How Lauren Ridloff’s Deafness Became a Superpower in Marvel’s ‘Eternals’

The assistant director was concerned.

They were about to do something very loud (no spoilers!) on the outdoor set of Marvel’s “Eternals,” and this foolish woman didn’t want earplugs.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Well, if I’m wrong, this is definitely going to be a first, thought Lauren Ridloff, an actress who has been deaf since birth. She plays Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Eternals,” which is due in theaters on Nov. 5.

“I really did feel like a superhero at that moment,” she said. “Everyone else was like ‘Wow, that was loud!’”

This is the first major role in a feature film for Ridloff, who’s become known for playing Connie, a survivor, in “The Walking Dead.” (She’s shooting the final season now.) In “Eternals,” from the Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao, she is the supersonically speedy scout on a team of 10 immortal guardians of humanity that also includes Kumail Nanjiani and Angelina Jolie.

In the comics, Ridloff’s character is a hulking, hearing white man. She’s not exactly sure what made the “Eternals” casting director Sarah Finn look at her and say, “Yes, Makkari!” but she’s of course glad it happened.

“It means my two boys, who are also deaf, will grow up in a world where there are superheroes who are deaf,” said Ridloff, whose children are 7 and 9. “It means they’ll be able to dream a bit more wildly.”

In a video call in August from her home in Atlanta (“I’m hoping my boys don’t run behind me!,” she said), conducted with the assistance of an American Sign Language interpreter, Ridloff discussed how she got the role without auditioning, how venting to Jolie at a holiday party led to a solution for an irritating obstacle to deaf actors on set, and how Hollywood can be more inclusive for deaf individuals, both onscreen and behind the scenes. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you land this role?

I brought my son to an audition — I can’t tell you what for! — and the casting director saw me and wanted to cast me for something else. Then a few months later the casting director reached out to my manager and said, “We want to consider Lauren for a Marvel film, and I can’t tell you what it is.” I was like, ‘Wait, this is Marvel, seriously?” My first thought was maybe it would be “Black Panther.” Then I got the call that the director of the movie wanted to meet with me, so I dropped everything and came to L.A. Chloé Zhao and [executive producer] Nate Moore broke everything down and asked if I was interested, and my immediate answer was yes.

In the comics, Makkari is a hulking, hearing white dude. Were they specifically looking for a nonwhite, deaf, female actor?

To be honest, I don’t know much about how they made that decision. But I love that they decided to make Makkari everything he’s not in the comic books — he’s a huge guy, let’s find someone tiny. He’s blond, let’s find someone who has Black hair. He’s a man, let’s go with a woman. He’s hearing, and now the character’s deaf.

What did you have to educate people about as far as working with deaf actors?

When people learn they’ll be working with deaf actors, they think “She needs an interpreter,” but they often don’t realize they need to think in terms of resources and support, too.

What were some of the logistical challenges on set?

In some scenes, I had to face a wall. As a deaf person, how do you cue me? At one point, I was sharing my frustration with Angie — Angelina Jolie — at a holiday party after a day of shooting. And she immediately made a suggestion — why don’t we use a laser pen that special effects can easily erase? It was an “Aha, wow” moment. Whenever I’m looking at a wall, the interpreters would use a laser pen to make a circle on the wall — “rolling, rolling, rolling” — and once it went away that meant, “Action!”

Were you comfortable asking for what you needed?

I got to set believing that I had to show how easy I am to work with as a deaf person. I was concerned about seeming too fragile. But after working with others, I realized everyone has their own unique set of challenges, and that I need to think about what I need to deliver as an actor, and don’t apologize for it.

What should Hollywood do to be more inclusive of deaf actors?

Hollywood is finally figuring out why it’s so important to have representation, and now it’s more about how. That’s the part that’s more tricky. We need to have deaf writers and creative talent involved in the process of planning film projects from the beginning. When you have deaf experts within and on the stage, from the crew to makeup artists, it feels like that naturally leads to more authentic representation onscreen.

What about for deaf audiences?

Hollywood needs to take the lead on subtitling ads, trailers and those cute little interviews with clips that celebrities do promoting their movies. Another thing I’d like to see improve is the specifics of audio description. It’s not enough to see “music is playing” in a scene — what kind of music is it? Happy? Scary?

Are most movie theaters accessible to people who are deaf?

No! We’re an afterthought in movie theaters, and that needs to change. You have to use a special closed-captioning device to watch subtitling in a theater, and it’s a headache, because most of the time the devices don’t work. Then you have to go back to the front desk and find somebody to help, and by the time they figure it out that it’s not working — that it’s not going to be subtitled at all — the movie’s halfway done. Then you get, “Well, how about I give you a free ticket for the next movie?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” That doesn’t fix the problem.

Do you feel pressure to pave the way for future deaf actors?

I’m not going to lie, I do feel the pressure and stress sometimes, and that can be a burden. I have to remember that it’s not my job to inspire others, or to be a model — but what I do have is the ability to create those connections.

What do you hope people take away from this film?

Growing up, I didn’t dream about becoming an actor. I didn’t see myself on the screen. As a little girl, I thought I was one of only a few deaf people walking on this Earth. Now, as an adult, I’m aware there are at least 466 million deaf people and hard-of-hearing people out there. I’m not the only one. And that’s what it means to have a deaf superhero — a lot more people will see a lot more possibility.

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