Why ‘This Close’ Creator Shoshannah Stern Wanted to Show the Messy Lives of Deaf People (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
This Close is a sexy, messy, funny, complicated show about two best friends navigating work and love while trying to stay true to who they are. It fits easily into the surge of dramedies about the millennial generation struggling with expectations of adulthood -- Difficult People, Girls, Looking, Love,Master of None -- that have recently taken over TV. But what perhaps sets This Close apart is that the two central characters -- Kate and Michael -- are deaf. They’re portrayed by deaf actors Shoshannah Stern (Supernatural, Jericho) and Josh Feldman, who both created and wrote the show, which premieres Feb. 14 on Sundance Now.
But what This Close is not is a “deaf show” or a “gay show,” though the creators acknowledge those are very much part of the groundbreaking series. “We wanted the whole deaf thing -- and Josh would tell you, the gay thing also -- to be more of an added layer than anything else,” Shoshannah explains to ET. “I think once you focus on misconceptions, the story becomes very specific. And then it's very easy for characters to become one-dimensional. People are very rarely just one thing, and we didn't want to create characters that didn't feel like people.”
And to their credit, they’ve created a layered series that explores the complications in Stern’s character Kate’s relationship with her hearing boyfriend (played by Friday Night Lights alum Zach Gilford) and feelings of tokenism at her public relations job, while Feldman’s character, Michael, turns to alcohol to self-medicate following a bad breakup as he struggles to write a sequel to his hit graphic novel. The series also stars Cheryl Hines as Kate’s boss, Nyle DiMarco as Kate’s potential client and Marlee Matlin as Josh’s mother.
“Being deaf is a messy thing. Not only does it means different things to different people, for me (and, as an extension, for Kate) sometimes it means different things daily,” Stern continues. “So we went about handling our show the same way.”
In an email interview, Stern discusses the inspiration behind This Close, deaf storytelling onscreen and why people need to stop thinking of diversity and disability as two separate conversations.
ET: Where did the inspiration to tell the story of these two characters come from?
Shoshannah Stern: It came from my real-life friendship and partnership with Josh. After writing together for a little more than a year and coming up with idea after idea that, in hindsight, were subconsciously things that we thought the powers that be wanted to see from us, one day we just went OK, this time why don't we try to write something that feels like us? And by that time, our friendship, though relatively new, was something that had quickly become something central to my life. We wanted to write a story that focused on that special kind of weight that friendship can have; how it can shape other things in your life and how messy that can be trying to balance all that together. While the characters of Kate and Michael were almost identical to us in the beginning, over time, they gradually took on a life of their own. The characters that we see now in This Close are very different than how Josh and I are in reality, and because of that, their friendship is different too, but we've always said that the importance and the weight of that friendship has always remained the same.
How much does this show draw on your and Josh’s real-life experiences?
All of the experiences directly related to the characters being deaf have either happened to us or someone that we know. It was important to us to keep them rooted in the truth, because we wanted to demonstrate the full spectrum of how life can be when viewed through a different lens. For example, what happens to Michael in the first episode, when he gets thrown off the plane -- (spoiler alert?) -- that happened to my brother. It was something that rocked him to the core, especially because the circumstances that got him thrown off were much less exciting and salacious than what gets Michael thrown off. My baby brother is one of the smartest and most intellectual people I know, and I remember him calling me and saying in this totally quiet and solemn way, “This world is really made for people who hear.” That was something that really cut me to my core, and every time I tell people that what happens to Michael happened to him, it shocks them. But, typically (and hopefully), the shocking stuff is what inspires conversations, and having conversations usually inspires understanding. And that's what we really wanted to do with this show.
Let’s just take a moment to salivate over the fact that you had Nyle DiMarco on the show, although I’m sad he didn’t have a gratuitous shirtless scene.
We actually did write an extremely gratuitous shirtless scene for him where he was "lounging by the pool with all 20 of his abs," if I remember right. But it just didn't work over the course of the rewrites, when we had a stronger sense of where the show was headed. But Nyle was someone that we had talked about coming on the show for a very long time. People who meet him are always blown away by how he looks, and, like, I get that, but as someone who is lucky enough to count him as a dear friend in real life, I have to say, his looks don't hold a candle to how sweet he is on the inside. So we kind of wanted to give him the chance to do something different and show his heart more than his abs. But I'm well aware that a lot of people really love all 20 of them, so I sincerely apologize that we didn't display them this time around.
When it comes to deaf storytelling, what do you find is often missing? Is it the inclusion of deaf characters, or going further than that and telling stories that speak truth to a deaf person’s experience?
There have been great deaf characters onscreen portraying great stories, and I always love seeing that. There also have been some not-so-great deaf characters, and that's OK, too. I think the larger problem is not just the inclusion of deaf characters, but also how these characters are written. I think that's probably true for any sort of minority representation. I think maybe it comes down to who is telling these stories and why. While I love the great strides in representation in front of the camera, representation behind the camera is just as, if not possibly more, important. I think it's important not to tell anyone’s story for them. It doesn't mean you can't write about them, just include them in the process in any way you can.
And I don't think it's possible for a character written as deaf to come to life if you don't cast a deaf actor to play that character. There's an entire life behind a character you have to live for it to be felt, and not just seen. If you have actors dipping in and out of that specific sort of reality and only portraying that reality when they're in front of the camera or onstage, it's very difficult for that authenticity to come through.
I read that two of your past TV roles -- Supernatural and Jericho -- were written with you in mind. How did that experience compare to other projects where you are coming in for a pre-written part?
I've been very fortunate, and very grateful, that I've had people believe in me enough to want to create roles for me. That alone still boggles my mind. What I loved most about these experiences has to be the collaborative aspect. On Jericho I was brought into the writers’ room, and they asked me what specific sort of experiences I've had that would create resonance onscreen, and where I would like to see my character go, how I felt she would communicate and why. I remember one time I was struggling with a scene that I got, and Carol Barbee, the showrunner, asked me about it. I expressed my reservations to her and she said, “Well, then just say what you think needs to be said, then.” So she literally gave me a paper and pencil and freedom and the liberty to rewrite that scene, and then she gave me her blessing when I showed it to her. I think that moment really has to be the genesis of This Close for me. Then, while I was creating the show, Supernatural happened, and that was really because of Robbie Thompson, who I'd worked with on Jericho. He told me he wanted to get the character of Eileen right, and so we had a lot of really profound and valuable conversations about representation and I learned so much from him. That really made me believe in my gut that This Close could happen, and so he watered that seed for me. I believe that collaboration is where the magic happens, and that's something I want to seek out for pretty much the rest of my life.
Cheryl Hines Brings a Little Crazy to the Sundance Now Series ‘This Close’ (Exclusive)
What sets This Close apart is that it’s created and written by deaf people. How often do you find that on the sets of other projects?
This Close happens to be the first show that has ever been written and created by deaf people, so hopefully we are helping to set a precedent. We had around 18 positions, both in front and behind the camera, over the course of all stages of production, that were filled by deaf people, and I would love to see that continue as well. I would love to see deaf people working as crew members, and disabled people and people of color as well.
This Close also stars Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God. Nyle DiMarco is producing an upcoming Broadway production of the play, and you’ve starred in a Deaf West Theatre production. What is it about this story that continues to resonate with audiences?
It's a love story. People love that. I think it's also because Children of a Lesser God is about language. That's something that becomes very important in any sort of love story. People communicate their love differently, even when they're using the same language. One person might feel like the other person doesn't love them because they don't do things for them, while the other feels like the other doesn't love them because they don't tell them that they do. But that's because one communicates through action, the other communicates through words. So I think for a relationship to be successful, you have to kind of learn the other person's language. I think that story is just an extension of that, and that's why it resonates with people.
Does it ever feel limiting that people might only know of Children of a Lesser God or The Miracle Worker as narratives about deaf people?
I'm usually thrilled that they know any kind of narrative at all. Any opportunity people have to learn about a different sort of experience is great. It means that door has been opened, and hopefully other narratives have a chance to widen it as time goes by. But that's only if they are given the chance. I think all kinds of people deserve all kinds of narratives to be told about them. Just one narrative, no matter how good it is, isn't enough to describe an entire community of people.
You portrayed Helen Keller on Comedy Central’s Another Period. While the show is a farce, was there any hesitation about doing that role and how people might interpret it?
I was petrified when (co-creator and star) Natasha Leggero came to me with it! I was especially concerned about playing a deaf-blind person because I am not blind myself. I felt like in a perfect world, that role should have gone to a deaf-blind actor. But I talked to a couple of people who are very into disability representation onscreen as advocates and kind of got their blessing. Of course, I know probably not everyone would agree with that, but I felt secure enough after these conversations with them to feel like I should say yes, and so I did. I knew that if I didn't take that role, it might go to a comedian who was very funny but not deaf, so I felt like it was the right decision to do it and I stand by that.
Deaf actors have advocated that deaf people play deaf characters on stage and screen. But do moments like playing Helen Keller ever feel like tokenism?
It was how they chose to portray Helen Keller on the show that made me want to say yes. What I liked about playing Helen Keller was that it always felt as if she was punching up, rather than them punching down. She's in control of the humor in the scene, and even if it seems like she's the brunt of the jokes at first, she always comes out on top and takes the power back from those around her. Jeremy Konner, who directed me in both episodes that I did, told me that he wanted me to play her like I was the biggest celebrity in the world. He said to me, "Listen, Helen Keller is the person that the Bellacourts dream of being, OK? She's the most famous woman alive and she inhabits that; these horrible sisters are just pretending." There was this sort of power about her on the page that I really liked. When I played her I really felt that, too, this sort of dignity and grace and class to her that was present, even when she does all the ridiculous things that she does on the show.
It seems that deaf storytelling is having somewhat of a moment in pop culture, from recent characters on Difficult People and Quantico, and The Silent Child earning an Oscar nomination this year. But I can’t imagine that feels like enough.
I definitely feel like we're entering in a very new and exciting period of time where I'm seeing an influx of diversity onscreen, and that has started to trickle down to include deaf people. I hope it continues to expand, and I hope that people consider deaf people and disabled people when they think about diversity. I find that too often, people think of diversity and disability as two separate conversations, but they are one and the same. Everything Shonda Rhimes has ever said about diversity I find to be true for me and my experience as well. I do know that people of color within the deaf community have felt especially underrepresented, and so I hope that we continue to do better in that regard, with myself included in that effort.