Marlee Matlin has been a near constant presence onscreen since her groundbreaking 1986 debut in “Children of a Lesser God,” when she became the youngest woman, at 21, to win an Oscar for best actress and the first deaf performer to win any Academy Award.
While she has continued acting in films — most recently “CODA,” which won best picture last year — Matlin has also become a TV regular on shows like “Reasonable Doubt,” “Picket Fences,” “The West Wing,” “The L Word,” and “Switched at Birth,” earning four Emmy nominations along the way.
Matlin is now back working in television, but not on the screen. She has directed an episode of the new FOX series “Accused,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., making her the first deaf female director to work in TV and to join the Directors Guild of America.
“Accused” is an anthology series focusing on a different crime each week, with each episode telling the story of the case through the perspective of the defendant, some of whom may be innocent or caught up in circumstances beyond their control. The show, based on a BBC series, is being executive produced by “Homeland” co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa as well as David Shore (“House”). The series’ diverse roster of directors also features Billy Porter, Tazbah Chavez, and Michael Chiklis; episodes will feature actors Wendell Pierce, Margo Martindale, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Molly Parker.
In the episode Matlin directs, the sixth of the season, a young deaf woman named Ava (played by a deaf actor, Stephanie Nogueras) serves as a surrogate mother for Jenny (Megan Boone) and Max (Aaron Ashmore). When the baby is born deaf, Ava, over the protests of her boyfriend, KJ (played by a deaf actor, Joshua Castille), becomes increasingly involved in the child’s future, contemplating drastic, even dangerous steps.
Speaking through an ASL interpreter, Matlin, 57, recently discussed via video her directing debut and what appealed to her about the script.
Q. Were you looking to direct for television?
A. Directing was something I had thought about for a long time. I wasn’t sure where it would happen first — feature film or television or theater — but when I was offered this and it was a Howard Gordon show, I said that’s a no-brainer. Then I had a chance to look at the script and I was even more sold.
As a director, I was able to tell this story through my eyes. It was surprisingly well-written, and the producers were more than open to me asking questions. It was a great collaboration.
Having deaf characters and telling deaf experiences, talking about the barriers and the struggles of exclusion made more sense if the director were deaf. I was able to provide that perspective authentically on screen.
Q. Why was this story appealing to you?
A. This story is important because it hasn’t been told before — deaf people can be surrogates and there are deaf doulas and deaf doctors and deaf nurses out there. We have so many more stories to tell.
Q. Was it a major adjustment from being an actor to a director?
A. I had never had the opportunity to participate at that level. Usually, I’m just the actor studying my lines and my character, going in for hair and makeup and waiting to be called. Now I had to focus on how everything interplayed in the script — all the characters and the story we were telling. I was there for pre-production, for casting, for every single aspect of the process. I hadn’t really thought about what it all entails before. The 12 hours a day went by so quickly. I will never look at a set the same way again.
Q. What were the biggest challenges for you as a first-time director?
A. One of the biggest challenges, deaf or not, is to be on time and not go over whatever time you’re allotted for your shots. As an actor I know what a TV series pace is like and what it’s like to feel rushed, but as a director it’s different because you’re on top of things 100 percent of the time. That was a lot of fun for me.
Q. How was it collaborating with a hearing crew and a cast that was a mix of hearing and deaf actors?
A. I wanted to have fun and I wanted everybody to get along and feel safe on my set. Communication was the number one priority for everyone. They had interpreters available for me 24/7. On the call sheet every day they’d put a resource where you could look online to learn sign language. That was indicative of how the actors and the crew were open to communication.
One of my favorite moments came when two of the deaf actors, Stephanie and Josh, told me how much it meant to them to work with a deaf director — they didn’t have to rely on a second-hand communicator, they were being directed for the first time in the language they understood. And, as an actor I knew exactly what they were going through.
Q. Do you look forward to a day where interviews are not about you being a pioneer and just about the story you are telling?
A. It’s important to talk about the story, but this will never stop, that’s just the way it is. And that’s OK. I’m very proud of my community, I’m very proud of my culture, and I’m happy to share that information — I want people to learn more about it. As long as I’m helping move along the conversation, I don’t think we should stop.
Interview was edited and condensed.
On FOX. Premieres Jan. 22 at 9 p.m.