Two 'Switched at Birth' teens fuel new ABC Family drama
Premiering Monday, June 6, the drama draws together two distinctly different clans once they learn they both brought the wrong baby home from the hospital years ago. The children are in their teens now, and one (portrayed by hard-of-hearing actress Katie Leclerc) is
The other girl (
A parent of two girls with husband
"I'm extremely fascinated with nature vs. nurture and which is more powerful, and this explores that a lot. Also, the people involved are really nice and really interested in doing quality work and finding the truth in the situation. That's always a great thing for an actor."
So is learning a new skill for the acting, per Thompson, and that means sign language in this case. "I'm learning as my character does," she notes, "so I'm in a much better position than Constance Marie, who has to jump right in (as Leclerc's presumed mother) and pretend she's completely fluent. There's a never-ending learning curve in getting to understand other people and their points of view."
Leclerc actually is capable of some hearing, and in regular conversation, her nonhalting voice makes it evident she is applying her acting abilities in conveying her "Switched at Birth" alter ego's more severe hearing loss.
"My sister is an ASL (American Sign Language) teacher," Leclerc says, "and she's very involved in the deaf community. She and I sat down at the very beginning of this and talked about what kind of hearing loss my character would have and how we wanted to portray that.
"We kind of mapped out which sounds and letters she would able to say and which she wouldn't, and it was a very tricky thing for me. I didn't want to be insensitive at all. It was a delicate process, but I feel comfortable with it now."
Meniere's disease is the inner-ear disorder Leclerc has. "I've played deaf characters a few times now, and a lot of times, people are surprised. They'll go, 'Wait, she's not deaf?' No, I'm hard of hearing. There are four symptoms: pressure in the ear, ringing in the ear, vertigo -- which is probably the most difficult to deal with, especially if it happens on a set -- and fluctuating hearing loss. At any given moment, my hearing can just drop out."
"Switched at Birth" is proving to be a highly beneficial work experience for Leclerc. She terms her co-stars and producers "very understanding. I've been very lucky so far, since I've only had one or two attacks while on set. I'll just sit down, and they're very sweet; they'll say, 'Can we get you any water? Anything?' The condition worsens as you get older, but for right now, my attacks have only lasted from 20 minutes to an hour. It's sort of been an obstacle, but we all can work around it."
The actors aren't the only ones adjusting to communicating with Leclerc, Berdy and Matlin. "The entire crew is learning sign language," Thompson reports," one bit at a time, and it's really beautiful to see. We're all talking with our hands a lot more than we used to. It's a good thing this isn't a feature film, because hands would be coming at you in all the close-ups!"
Thompson adds "Switched at Birth" poses other differentials between its two families, beyond the matter of hearing.
"I love that the series is entertaining," she says, "but it also has a consciousness-raising element. The audience gets to understand the deaf culture and the concerns and the prejudices involved, but other elements like class and race also are explored. That's why I like doing drama. It helps us work out issues in our own heads to see them depicted dramatically."