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INTERVIEW: Katie Leclerc Previews SWITCHED AT BIRTH's All-ASL Episode

Photo: ABC Family
ABC Family's award-winning drama, SWITCHED AT BIRTH, is airing an episode on Monday, March 4 told entirely in American Sign Language (ASL), a first for a scripted series on mainstream television.

The special episode will be told from the perspective of the series' multiple deaf characters - with open captions for hearing viewers - in a storyline that puts the audience in the middle of a student uprising in which the very essence of their deaf identity is at stake. Now in its second season, SWITCHED AT BIRTH is the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars and scenes shot entirely in ASL.

We Love Soaps caught up on SWITCHED AT BIRTH star Katie Leclerc this week to get a preview of the groundbreaking episode.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Could you please describe for us the Gallaudet protests in 1988 and their significance?
Katie Leclerc: Absolutely. In 1988 the students who had been attending Gallaudet University I believe for just under 100 years had finally gotten fed up with always having a hearing person be in control of the school, the dean, the administrators, the board. All of the decisions were made by hearing people and the deaf students at the time rallied together and decided to protest the oppression, as they felt, and shut down the school. They didn’t go to classes. They gated up the fences so of like occupy Gallaudet in ’88, and they actually achieved what they were hoping for. They got a deaf president and everybody went back to classes and everything was okay.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: When did you first learn about Gallaudet and how did it make you feel?
Katie Leclerc: I learned sign language when I was 17 in high school as a foreign language elective, and they told us the story of Gallaudet when I was in that class, and I felt inspired. I felt like here’s a group of kids who feel a certain way collectively and took it upon themselves to make their voices be heard in a time when no one was even listening to deaf people. I think that it goes to show you that if you really put your mind to it you can achieve extraordinary things in the face of oppression, and these students definitely set out to do that.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Do you enjoy the thrill of having controversial storylines, or are you ever put in the position of maybe your character is promoting a point of view that you as a person don’t really support?
Katie Leclerc: I am so onboard with everything that we’ve done this season. Daphne had a previous relationship where she lost her footing. I care about this character Daphne as much as I do my very best friends, and the storyline made me nervous for the poor little girl. But this season I think that we have tackled issues, for example Regina’s alcoholism. I have people in my own life who are struggling with very similar matters. I think that we don’t shy away from controversy. If anything we plug right in, and I think that in doing that we are able to ask questions that are potentially very rough. I think that we try very hard to show both sides of the coin in whatever struggle the characters are going through.

I admire Switched at Birth for not shying away from issues that many other shows would, and I think that we try to do—again, for example when Bay was bullied I think that it was an interesting take on it. We all know that bullying is a problem but how can we go about it in an interesting way and make it a little bit different than perhaps what other networks and other television shows are trying to portray. I think our goal is not to be controversial but to show controversy and to show it as openly and honestly as we can.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: After alcoholism, Meniere’s, even immigration, all those issues, do you have any ideas for another topic that Switched might tackle that you’d like to see?
Katie Leclerc: I definitely think that the cochlear implant one is a very interesting topic. I think that our controversy doesn’t have to be limited to the deaf world and the hearing world. I think for example the alcoholism it’s something that everyone can relate to. I think that economic problems are something that many, many families can relate to right now. There’s not necessarily one thing in particular that I think we should tackle. I think we’ve done a good job so far, so I think as long as we stay true to that then we’ll be okay.

Monday, March 4th is a really special event for you and your cast. Can you give us an idea what that’s about, the “All-American Sign Language” episode?
Katie Leclerc: Absolutely. I think from the start of Switched at Birth people have always responded incredibly well to our all-silent scenes where you really get a perspective in to what a deaf person’s daily life might be like. I think that it’s an interesting concept that hasn’t really been seen on television before so Switched at Birth definitely paves the way. I’m very proud of ABC Family and Switched at Birth for even taking that a step farther.

The episode is going to be structured in the sense that there’s a deaf person in every scene, so every scene that the audience is watching from their living room is told from the perspective of that deaf person in the scene. I think the first scene has some dialog and the very last scene might have a bit of dialog, but the majority of the entire episode is silent and based in American Sign Language. Obviously there are characters that don’t sign so you see the deaf person in that scene struggle to understand what’s being said because they’re not making it quite as user friendly as they have in the past with the captions. It’s all going to be captioned and there will be sound but there’s no spoken dialog from one actor to another actor.

It’s incredibly exciting. It’s such a huge risk that ABC Family is taking. I absolutely applaud them. It’s something that I think our audience is really excited about. People on Twitter have definitely been all abuzz about it, and I know that the cast members are very proud of it. We worked tirelessly on this next episode, the March 4th episode. I mean the days were so long. We just stayed until we got the best product that we could, andmy hat is off to the production of Switched at Birth and the network ABC Family for really putting in due diligence and a lot of hard work.

Do you see this episode as kind of a benchmark for even further episodes or even other TV shows?
Katie Leclerc: I think that Switched at Birth is a benchmark for putting an example out there that our world is very diverse. Our world is not black and white and not everyone is 90 pounds and walks around in fabulous clothing all the time. I think that our show shows diversity in a multitude of ways, economically, racially, just what a family looks like, and how diverse that can be compared to each other’s families.

I think that Switched at Birth has gone a long way in paving the road and showing that not every character on a television show has to be picture perfect. I think that we have seen deaf characters in the past sort of in a one-off kind of co-star, guest star sort of way, and Switched takes that even farther. You really get to have a relationship with these deaf characters just as much as you would a hearing character.

What was the most challenging part of making the “American Sign Language” episode?
Katie Leclerc: I would have to say it’s kind of interesting because we always have an interpreter on set for every deaf character that’s in the episode. Each individual person has their own individual interpreter, and when you have a scene with nine deaf characters all of a sudden there are nine extra bodies that weren’t always there.

I think that American Sign Language is fascinating because the language itself if so open to interpretation. There are so many different ways to say the same thing but with different emphasis and different words and different grammatical structures and all of them are correct. To me it was fascinating to look out and see nine versions of the same sentence in varying degrees of differences. I think that was fascinating, and I think it posed an extra challenge on shooting that episode just in the fact that there were more bodies. There were more people to go through and had to go through multiple languages before the message was absolutely received between the director and the actor.

I think that the time and the diligence and you had to pay attention to each individual signer, and it’s a little bit different than closing your eyes and listening to everyone. There’s a lot of moving parts literally, hands are flying everywhere. I think it was extra challenging with the time and with the extra people, but I think that the end product shows that we had extra bodies and shows that we had extra effort put in to that episode because it really sparkles, it really shines.

Are there any other issues that you would like to see Switched at Birth address on an episode?
Katie Leclerc: I think in the pilot episode there’s a very, very, very, very opinionated argument whether or not deaf and hard of hearing children should receive cochlear implants. That was sort of touched upon in the pilot. The Kennish’s were very adamant about giving Daphne as many opportunities that they could; that included giving Daphne a cochlear implant. Regina and Daphne and Melody’s perspective was different because the cochlear implant is something that certain deaf people see as a limiter in continuing the deaf community, and they see it sort of as a problem within the deaf community.

I think Switched at Birth started to touch on that. I’d love to see how they would expand that. I think that we approach the deaf community with tact and respect, and I think it’s such a fascinating argument that I would love to see them tackle both sides.

One of the really interesting storylines this season has been the introduction of the pilot program and it sort of provided a lot of conflict for the characters, and in particular with this new character Noah who has Meniere’s disease and is possibly going to go deaf and is in the process of that. How has that storyline affected you and have you had any input in general?Katie Leclerc: The Meniere’s disease storyline I love. I have Meniere’s disease for the listeners who are not aware of that. I was diagnosed when I was 20 years old with Meniere’s disease and it’s definitely a part of my daily life. Attacks range in varying degrees of intensity and frequency and it’s so sporadic and unpredictable that it’s definitely a challenge for me. Adding the additional character Noah who has Meniere’s disease I think has gone a long way in potentially helping to explain my position to viewers and audience members who are unaware. It’s easy for me to just go “Oh yeah that guy, I got that.”

But I think that in addition to that Meniere’s disease affects like three million Americans, and so many people don’t know what it is and don’t know how to treat it and are very much afraid of it. I think that having a character just like having a deaf character and a deaf audience member to watch they can see what that person struggles through and how they excel. I think that having someone with Meniere’s disease is much more specific hearing loss and more specific to certain audience members. I think it’s great because I think it shows that no matter what your problem is you can rise above it. You can chose to get angry about it and get in a fight with your friends about it because you can’t hear in that moment or you can go the higher route (Noah) and you can try to figure out some way to compensate for your hearing loss in that moment.

I applaud very much ABC Family for putting that additional character in. I did have a little to do with the storyline. They asked me what my personal experience was. Some of the things that Noah experiences are personal to me and some of the things that Noah experiences are generalized for patients with Meniere’s disease. I love the storyline. I love Max Lloyd Jones who plays Noah. I’m just really happy that character is part of our show.

Has anything really surprised or challenged you that was brand new to you?
Katie Leclerc: You know what I really appreciate about this season is the way that this season started. The deaf and the hearing program both being at Carlton simultaneously is obviously challenging for many of the deaf characters. What I found interesting that Switched at Birth chose to approach it in the way that the deaf characters are represented towards the end of the season, but in the beginning of the season you got to see discrimination in a different way.

Bay was discriminated against because she was hearing where many of the deaf characters are discriminated against every day because they’re deaf. They don’t even realize that they flipped the coin, and they’re making fun of this poor girl for something that they’ve learned how to compensate without. I think that approach was a very interesting approach. I think that many televisions shows would try to paint the deaf character as the sympathetic character, and yet it worked with having Bay be bullied at school and feel very vulnerable there. I think that was a great approach. I think it was a very interesting way to do it.

Photo: ABC Family
How do you think that this episode is going to impact ASL and how people view it?
Katie Leclerc: I think Switched has done a great job of integrating ASL and makes people really, really excited about it. This particular episode could go one way or the other. I think that when we first started Switched at Birth I was nervous that the majority of our audience members would shy away from the subtitles, and not being used to closed caption might feel a little bit like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” Stereotypically subtitled films don’t always do as well in America and I went, “Oh, what are we doing here?”

I think that this episode has the opportunity to fly away home with this great idea that American Sign Language is not only useful in real life it’s convenient. You know you can have private conversations in a room full of hearing people and nobody can hear. I think that American Sign Language is fascinating, and I think that the majority of audience members are just going to fall in love with it even more. I think that what we’re doing is innovative and new and pushing boundaries yet again. I hope the audience is going to respond with gratitude and with applause and waving their hands in the air just like the deaf community does. I think that we have the ability to build a bridge between the deaf and the hearing world. I think this episode in particular is really just propelling that idea forward that we are all equal. We are all the same and there doesn’t have to be a dividing line between us.

If you were Daphne in the situation of this episode do you think you would handle it the same way she does or differently?
Katie Leclerc: I don’t know how I would handle it. Daphne definitely sees this opportunity and before she even realizes she’s a leader she’s leading this organized revolution. She sort of gets thrust in to this opportunity of being able to have a voice for the rest of the students and being able to speak out against the students. I think that Daphne sets a great example in that when you see something that you don’t feel is right speak up.

If you are able and have the cognizant ability to make your voice be heard and make a difference and make life better and easier for a group of people that you genuinely care about I think that everyone should follow in those footsteps. I think that Daphne sets a great example in that regard. I’d like to think that I would be as strong, but Daphne really does it right and I definitely commend her efforts.

How did doing an all-ASL show came about?
Katie Leclerc: The writers are very tight lipped about their developing the episode. We didn’t find out that the ASL episode was going to happen until right before the TCA (Television Critics Association) event where we announced to everyone that it was going to happen so it was kind of a surprise to the actors; we’re like, “We’re doing what” and not only are we doing all ASL in that episode there’s a deaf rap in the episode. All the deaf kids get together and they rap together, and that was a really big challenge. Also, for me in particular now that my character is going to play the role of Juliet in the play I also had to do Shakespearean sign language, which is a whole other animal.

It was a very ambitious episode. I think that the actors when we first heard we were excited but a little bit nervous, and then when we saw the script we were a whole lot nervous. Thankfully our director for this episode is one of our very favorite directors on set. Steve Miner directed the pilot and many of our favorite episodes along the way. I think that it went smoothly. I think that it could not have gone smoother.

I think that the tireless efforts from the writers to constantly update the scripts and make them better as much as possible even if that means two minutes before we’re shooting, which is not uncommon, but we never stopped. We were always trying to innovate a way to make this scene better. This is great. How can we make it better? I think that’s what is so special about this episode is that everyone recognized that this is the one; this is the one that defines Switched at Birth. This is our star.

We’re only 39 episodes in at this point, but this is the moment where—this is what we’ve worked for to be able to put an episode out there that is all silent and loud at the same time in a way that might be unexpected. I think that we’re all very excited. I speak for every cast member when I say we will be watching on Monday and we are very excited to see how this turns out.

Can you talk a little bit about what it was like, maybe one of your favorite moments of filming this episode? Katie Leclerc: Absolutely. I knew exactly the moment you started to ask the question. There’s a scene where it’s actually in the rap scene that I just touched on. That scene sort of builds in to this moment where the students—there’s I think six deaf students hanging outside the school at night, and they look at each other and they are talking about how unfair this is; how absolutely devastated that they all are that they’re going to be split up. How they feel like their bond is strong enough to stay together, and in that moment realize that they are strong enough just exactly as they are. They don’t need to be split up.

They have the power to really tell everyone exactly what they want and they have the power to be heard. I think that it is a defining moment. It’s a defining moment for the kids in that scene because they understand that they’re stronger together than they are as one, and that this is absolutely within their power to change. I think that every teenager has that moment in their life where they go, "Wait a minute, this is not cool. I’ve got to do something about it.” And to see that moment just captured on scene six different times in the same moment but in six different faces, I think that it’s incredibly powerful.

Even as I was reading the script, you know you can sort of hear the music build when you’re reading the script and you can tell that this is an emotional scene. This is the defining moment for this episode, that these kids are now taking matters in to their own hands and it is so powerful. It is so awesome. I’m really, really proud of that moment.

Was this a show all of the cast had been looking forward to or was this more kind of a spotlight for the cast that are hearing impaired?
Katie Leclerc: I would say it definitely is a spotlight for the deaf cast members that we have. The deaf cast members that we have are so lovely. They’re such wonderful kids and they bring such life and energy to the set. When it’s the family we laugh, and we giggle, and we have a great time together. When it’s the deaf kids at Carlton they’re out in the middle of base camp playing football together, like being rowdy in wardrobe and the wardrobe ladies are like, “What are you doing? What are you doing? Stop it!” But you know what it just goes to show that we have such a great time together that you know almost work is secondary.

We love each other and this was a time— I think everyone realized this is a time for some of these kids who have had minimal screen time on Switched at Birth and yet that’s still a major accomplishment because most other shows would not even give them that minimal time. This is an episode where those characters are defined, and you really get to know them.

I personally am such a huge fan of Ryan Lane who plays the role of Travis. I love the character Travis. I love what he goes through. He has some weaknesses in this episode, and thus far he’s been so strong and taken everything with grace, and I think this is his breaking point. I think Ryan Lane does a great job of his portrayal of that breaking point and his acting ability is so strong. That’s not to over shine the other five main characters that we have that are deaf. I think each one of them has strengths in different ways and I love getting to know those characters better.

I know there are captions on this for those that don’t sign. Did anyone think of not having any captions? Do you think this would kind of scare off the audience or do you think it might have made it more interesting?
Katie Leclerc: I think that Switched at Birth’s goal thus far has always been an attempt to make everything as user friendly for the audience as they could, you know for the students who are perhaps in ASL 1 and they’re learning Sign Language and they’re very excited about the signs. Sometimes when you’re watching a show the Sign Language itself gets cut off. For Sign Language students that’s frustrating, but for a deaf person that’s incredibly frustrating because the language itself has been cut off so otherwise where they would be communicating in their own language they’re then forced to read the subtitles.

In this episode we were very, very mindful of not cutting of the Sign Language. As much as possible you see all of the signs. You see every word that is used in American Sign Language. There are also subtitles for the hearing audience members. I think that American Sign Language is a very visual language, and much of it is graspable even if you’re not familiar with the signs because it’s all based on body language and emotion, and you can sort of see that on the actor or the character. But I think that the goal was to make it as accessible as possible for everyone so definitely I think the subtitles will help with that.

Can you talk about all of the changes your character is going through, how close is it to your own life and what are some of the big differences or things that you’ve really had to think about with Daphne?
Katie Leclerc: Absolutely. I would say that my personal life is somewhat similar to Daphne’s. I love to cook. Daphne’s a chef, a budding chef. I played basketball when I was in high school, and Daphne had her spout with basketball and enjoyed that very much. I feel like the characters are starting to differ slightly.

The hardest thing for me as an actor or the hardest challenge was my hearing loss is very much less significant than Daphne’s. With Meniere’s disease part of the condition is my hearing fluctuates so sometimes I hear fine, sometimes I just miss a word, sometimes I miss everything for a half hour or two hours, and it can be frustrating. It can be in varying degrees very infuriating. The hardest part as an actor for myself was to have a consistent hearing loss and to make sure that it was true to what Daphne’s is.

Another one of the challenges that we face is if we get a new director that hasn’t been a director of Switched often times they’ll come in to the set with ideas. That’s wonderful but sometimes those ideas mean that the character in the scene with me turns away while they’re still talking and that doesn’t work for our show. There are definitely some adjustments that have to be made in terms of blocking and sometimes lighting and the way that the scene is staged. We sometimes have to go back and make adjustments to make it work for our show, and honestly I love that.

I love to see the new directors come in and make them feel at home and make them feel like this is different. It’s not like every show. You’re definitely going to take things that you learned from another show and apply them here but I think this show is also going to make you think as an actor, as a director, as a camera man. Sometimes we chose to highlight the hands or pick up certain things here and there; it’s definitely a communal effort on set. Every department is very much involved with all of the decision making and I love that. I think that we have a great family on set, and we all appreciate each other, and understand and respect each other.

What are your long-term goals for either this program or for yourself say probably five years down the road?
Katie Leclerc: I love this show. I think that this show is only going to expand and only going to improve. My personal goal is for Switched at Birth to keep going to keep tackling hard questions. Honestly I just want work. I have a film on the Hallmark channel that’s coming out in May. I am working on independent films as much as possible. I just love acting and I love Switched at Birth for giving me the opportunity to launch myself in to a major career, and I definitely see this as a springboard.

I love Switched at Birth. I am a fan of the show, and I think you have to be a fan of what you’re working on to have the best performance that you possibly can. I love the people that we work with. My personal goal is to stay happy and to keep working, and hopefully that means on Switched at Birth and if it doesn’t then you know the next project is what you make it. As long as you go to it with a happy attitude I think that you make the best of it. My goal is to work and hopefully that works.

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