deafness is in the way of life just because this world is established for an auditory system, an auditory experience. But there are times when I think, “Thank God I’m deaf.” For example, if I’m on an airplane and somebody walks by with a baby, and they’re crying, I’m like, “Sure, sit next to me. I’m not afraid. Have your child sit right next to me.” The baby might be crying. Doesn’t bother me. I can still sleep throughout the flight. You know I can have a great flight experience even with a crying baby next to me. So that’s what I call Deaf Gain. I think Makkari shows her Deaf Gain — when it really benefits her not to be able to hear.

You and your character aren’t just deaf. You’re Black and deaf, and within the deaf community, that can trickle down into things like language, like Black ASL (BASL). How would you say your race has affected your experience in Hollywood when it comes to roles and cultural nuances? 

That conversation about the intersection of being deaf, a person of color and a woman is definitely being discussed more than it ever has been, especially when it comes to Black Lives Matter. When that happened, I think it triggered that conversation. I’ve had this conversation with my sister so many times. I have told her that my experience navigating this world oftentimes has first been looked at through a deaf lens because that’s the first thing that people think of or recognize about me when I start interacting with them. Then all the other layers come into play. But now I’m finding that that’s shifted. Being in TV and film, it definitely vacillates. My deaf identity compared to my Black identity or my Latina identity, I think there’s this vacillation sometimes, and it just changes depending on the situation that I’m in or the story that I’m telling.

I was recently involved with a project that focused specifically on Black joy, and American Sign Language often comes from very white deaf environments. In my upbringing as a deaf student in the school system, I tended to be surrounded by other deaf white students. So my experience with Black American styling is pretty minimal. That is something that’s a new space for me right now. I do know that I am not the only one who is finding this to be so new. I’m interested in the interviews that I’ve been doing thus far. Oftentimes they come to me with a specific topic of deafness, not necessarily about my race. So I am allowing that to run its course just because people are curious about my deafness. What is that? What is that like? I’m also learning now that I can’t separate my deaf narrative from my other identities. So it’s when I’m speaking about my other identities that a more clear understanding of my deaf experience comes through.

To your point, working on a film isn’t just about the casting or the on-set process. It’s also about moments like this — the promotion of the project. What has the experience been like, and how prepared do you think the media has been for you as a deaf actress?

I started doing promotional work for Children of a Lesser God on Broadway and then also The Walking Dead, but now with The Eternals, for me, it’s just repeating exposure that’s so important. We’re all learning how to portray our narratives. I am learning how to speak it and describe it. During interviews, there’s so many people out there in the media that are learning how to interpret that. Just for example, within this interview in itself, this is amazing. It’s very specific, and I love that because I know that that comes from a place of experience. We have a shared commonality. I would love to be able to see more deaf people involved in the media. I would love to be interviewed by a deaf person. I would love to be able to meet deaf people on the red carpet. Going through this promotional work, I think it’s going to become so much more important. And I do have a team. I have many conversations with my team, with my manager, with my publicist and also with my interpreter. We all come together, and we talk about how we can present my story.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. It was conducted with the assistance of ASL interpreter Ramon Norrod.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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