'Switched at Birth' star Constance Marie on sign language boot camp, Marlee Matlin, and more
"Heck yeah!" she exclaims. "Who wants to cry for five and a half hours for pretend reasons? You know what, it's kind of cathartic, but after a while, you're like, 'Enough already.' I suppose it's not that much easier, because the pressure to be funny can be stressful too, because you have to nail every joke."
She's working an entirely different set of acting muscles these days -- literally. As the mother of a deaf daughter, Regina is the bridge between the Deaf world and the hearing world, meaning Marie frequently finds her character signing through an entire scene to translate what's being said.
"I ended up kind of injuring my arm a little bit because I was trying to push it to far," says Marie, who didn't know any sign language before she was cast in the pilot, though her character is fluent and has been signing for over a decade. "It's a workman's comp thing! Sign language is 90 percent one arm, so I just practiced and practiced like a dancer would. Of course, I was a dancer 20 years ago. My arms and tendons and muscles are a little bit older now. I lost feeling in my last two fingers. I was sitting there with heat packs on my arm and ice packs on my arm."
She laughs, adding, "My arm is its own character, and it's very high-maintenance."
From watching the show, you'd never guess that Marie isn't a long-time sign language aficionado, as some of the other hard-of-hearing actors on the show are. In one memorable scene, Regina was fighting with her friend Melody -- played by Marlee Matlin, who Marie calls "the most famous deaf actress ever in the world!" Neither woman spoke a word during the exchange; they only signed. Still, as we watched, we could feel the tension building and detect changes in emotions simply through their movement.
"She's wonderfully supportive," Marie says of Matlin. "I couldn't ask for a better 'best friend.' She was really helpful and never made me feel uncomfortable. I think the deaf actors on the show really appreciated how hard I was trying. That scene with Marlee, I was thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm actually understanding what she's signing!' An actor is her own worst critic, but I watched that scene and thought it looked good. It was really cool. Marlee looks beautiful when she signs. She does like a full body sign. I don't know what she's saying half the time, but it's very sexy."
The producers of the show have rightfully insisted on an incredible attention to detail when it comes to the respect and care paid to represent the Deaf community accurately. "Any time there's signing, we have a master certified sign language coach there, even for Katie Leclerc and Sean Berdy," Marie says, referring to the hard-of-hearing actors who play her daughter, Daphne, and Daphne's best friend. "Because it's like a dialect. Katie signs different from Sean Berdy, and he signs different from Marlee Matlin. The coach has to make sure that all our dialects match, the same way if we were all doing a show set in Texas, we'd all have the same dialects. I love our coach. His name is Anthony Natale, and he listens to me complain. 'Anthony, my arm hurts,' 'Anthony, I'm exhausted.'"
The switcheroo premise of the show initially may seem soapy or melodramatic, but it's Marie's character who grounds the situation. After discovering that her daughter isn't her biological baby -- and that she's missed out on 15 years of her bio-daughter's life -- Regina remains impressively calm, maintaining her own dignity and values steadfastly throughout the ordeal.
"It's interesting, because my daughter was an IVF baby, so I literally thought to myself, 'What if I got the wrong baby?'" Marie says. "What if it was the wrong tube?It really calls into question that nature vs. nurture thing. What would you do if you found out that a child that you have raised for so long is not yours? I mean, isn't that child yours? When do the do-overs and the take-backs stop? I wouldn't rush to switch my child back, that's for sure."
Marie has always been candid about her fertility issues, and now she documents the ups and downs of motherhood on her official blog. She admits that her "Switched at Birth" schedule was more demanding than her previous sitcom work, but she says that she avoided bringing her daughter, Luna Marie, to set -- for good reason. "As far as she's concerned, mama works in the makeup and hair room. She's still so young, she wouldn't understand why I'm pretending to cry. It might freak her out, so I just let her think that I work in the makeup and hair trailer. She helps hand them rollers. She did my hair the other day! She was so proud of her work."