Tuesday, March 6, 2012

INTERVIEW: SWITCHED AT BIRTH's Sean Berdy Talks Acting, Performing and Playing The Deaf James Dean

Sean Berdy was born to perform and has never let his deafness get in the way of him following his passion for entertaining. His first stage as a young boy was his parents’ bed where he put on shows for delighted family and friends alongside his younger brother Tyler, who would handle DJ and lighting needs for the events.

At a young age, Sean also became fascinated by magic, honed his skills in the art, and shared with his brother, Tyler the top award for young magicians at the World Deaf Magicians Festival held in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Sean received his first big break in acting when a casting call went out for a young deaf actor for The Sandlot 2. Sean’s formal acting career was launched, and he went on to play roles in films including The Bondage (2006), The Deaf Family (2007), and The Legend of the Mountain Man (2008). In addition to Sean’s film career, he has been featured in numerous public service commercials.

In between filming engagements, Sean toured the country performing with highly acclaimed musical groups. His inspired dance rendition of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” performed entirely in American Sign Language was a tremendous hit among his deaf peers. Sean was named Mr. Deaf Teen America. In this role Sean was asked to make public appearances across the country for one year.

His latest role is Emmett Bledsoe, Daphne’s sweet but protective best friend. His mother Melody (Marlee Matlin), is best friends with Daphne’s mother, Regina. Emmett is deaf and attends the Carlton School for the Deaf along with Daphne. He has a passion for photography and can be often found taking pictures or riding his motorcycle. Emmett and Bay have fallen in love and are dealing with the complications of young love and complicated lives.

In this new Q&A, Sean Berdy talks about his multi-faceted career, how he differs from his SWITCHED character, and what's coming up in the future.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What is the biggest difference is between you, Sean Berdy, and your character, Emmett?
Sean Berdy: Emmett Bledsoe is a very, very deep thinker and he thinks that he knows everything about the world; how the deaf world works, how the hearing world works toward the deaf people. He’s very passionate in terms of his art, his passion for photography and so forth. He is maybe not so in touch with everybody else and their feelings, but he’s very introspective. He’s the James Dean of the Deaf community.

That’s very different than Sean Berdy. Sean Berdy is dancing in front of the mirror at age two for his parents, making his parents crazy running around the house singing and dancing and jumping around and joking. I’m a comedienne in real life. I’m always goofing around; I’m outgoing and I talk with everybody, especially through Twitter these days. But, Emmett? Wow! He’s very limited in the people he chooses to share himself with.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: If it were up to you, what sort of adventure would you want Emmett to have this season or even next season?
Sean Berdy: I would love to see a big concert, have Guitar Face play a huge concert and become a hot band; and, there’s Emmett Bledsoe playing drums, the deaf drummer for this big rock band. That would be wonderful. I’m going to have to talk with the writers and try and tell them to take Guitar Face on the road. We’ll see about that one.

I have to tell you, I’ve been practicing drums a lot. I grew up playing drums a bit when I was a kid, and then I stopped. When I came on to this show, they asked me to play drums. I said okay, I’m back. I rehearsed for the one episode, the first episode we did where I just played a song. I rehearsed every day for a week.

When we came out to shoot it, I realized after I saw it, when it was edited down it was down to just a few seconds of TV time. But, I’ll tell you what—I never put more work into 30 seconds of screen time than I did working on the drums. But, I’ve been playing the drums and I’m ready for Guitar Face to rock the crowd. So, I would love to see us in a big arena somewhere. That would be cool.

How has being on SWITCHED AT BIRTH changed you? Now you’re pretty well known.
Sean Berdy: Well, being on SWITCHED AT BIRTH is a great honor because the show portrays authentic deaf characters, not the characters that we in the Deaf community have often seen in television. I’m born into the Deaf community, but raised in the hearing community as well; and, I think this show is unique in showing authentic deaf characters and authentic deaf perspectives from deaf characters. So, I think that is amazing and an honor to be a part of. The two girls on the show, Vanessa and Katie, they’re wonderful, aren’t they? I love them.

Have you felt like you’ve changed at all, though, from your newfound fame?
Sean Berdy: No, I don’t feel that I’ve changed. I do feel that being successful in portraying a deaf character as realistically as a deaf person lives today is something that I’ve always wanted to do; and, I’m thrilled to be able to do it. But, it hasn’t changed me. I wouldn’t be well known if it wasn’t for the fans. But, certainly they wouldn’t love me if I changed and I’m always going to be Sean Berdy and love to perform and give that to the audience; and, that will never change.

What do you think it is about SWITCHED AT BIRTH that really resonates with fans?
Sean Berdy: SWITCHED AT BIRTH has so many different audiences that it attracts. First of all, there are so many great story lines. The plot lines are wonderful, what a diverse cast, what a great cast. There’s diversity within the plot lines and within the characters within the plot line. You have so many contrasts.

You have the rich family, the poor family, you have the Anglo perspective, the Latina perspective, you have the hearing, you have the deaf. You have different cultures being portrayed sometimes in the same scene, two and three different cultures being portrayed in one scene; and, no other show portrays characters in a mix like that. I can see that SWITCHED AT BIRTH is attracting audiences because of the diversity and the American Sign Language as well. American Sign Language is such a beautiful language and people want more of that.

What was it about your character that made you want to play it in the first place?
Sean Berdy: A lot of people ask me that question, and you know I love to talk about this character. Wow! The character that I play, Emmett, he’s the deaf James Dean. I mean the writers came up with this character that, you know, blows peoples’ minds. You would never think of a deaf James Dean. I mean everybody knows the iconic version of James Dean.

But, to see a deaf version of that and how often to be allowed to portray a character like that; it’s a different character in that he represents, you know, the true Deaf perspective. Yet, he’s so in touch with the hearing world. He has a sarcastic point of view, surely; but, the sweet side of him balances it out. I mean he’s very serious, unlike me.

Individually, I’m a very funny guy, outgoing and kind of goofy, you know, twittering all the time; and, Iwould tell you he’s the opposite. He’s ice cold and cool, and how wonderful to portray a character like that. What a magical character he is for the audience out there.

What do you find is your biggest challenge in bringing this character to life on screen?
Sean Berdy: There are many types of challenges in life, of course. But, one challenge towards approaching this character is speaking, the idea of should Emmett speak or not. I, Sean Berdy, speak pretty well, not perfectly; but, I grew up using my voice.

Now, when it comes to the TV screen and having Emmett speak, I have to rehearse to make sure his lines are understandable and so forth. That’s a challenge because I’m not a perfect speaker by any means. But, to make sure Emmett’s voice is understood on the television show is something that I’ve worked very hard at, you know. We worked very closely in terms of the writers and the producers to make sure that Emmett speaks for a reason and that it’s still authentic and that he’s true to his character and that the audience would see that.

How young you were when you started playing the drums; and, are there any other musical instruments you play?
Sean Berdy: Sure, you know I love to talk about the drums and music. I started playing drums when I was probably six and played a lot until I was about ten or eleven years old. So, I guess five or six years where I played. I had a drum set at home and I would just bang on it. I’d even go on the Internet and study basic beats and so forth. During my teenage years, I stopped playing, but when I got on the show, they asked me to play and I was ready for it.

People ask me how do you play. Do you just feel the vibrations? You know, deaf people have a variety of ways that they can feel the rhythm. Obviously, I feel the beat, but I use my hearing aids; hearing aids that I’ve worn since the day I was born, truthfully. I grew up using hearing aids and I had speech therapy and so forth, and that helped me to develop a passion for music and helped me to develop my drumming talents. To be honest, without my hearing aids, I wouldn’t be able to play the drums. But, I don’t play any other music instruments.

I do love to interpret songs in American Sign Language. You know I just did a version of Hero by Enrique Iglesias that I put out on YouTube and it’s had thousands of hits already. I think that people are just transfixed when they see a song rendered in American Sign Language. I’m going to perform that song, actually, at Downtown Disney’s event, SIGNin’ in the Street March 17 and 18. I hope everyone can come out and see the event and you’ll get to see Sean Berdy signing live.

What was one of your favorite episodes so far of the show?
Sean Berdy: I would say for an episode, I would probably say the tenth episode when Emmett spoke, “I just want you” to Bay. That was such a big moment, and such a breakthrough moment for Emmett, a heartfelt moment. The audience loved it and that’s why I love that episode. I mean, who doesn’t love that romantic scene, right?

You just brought up your event at Disneyland. I was actually wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you and the rest of the SWITCHED AT BIRTH cast will be doing when you’re down there.
Sean Berdy: The event, SIGNin’ in the Street, is in Downtown Disney, March 17 and 18. That’s a Saturday and a Sunday; a huge event that includes many, many different performers, deaf and hearing. Kickoff event is March 17 at 1:00 p.m. Fans can come out and see the cast, SWITCHED AT BIRTH, for a Q&A, autograph signings, very cool interactions with the fans. Also, guest star Marlee Matlin will be there. She obviously plays my mother, Melody on the show.

They’re also screening two episodes, episodes 21 and 22, as I call them. They’ll be at the theater there. Go out and see that; and, you can get a sneak preview of 22, actually, and there’s a lot of drama that in so-called final episode.

They’re also giving out things at their tent. I’ll be performing Hero in American Sign Language both nights, which I’m thrilled about. You know performing live in front of an audience like that is wonderful. You can find out more information online, I’m sure. Google Downtown Disney; SIGNin’ in the Street is the name of the event; and, I’m looking forward to seeing all you people out there.

How did you settle on Hero as the song that you’ll be performing?
Sean Berdy: Why did I decide to perform that live, or why did I decide to make the video that I put up on YouTube?

Why did you decide to use that song specifically for the video and the live performance?
Sean Berdy: Oh, okay. I’ll tell you why. A lot of people have asked me that same question and why did I pick that same song. I mean, first of all that song is world famous and extremely popular because I think the lyrics are so concise and so powerful and so direct.

I thought why don’t I just add American Sign Language to this beautiful message and make it as concise and as heartfelt in my language. So, I worked very carefully on translating the song, as simple as it is, as beautiful as it is to find an authentic translation. That song worked for me at that time. I may have new songs that I translate in the future. Who knows?

It seems like Emmett right now has two reasons to be mad at Bay. Obviously, she’s been communicating with Ty and also now that we’ve learned more that he wants to try to testify in the custody case; so, without Bay as the kind of “turn to” Emmett has leaning on her for support, where does Emmett turn now, now that he’s going through so much and he might need a little bit of friendship?
Sean Berdy: Emmett has always been very strong-willed. He is often, especially at the beginning of the series, you could see he just thought about himself. He was hurt that she couldn’t have Daphne after all those years of her pining away for her. He’s very introspective and self-sufficient; and, I think truthfully he’s going to rely on himself to get through the fallout from his parents’ divorce and what’s happening with him and Bay.

Who knows if that’s going to be enough to get him through this time? This is a tough time; but, I don’t think he’s going to go anywhere for support that he doesn’t think he can handle already. But, Emmett’s going through a tough time right now, that’s true.

How do you feel about the way the Deaf community is portrayed on SWITCHED AT BIRTH?
Sean Berdy: Well, again, I was born in both worlds, the hearing world and the deaf world, and raised in both worlds; and, I’ve seen so many, and I know so many people that are in both communities. I’ve never seen an authentic portrayal about how deaf and hearing people get along in TV in my life until this show. When I came out here to audition, I read the script – the pilot script – and I knew right away it was well written; and, that’s because they, the producers, Lizzie have worked with ASL consultants. They had talked with deaf people before creating this show.

The Deaf community is rallying behind this show. This show is for them. They see authentic deaf people in the show being portrayed as they live and breathe, and that is a thrill for the Deaf community. They feel very fortunate to have this show and I feel extremely honored to be a part of this show for that reason.

Is this the first time on television you have used your speaking voice; and, how did that make you feel?
Sean Berdy: Speaking voice, well, let me think back on things I’ve done. Actually, this is the first time I’ve used my voice on television. How did I feel about it? It wasn’t hard. It felt nice to be doing something that was different. For me, I’m always signing. That’s my native language. For me to speak on TV was a thrill. It was like another actor being able to use a different language on TV. That’s a different part of Emmett and it was great to show that side of Emmett. That was awesome! I was cool with it, really.

You do a comedy routine – How did you get into that and what are some of your favorite topics in comedy?
Sean Berdy: Interesting question. I started out as a comedian. When I was in diapers, I’ve always been fooling around the house joking with my parents. It’s just a part of who I am. It’s a part of the Deaf community—humor is a big part of how deaf people get through the day.

When I’m working on sad/SWITCHED AT BIRTH/Emmett, there’s no comedy there. So, you know to balance it out when I get home, I work on the Sean Berdy Show; and, that’s something truthfully that right now is mostly geared towards the Deaf community. But, I am going to work on making the show accessible to hearing audiences or making it more accessible.

I love just goofing off around the house and making my family and my girlfriend laugh. I don’t know if you follow me on Twitter, but I’m always uploading funny pictures and making comments; and, that’s really who I am. That’s where I come from.

On the show, there’s a movie, Deafenstein, that Emmett and Daphne are a big fan of. I was just wondering if there were any Deaf movies that you really love that you can share.
Sean Berdy: Deaf movies? Well, I guess there are several movies. At Downtown Disney, they’re showing The Hammer, at SIGNin’ in the Street. It’s directed and produced by hearing people, but it’s about a deaf person. There’s a deaf entertainers’ documentary called See What I’m Saying that’s also being shown at that event. There are many deaf movies out there, but these are two that are out right now.

You have inspired a lot of people to want to learn sign language. What advice would you give someone who wants to learn ASL and how would they get started?
Sean Berdy: I would love to give a little bit of advice because I have so many friends who are professors at universities and colleges all across the country who teach ASL classes. I’d strongly encourage anyone to look up their local university or college and see what ASL classes they provide. Usually, you start with ASL I and work your way up to ASL IV. Anytime you can interact with deaf people or the Deaf community, I would strongly encourage doing that.

I have seen an up swell of students in the ASL classes around the country and in my professor and educator friends out there are telling me it’s partially because of the show. So, that’s a thrill.

Yes, it’s awesome. I myself I want to start taking classes.
Sean Berdy: Great. Then, take my advice and go to the local school. It’s not that expensive, really. You pay a few bucks, you have a few classes and it’s fun. They workshop every day and you work with the other students and working with the different signs and how they’re created; different hand shapes and what they mean. They call them classifiers. It’d be great to learn all of that.

I saw the video on line where you perform The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson, and it was amazing.
Sean Berdy: Oh, yes. I was very disappointed the way that YouTube blocked that video because of copyright licensing reasons I guess. I guess I’m going to have to figure out how to get that back on because that was fun, you know; live stage performance of that song in 2010, I believe.

It was amazing, yes.
Sean Berdy: Outside the Indianapolis Museum of Art, yes we did that.

Other than Michael Jackson, what other artists or musicians are you a big fan of?
Sean Berdy: I’m not a huge fan of any musicians, but I am a huge fan of Michael Jackson, obviously. I do love pop music. I turn up the radio in my car as loud as it goes and really, I’m just a fan of pop music in general.

You and Bay are in a relationship on the show. What would it take for a relationship between a deaf person and a hearing person to work out?
Sean Berdy: Well, a hearing and deaf relationship always starts out with a communication barrier and that’s often difficult to overcome. But, Bay’s learning sign language. She’s a great signer. Emmett reads lips very well and works with her. So, it takes a common language to communicate with, and that’s usually what deaf and hearing couples are faced with. Once they develop that common language like Bay and Emmett have, they can have a serious relationship.

Now, we’re going to see whether the wonderful relationship between Bay and Emmett, whether that wonderful relationship they’ve built up is going to be destroyed because of what Emmett’s going through with his parents and the divorce, and all the drama that’s coming up in the next two episodes. Quite frankly, we’re going to have to watch and see if their love can stand this.

What type of girl would you be attracted to, either hearing or deaf?
Sean Berdy: Well, I’m attracted to my girlfriend right now. I love her very much and she is deaf.

Is there a particular project that you would like to do either on TV or a movie?
Sean Berdy: Yes, I am looking forward to being involved in television and film in the future, absolutely. To play a deaf character on television and film is something that I will always want to do. Right now, I’m committed to doing that on SWITCHED AT BIRTH; and, all my time is devoted to working on SWITCHED AT BIRTH.

I am on hiatus right now, and I am working on personal projects, music videos and such that I like to do. We’re also a big part of the SIGNin’ in the Street event at Disneyland March 17 and 18. But, I’ve been just looking forward to being blessed with more opportunities to play deaf characters on TV and film. I love doing that now for SWITCHED AT BIRTH.

Is there a particular actor or actress that you would like to see either on the show or maybe work with them on a project?
Sean Berdy: Oh, of course! Jim Carrey. I mean, he’s my big idol. I love him to death actually. He’s just the best. One of my favorite movies is Ace Ventura When Nature Calls. That’s so funny, and being a comedienne myself, I love him. I would love to act with him someday. That’s my biggest dream, truthfully. Hopefully, that’ll happen someday.

Why was it so important for you to be able to join Twitter and communicate with your fans.
Sean Berdy: I love communicating with my fans because they’re the ones who support our show. They’re the ones who’ve given us the ratings and keep us on the air. So, why would I not want to communicate with them?

I love talking with the fans, hanging out with them online because the fans are the most important people to our show and to lots of performers. They support that they’ve given us is outstanding. And, I like to just give them some funny tweets back. We have fun on line.

What would you like to say to everyone who is a fan and supporter of you and your work?
Sean Berdy: I would just to say thanks for watching the show; absolutely keep watching. I love you all. Keep watching; there’re a lot of dramatic moments coming up in the next few episodes. It’s going to be exciting. I can tell you that.

Can you tell us a little bit about the audition process for the role of Emmett?
Sean Berdy: I love sharing this story. Actually, I had an agent and everything. I’d been in the business and had done a couple of things. But, it just so happened my dad found it, an open posting on Facebook for Emmett Bledsoe.

He sent it to me and I was like, wow, you found this on Facebook? He goes, yeah, yeah, yeah! Call them; check it out. I said, after taking a look at it, I videotaped myself and sent it in. I believe I was out of town and not close enough to walk in. But, I e-mailed something in, a little video. Just a couple of hours later, they called me, said they were interested and they flew me out. It all happened rather quickly. I did change a few appointments to jump on a plane, fly out here, meet the writers and the producer; the creator, Lizzie Weiss; executive producer, Paul Stupin. Came into a room, introduced myself and met everyone.

They’re great people; lovely. We hit it off right away. I had the interpreter there working with us. They asked me a bunch of questions about where I came from, how I was raised and everything. They asked me what do you think about the script.

By that time, I had read the pilot and I said it’s extremely well written; I wish you all the best of luck. I gave them all my love and support and we all walked off with good feelings. About three weeks later, they contacted me; said they were interested in me for the role, and I’ve been out here ever since.

Are there any other projects you have coming up that you could share with us?
Sean Berdy: Well, I have mentioned the SIGNin’ in the Street event that SWITCHED AT BIRTH is such a big part of at Downtown Disney. We are on hiatus right now, and I’m trying to just take care of my business. I’ve been so busy for the last year with this show. But, I can share one cool thing.

The upcoming episode on March 13th, I believe, it shows a deaf movie that’s featured within the episode of SWITCHED AT BIRTH. You have to watch how the kids made their own movie; and, the episode revolves around all the adventures they have making the movie. You’ve got to watch that episode; and all the rest of the episodes coming up before the break.

Is there an actor or actress that inspired you, a deaf actress I should say, that inspired you to get into acting?
Sean Berdy: It’s funny that I never really had any deaf inspiration. I’ve always admired Marlee Matlin, and what a great woman, what a great heart, what a wonderful actress. I’ve always looked up to her. As a person, she is inspiring. But, as a kid performing, I looked up over to performers who inspired me like Jim Carrey, oddly enough. His is one of the big inspirations in my young life, and he still is.

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