ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” is this summer’s hottest new show. Katie LeClerc is its breakout star. The actress plays hearing-impaired teenager Daphne Vasquez, who learns that she was switched in the hospital with another girl. The premise seems sensationalistic, but what sets the show apart is its exploration of the deaf community.
LeClerc, who is also hearing-impaired, discussed overnight stardom, Daphne’s complicated relationship with Bay, and why this show is so important to the deaf community.
What’s it like to be an overnight sensation?
It’s incredible! I’ve been acting for almost ten years. The overnight was a very long overnight. It’s so crazy to walk outside and see my face on a billboard for the show that broke records for ABC Family. It is so amazing. It’s such a dream come true.
Gilles Marini was just cast as Bay’s biological father, the man Daphne grew up thinking was her father. What was Daphne’s relationship like with him?
He abandoned Regina and Daphne when Daphne was three years old. Coincidentally, it was the same time that she became deaf. She has a lot of resentment built for this man. I’m really excited to see how it plays out because he’s such a charming human being that it’s going to be hard for anyone to [hate] him.
Watch the “Switched at Birth” Series Premiere on xfinityTV.com:
When you first read the script for the show, did you realize it was going to be a huge hit?
You hear “Switched at Birth” and you immediately go to this afterschool special. I read the script and saw that the characters were incredibly defined and developed, specifically the deaf aspect. The community was portrayed with this class and it’s a very accurate portrayal of the deaf community. I immediately fell in love with Daphne because she is never a victim. A lot of people hear deaf and they think, “Poor pitiful person.” She is just a bright, shining person who is happy to learn about this new family and happy to experience new things. How can you not like her? She encompasses everything I wish I could be.
How is Daphne and Bay’s relationship going to develop over the course of the season?
I think they’re two polar opposite people. Daphne struggled a whole lot in her life. She was picked on as a kid. She had to define how to be happy. That came from the discovery of this rich culture and beautiful people. Her deafness is very much a part of who she is. It’s foreign to Bay. The affection of her own parents is there. John and Katherine love her very much. But she always wants more. Daphne’s happy with what she has. Over the course of time, they’re going to balance each other out.
What about Daphne’s relationship with John and Katherine?
She’s definitely wary, but there’s a great thing that happens where she went her whole life without a dad and to find out she has a dad who is funny and intelligent and very into sports, when she plays basketball, when her mother is a hairdresser and artistic. It made her wonder why she’s the way she is. It’s easier for her to connect with these other people than it is for Bay to connect with Regina.
Marlee Matlin’s playing Daphne’s counselor at school. What’s it like working with her?
I was terrified to meet Marlee. I was sweating bullets. I went up to her in the make-up chair and said, “You’re Marlee Matlin. I’m Katie LeClerc and I’ve looked up to you my entire life.” She immediately made all my fears vanish. She’s so sweet and she’s got a humongous personality. She’s got more energy and spunk than anyone I’ve ever met in my life.
What are the challenges of portraying a deaf character?
For me to do everything that a normal actor does, to hit their marks, to remember the lines, since it’s a dramatic show to be in the right headspace, and on top of that, for me to do it in English and in American Sign Language, which has a different grammatical structure, and to have an accent on top of that, it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
You have a milder hearing impairment. Does that help you play the role?
Absolutely. I have something called Meniere’s disease. One of the symptoms is fluctuating hearing loss. Sometimes I’m fine and sometimes I’m unable to hear people calling my name and I rely on my brain to read lips. Reading lips is so challenging. You guess a lot. To be able to use that for Daphne is very helpful. Without it I wouldn’t be able to be Daphne. It’s hard to complain about the Meniere’s disease even when I have vertigo attacks, because without it, I wouldn’t have the job that I have.
Do you think it’s important that characters with disabilities be played by an actor with those disabilities?
I think it’s very important to be aware of other people’s challenges and what other people are going through. The deaf community has its own set of beliefs in that it’s not just a disability, it’s a community. That being said, Hugh Laurie is not American. He doesn’t use a cane. He was hired because he’s good at suspending our disbelief. Actors are actors because they take you to a place you can’t get to by yourself. I think as long as you have the ability to make people believe what you’re saying, you should have the chance to let your voice be heard.
Have you gotten feedback from the deaf community about this show?
First of all, one of my favorite moments in the history of my entire life – Constance Marie and I, on June 6, the night of the premiere, we’re in this heavy, dramatic moment, emotional tears running down our face, and we find out that we’re number three trending on Twitter, we both just started screaming with joy. Later that day, we looked through some of the comments. People are saying, “Thank you for this show. It’s given me the confidence to be proud to be deaf.” That’s amazing. It’s so hard to be a teenager. Kids are so mean to each other. I think having a character you watch every week is going to build tolerance.