What does it feel like for 8.4 million viewers to hang onto your every word as you make your case to Donald Trump? How about giving an acceptance speech at the Oscars, when it seems like the whole world is listening? It comes naturally to Marlee Matlin, an acclaimed actress and Hollywood star who seems to know no bounds. She has amazed fans the world over not only with her acting abilities, but by continually doing the unexpected -- from competing on Dancing with the Stars without the ability to hear music, to performing a stand-up comedy routine on the Celebrity Apprentice.
Marlee's face is unforgettable, but so is her voice. It's a fast-talking, quick-witted, confident voice, but one that's extremely memorable. It has a casual yet intelligent tone, but one that can adeptly convey the breadth of emotional expression the actress is known for. While Marlee's words are hers and hers alone, the voice that renders them into English belongs to a man by the name of Jack Jason. No other interpreter in the world has a job quite like him. Through Jack, millions of people in the hearing community get to hear what Marlee has to say.
While it's a pleasure to watch Jack in action and witness his interpreting skills, it's a rare treat to hear him speak his own words. He recently spoke with me from his office in California, answering my questions with the flair of a gifted storyteller. What follows is an excerpt from our interview.
Nataly Kelly: How did you learn sign language, and how did you become an interpreter?
Jack Jason: Sign language is my first language. English and Spanish are my second languages. I learned Spanish from my grandparents, sign language from my parents, and English from television. I was interpreting from the time I was a child, whether it was to get life insurance or directions to drive to stay with our cousins in Los Angeles. I was pretty much the conduit, the bridge between two worlds for most of my life, so it wasn't much of a surprise that I ended up doing what I do with Marlee, because I've been doing that all my life.
NK: Since you started at such a young age, how long have you been interpreting?
JJ: When I grew up, there were no teletypewriters or video calls, so I primarily interpreted phone calls. At that time, where I lived, it wasn't embarrassing to have Deaf parents; it was cool to be able to speak a different language than everyone else. But I never really did formal interpreting until I got to college. To me, signing was easy. Being in the hearing world was more of a challenge than being in the Deaf world, because I had to learn how to write and communicate in a way that I hadn't experienced growing up. I didn't have any intention of working with sign language or interpreting, but I took sign language in college because it would qualify as a language requirement. Then one day, I was asked to be a substitute interpreter.
NK: So, you didn't have any formal training as an interpreter?
JJ: When I was first asked to substitute, I didn't know how to interpret simultaneously. The interpreting that I did as a kid was consecutive. I would listen to what the hearing person said, wait until they were done, and then convey it to my parents. I hadn't developed the skill of listening and conveying information at the same time. So, it was trial by fire. I eventually learned how to process with one half of my brain and provide output from the other part of my brain. Within about a month and a half, I got really fast. Then, I started to take some interpreter training classes. Eventually, I got certified as a sign language interpreter.
NK: Did you ever think that you would end up as an interpreter in the entertainment field?
JJ: I always told my parents that I wanted to be a DJ or a television personality because entertainment was so much a part of my life. I had been watching TV and listening to the radio from a young age to learn English, and I wanted to be part of that. I started interpreting for stage and television productions and I started to develop that skill. My first job out of college was as an interpreter coordinator. I had to find interpreters and send them out on freelance jobs to hospitals, schools, and the social security office to interpret for Deaf people. I then moved on to the University of California, Berkley, coordinating interpreters for Deaf students at the university. The first year I was at Berkley, we brought in artists, performers, actors, and poets to create a Deaf arts festival. I did a lot of the interpreting for the stage performers. By the second year, I realized that I really liked producing arts festivals that had to do something with signing. I decided to take a break from UC Berkley and went to NYU to get my Masters. Then I stayed for my PhD in Educational Media.
NK: When did you begin working with Marlee?
JJ: While I was at NYU, I did a lot of stage interpreting. I was interpreting for Broadway performances for people like Whoopi Goldberg and doing Shakespeare in the Park. I was not uncomfortable interpreting in front of a large group of people, specifically in the performing arts context. One day when I was working in the office at NYU, someone called who was an assistant to William Hurt. They were looking for an interpreter because William Hurt was dating Marlee at the time and wanted information about interpreters for a trip to England. I took the call and explained that in the United Kingdom, they use British Sign Language, so they would need to bring their own interpreter with them for American Sign Language. In the end, they did not end up going to England after all, but they asked me to come to interpret for Marlee one afternoon. To my surprise, they asked me to take her shopping. Ironically, the first place I took her was the Trump Palace, which I thought was the height of luxury and the ideal place to take a movie star. Twenty-five years later, we found ourselves standing in the exact place we first met, but this time, Mr. Trump was giving her directions and we were on camera.
NK: Did you ever worry that you might get stage fright when interpreting?
JJ: Well, the year after we met, she was nominated for an Oscar. By that time, Marlee realized that I was comfortable on camera and could express her thoughts simultaneously so there was no time lag between the question and the response. A lot of times, if you watch sign language interpreters, there can be some lag time issues. When that happens, I think you lose the hearing audience. So, it was incumbent upon me to express Marlee in a fashion that made her sound as if she were speaking herself. I gave no thought as to whether it was a man's' voice that was speaking for her. The most important part for me was conveying the message and making it sound casual but professional, and to put a little bit of personality into it. I felt that so many times when I would watch interpreters on screen, whether they were interpreting for dignitaries or public figures, it was so hard to pay attention because there was nothing interesting in their interpretation.
NK: You also work as a producing partner with Marlee. How do you manage to balance those two roles?
JJ: When she did Celebrity Apprentice, I had to put aside my producing partner hat and solely wear my interpreter hat and that was a tough thing for me to do. I often serve as Marlee's confidante, business partner, and creative partner. So, it was a tough thing to be solely the on-screen interpreter. I made sure that it was the best interpreting I've ever done during that show, because I knew there would be a lot of people watching and they had never seen Marlee in a situation where she had an interpreter for such an extended period of time. I was very clear to make sure they put the interpreter in the right place so that Marlee could get full benefit out of it. We had a long discussion before they all came into the board room about where I would sit, where I would be placed, and so on. I didn't want myself to be hidden because both Marlee and I wanted it to be clear that this is how Deaf people communicate, this is how you use an interpreter, and this is how they express themselves.
NK: What was it like to interpret for Donald Trump?
JJ: Of all the people on the show, Mr. Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Ivanka were completely on message when it came to how to use an interpreter. They never, ever seemed to have a problem understanding what my role was and how to make it work. They were accommodating to a point that it surprised me, from where I sat to how I was addressed, to how I was featured on camera. I was very proud of the effort that they made to highlight how important an interpreter is in someone like Marlee's life, but yet without overdoing it.
NK: What was your favorite moment on the show?
JJ: My favorite interpreting moment was when Star Jones and Meatloaf were having a fight in the elevator lobby before Star got fired. Marlee said she felt like she was watching a movie, because I was conveying one half of the fight and then the other half, then one half, then the other half. Of course, I also had to interpret NeNe Leakes calling Latoya Jackson Casper the Ghost.
NK: Is there a sign for Casper the Ghost?
JJ: I had to finger spell it. It's an example of the diverse situations that I get myself into, interpreting on a plane flying over Lake Victoria in Africa, going to a Masai Warrior village and walking in with Marlee into a hut made of cow dung or like last year, standing on the White House lawn and interpreting for Marlee and President Obama. The whole range is there. When Marlee won her Oscar, she said, "and I just want to thank my parents." When I was saying those words for her, I knew my parents were in the audience. I was saying it for her and a little bit for myself, even though I wasn't saying it in sign language and they didn't understand what I was saying. That meant a lot to me. So, my voice broke a little bit, but the timing was perfect because it gave her words more emotional impact. I think it worked out perfectly.
NK: Will the world see more of Marlee, and hear more from you, anytime soon?
JJ: Marlee has said a million times, "Wouldn't it be funny if there was a camera trained on the two of us?" because we get involved in some very interesting situations. We'll be on a plane and she gets handed a Braille menu because they think she is blind, or producers that turn to the director of a show she's on and say, "Marlee Matlin is great, but is she going to be deaf for the whole show?" She used to freak people out with the speaker phone in her car by having me sign what they were saying on the speaker phone and then she would speak herself. People couldn't figure it out. She wouldn't let me tell them that I was there and she would say, "You know what, I can hear on Tuesdays." For a minute, they would actually believe it.
NK: What do you love most about interpreting for Marlee?
JJ: I wrote in a little journal when I was nine-years-old, "I want my voice heard on the radio and on television." Interpreting gives me a chance to do what I do well and have done since I was a kid. At one time, I might have wanted to be an actor or performer, and it somehow fulfills that in a non-threatening way. I'm like the fly on the wall that gets to watch everything that goes on. I'm part of it, yet I'm not part of it; I'm in the action, but I'm not in the action. A lot of the interpreting I do sometimes borders on performance. It gives me a personality and a presence to show the importance of interpreters in the life of a person who is Deaf. Marlee is who she is and just happens to use an interpreter. I'm not a teacher. I'm not a helper. I'm just Jack, the interpreter guy.