When ABC Family's SWITCHED AT BIRTH premiered on June 6th, both the show and actress Katie LeClerc were a hit with fans. Katie stars as "Daphne Vasquez," a deaf teen who discovers she was switched at birth. Daphne went home to a single, working-class mother (Constance Marie) and loses her hearing due to meningitis at an early age. "Bay Kennish" (Vanessa Marano) ended up living the life of a girl from a wealthy family (Lea Thompson, D.W. Moffett and Lucas Grabeel).
As the two families come together to confront the discovery, there is nothing but thrilling drama. Katie is fluent in American Sign Language, and while she is not deaf, she is “hard of hearing” from Ménière's disease (a disorder of the inner ear that can affect hearing and balance to a varying degree, characterized by episodes of vertigo and progressive hearing loss, usually in one ear). She’s a true inspiration with a genuinely interesting story. Read our exclusive new interview below:
Katie LeClerc: Hi Kevin!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Hi Katie! i Katie! Thank you so much for taking the time this afternoon, we love your show!
Katie LeClerc: Oh! That's fantastic, thank you, it's my pleasure!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: We're looking forward to getting to know more about you and about SWITCHED. So let's jump right in!
Katie LeClerc: Do it!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How did you get started in the entertainment business?
Katie LeClerc: I was Annie in junior high. That was the first thing I ever did, and I caught the acting bug—got addicted to that audience applause. Then I did theater in high school, and (my family) moved to San Diego in high school, and I told my mom, “Los Angeles isn't too far, let's do this!” And we did. I have such wonderful parents. I caught the bug, and they did too.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What has been your most challenging role?
Katie LeClerc: Oh my goodness, the most challenging role I've ever had is the role of Daphne! [Laughter]
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I thought you may say that!
Katie LeClerc: I don't think I've ever been challenged this much at all. It's really exciting to come into work every day and do all the stuff an actor always has to do—hit their marks, find the cameras, remember their lines—and then to do it while thinking in both English and in American Sign Language... and then putting the accents on top of it! I really feel like my professional career has reached another level. The great thing is that we've all become very close on set, and everyone is so amazing—including Constance, by the way, who is learning sign language!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Sounds like this is also the most fun you've ever had?
Katie LeClerc: Yes, I think so. I think so. I come to work and we laugh every day. Every single day. Then we'll cry—in a scene—and then we'll go back and forth. It's fun, and I think the challenge is fun. Part the fun is also being on a show that, hopefully, is going to be really successful!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How long ago were you in high school, and how similar was your experience to Daphne's?
Katie LeClerc: I graduated from high school in 2005. When I was in junior high I was very... picked on. I was bullied, and life was pretty difficult there for awhile. That's actually the reason we moved from Colorado to San Diego. It was to get away from these girls that were just... so terrible.
I think Daphne has been picked on quite a bit, and I think that because of her amazing mother, and the values her mother instilled in her, she rose above it, and she became a better person. I hope I can be as strong as Daphne was—I feel very close to Daphne. My hearing loss is not as progressed at Daphne's is, I don't think, and Daphne has had other challenges that I have no experience with. But I feel like there are a lot of similarities between us.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What would you say is the biggest difference between you and Daphne? Besides, I assume, being switched?
Katie LeClerc: You stole my answer! [Laughter] Probably the biggest difference is that Daphne grew up in a cultured, Puerto Rican family, speaking, essentially, three languages. So I would say the cultural difference is the biggest one. Also, I don't speak in an accent like Daphne does.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How do you feel about the opportunity to educate people about deaf culture?
Katie LeClerc: I'm so excited. I am so excited! There's a lot of pressure on the show to really represent, and to bat home runs every time. And it's a balancing act. We are a soap show, and ultimately it's about the families, and nature versus nurture, and all those questions. Then we have this other element—the deaf aspect—and it's a very good hook. But that's not, at the end of the day, what the show is about. So, the opportunity to bring this other culture to life is fantastic. Daphne has never been a victim of her environment. She's always risen above, and the deafness is sort of secondary to her just being a normal high school girl.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: From a technical standpoint, would you mind telling us more about your own condition, and how it's different from Daphne's?
Katie LeClerc: Absolutely. Daphne lost her hearing at the age of three from meningitis; she's fully deaf. That is very different from me, because I have a condition called Ménière's disease.
Ménière's disease is a disorder of the inner ear. It's a problem with fluid retention. So you try to watch your salt intake, try to be on a low sodium diet, they might put you on water pills to help with fluid retention... stuff like that. There are four main symptoms: tinnitus, or ringing, in the ear; pressure in the ear; fluctuating hearing loss (so sometimes I hear fine, and I'm able to use a phone, and sometimes it's not so easy, and I don't hear anything at all); and then the fourth symptom is vertigo.
The attacks can happen whenever they want—I mostly get them at night. When they happen on set, I'm very lucky, because everyone on set is very aware of my condition and my hearing loss. What's amazing about Ménière's disease is that it's incredibly common, and yet no one has heard of it! The symptoms are very inconsistent, and you never know how you're going to wake up in the morning.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Wow. That must be difficult with such a high pressure career?
Katie LeClerc: Yeah. Sometimes it's more challenging than others, but like I said, everyone is so great, and so patient, and just wants to make sure that I'm comfortable. I appreciate that from all of them very much!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: It seems like your costars are just as compassionate as they are talented. We'd love to hear more about each of them, maybe starting with Vanessa Marano, who plays your sister, Bay?
Katie LeClerc: Vanessa is seriously one of the funniest people I have ever encountered. She is so deadpan, and so dry. She's fun on-screen, and she's captivating on-screen, and you know, I think it's hard because Vanessa is nothing like Bay. At all. Her acting ability is incredible, because Vanessa is so sweet and funny, and Bay is so dramatic and... nasty! [Laughter]
We've become very good friends. The other night we didn't stop shooting until like 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning, and we were both talking about how tired we were. We both had about the same length drive to get home, so we just talked to each other on the phone to make sure we wouldn't fall asleep. I couldn't imagine doing the show without Vanessa, she's incredible.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Is Constance Marie, who plays your on-screen mother, at all like your own mom?
Katie LeClerc: Constance and my mom are both fighters. They fight for what they believe in, and stand strong for what they believe in, and I think there's something to be said for that. But Constance has a little more sarcasm, and maybe more of a potty-mouth than my mom?
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How is her sign language?
Katie LeClerc: Her signing is incredible! From the pilot, she had six weeks to learn all of her signs.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: So this is all new to her? She didn't know how to sign before?
Katie LeClerc: She did not! So she's learning as we're going along. I was watching the pilot on premiere night with Sean [Berdy, who plays Daphne's friend Emmett] and we looked at each other and said, “Oh my God!”
Her signing was so good—but oh my God, she got so much better. [Laughter] It is so much fun to watch her learn, and watch her just blossom in this beautiful, emotional language. She's really starting to master it—sometimes we'll have silent conversations on set!
But another cool thing about our show is that a lot of the PA's and sound people and a lot of the crew in general are learning to sign, because it's such a great language, and it's so fun. We can have conversations while they're rolling, and that's a lot of fun!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What feedback have you had from your friends who have watched the show and know American Sign Language (ASL)?
Katie LeClerc: The feedback that I've gotten has been very positive from my friends. We have a sign language master on set at all times. And it's really cool, because the way Regina signs is very different (and if you didn't know sign language you wouldn't know this!) from the way Daphne signs, which is different from the way Emmett signs. It's so cool that every one has their own voice that you can see if you know what to look for. You can see their voices.
Emmett kind has this “James Dean” cool-kid thing going on, and Regina's signs are—well, languages change over time, and they become more current—Regina's signs are a little less current than Daphne's. Our ASL master has done a great job. Constance lovingly refers to him as the signing police!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Have you learned any new expressions from him?
Katie LeClerc: We have a great sign for the commonly used term on set, “checking the gate.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_gate
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What does it look like?
Katie LeClerc: It's kinda hard to explain, but basically, you know how you would put, like, a football field goal up? With two L hand shapes? Then in that, you make a check mark.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: That's very cool! Thank you!
Katie LeClerc: Absolutely! It is pretty cool.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Speaking of football, D. W. Moffet plays your biological father, and many people are familiar with his work from FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. He's a little intimidating in that show.
Katie LeClerc: He's a scary guy! [Laughter]
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What's it like working with him?
Katie LeClerc: On the show, D. W. gets a little involved in my basketball team, and when I told my brother that, he said, “You better watch out! Joe McCoy is going to kick your butt if you don't stay on point at all times!”
He gets kind of intense, sometimes, and is kind of terrifying, but then they yell, “Cut!'” and he's back to cracking jokes, and back to being a jerk for fun... not being a jerk for serious. [Laughter]
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Lea Thompson plays D. W.'s wife, your biological mother...
Katie LeClerc: It's crazy how similar Lea and I are!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I guess that's perfect for the role, right?
Katie LeClerc: Exactly! She looks more like my mother than my real mother looks like me.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I spoke with Lucas Grabeel, who plays your brother, Toby, and he mentioned that he got a gift from Lea—a unique pillow.
Katie LeClerc: Yeah! I think she gave Lucas a shark? I got a ladybug. I just walked into my trailer, and there was this cute little ladybug looking me in the face.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What is Lucas like?
Katie LeClerc: Big confession: I'm a huge High School Musical fan. So, I have to tell you, before I audition, I have a tradition. To bring up the energy level, I put on whatever song it is—the happiest, best song I can find—and I turn it on full blast, and I sing along, and I dance in my car. Right before the screen test for Daphne, I was looking through my music and thinking, aww, I don't know what I want to listen to...
So I throw in HSM 3 and they have that song, “I Want it All.” It's about a girl who's trying to be an actor and she's like, “I want everything, I want to be an Oscar winner, I want it all.” So I turn it up as loud as I can, and I'm dancing, and singing, and I walk in, and then Lucas Grabeel is staring me in the face. And it was one of the happiest moments in my life. If only for the coincidental, serendipitous idea that I just listened to his voice, and now I get to hear it in person!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Wow! And now you're co-workers! Last but definitely not least, I want to ask you about working with the amazing Marlee Matlin, who plays your coach and, perhaps, mentor?
Katie LeClerc: I was terrified to meet Marlee. I was sweating bullets—because I've looked up to her for everything she's done for the deaf community, and what she represents, and how she carries herself: With class and humor. There's this strange combination in that she's one of the most classy people I've met and also one of the most dirty people I've met. [laughter] She and Constance get along like peas and carrots!
I was so afraid to meet her, but she has this incredible ability to instantly just feed off what your feeling, and instantly make you feel comfortable.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How would you characterize her signing? Does she sign differently for her character?
Katie LeClerc: It is a little bit different for her character. Marlee signs with her whole body, and everything that she's got, and her entire life is based in sign language. I think her character's, Melody's, is as well, but Melody is a little bit more reserved than Marlee is. You can see that Marlee's spirit is in everything she does.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: That's beautiful! Katie, we have just two more questions. One is fun, and one is more philosophical. Thank you again for letting us get to know you better—I had a really good time!
Here's the fun question: what would you say is your favorite guilty-pleasure TV show?
Katie LeClerc: SWAMP PEOPLE! It's a show about Gulf Coast gator hunters? They bring these alligators onto their boats and they wrestle them down, and then whatever happens happens... it's a very interesting character study, because these people are just hanging out in their environment—and it's very different from mine! I like to be outside, and camp, and stuff, so shows that make me feel outside when I'm inside are that much better.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: And for our last question, imagine you could go back in time to 2004. What advice would you have for your younger self?
Katie LeClerc: As far as the business goes—and life in general, because I think it's something everyone struggles with—I would tell myself to be patient. Because nothing happens overnight.
I've been acting for ten years, and I have seen moderate success, and at one point, I gave up. I packed my bags, and I moved back to San Antonio, where my family was at the time, and I said, “Mom, I can't do it. I can't deal with the rejection, I can't eat another Ramen Noodle, I can't handle being poor anymore, I can't do it.”
And she said okay, come home. I lived there for six months, and then I realized: Los Angeles kinda sucks sometimes. But San Antonio sucks so much worse! [Laughter]
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Oh my goodness!
Katie LeClerc: I know! I had to go back, so I said, “Mom, I'm going back.”
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: We're glad you did!
Katie LeClerc: Me too! It was nine months later that I got this part!
When I came back, I saw there was a funny thing that happened in San Antonio. My batteries got recharged. They were just completely dead, before. So now, for me, I know that the thing I struggle most with is being patient. I'm just so excited about what's to come, and what's next, I'm always thinking about that, and sometimes I've forgotten to live in the moment. So I would just tell myself to live in the moment, and be patient!
EDITOR'S NOTE: SWITCHED AT BIRTH airs Mondays at 9:00 p.m. ET on ABC Family.