Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
Every network star, producer and publicist says her television show is amazing. Groundbreaking. Must-see TV. In truth, only about 25 percent are worth sticking past the first commercial break.
But when Katie Leclerc says "America needs a show" like her ABC Family series, "Switched at Birth," I'm inclined to agree.
Leclerc stars as Daphne, a young woman who, yes, was switched at birth, but, more germane to this story, is deaf. She uses sign language and speaks with a "deaf accent." Daphne is far from the "Friends"-perfect characters we see on most TV shows.
"I think that it a surprise for most people to hear that American Sign Language is the third most common language in the United States," Leclerc says in a phone interview. "It goes English, Spanish, ASL. If you are familiar with the deaf culture, and you're integrated into the deaf world, it's not a surprise, because there's so many deaf people in this country. But the world's are so separate that if you don't know somebody who's deaf, if you're not involved in that culture, it's kind of hard to break through. And I think that 'Switched at Birth' is a little bit of a window where a hearing member can look through this window - can peek through this window - and say, 'Oh, check out the deaf culture.' 'Oh, there's really no difference.' There's really not.
"Maybe people are afraid of what they're unfamiliar with? ... I would like to think that a show like this, creating familiarity, is also creating a place where we can all sort of ... understand each other on a different level. And I think that 'Switched at Birth' does that. You get an insight to these characters, and otherwise you probably wouldn't necessarily."
It's not a stretch for Leclerc to portray someone with a physical challenge.
"I learned sign language when I was in high school, because I needed a foreign language to graduate," she says. "And then later I found out I have something called Ménière's disease, which is a problem with fluid retention in the inner ear. So, I have pressure in the ear, ringing in the ear, attacks of vertigo and fluctuating hearing loss."
Leclerc, 25, was a working actress when ABC Family put out the casting call for "Switched at Birth." She made a YouTube video audition and was contacted for an in-person tryout.
"I'm not a deaf, deaf, deaf, capital 'D' person," she says. "Daphne is. But I sort of went in with the expectation of, 'Man, I hope this goes really well,' and 'Jeez, I hope this show is successful,' because I think that America needs a show like this. And it's a really good family show on top of it. I just really liked it."
"I went in thinking, 'Man this would be awesome,' but not expecting to get it," Leclerc continues. "I got a call back and they asked me if I could perform the role of Daphne with a 'deaf accent.' And so I worked incredibly, incredibly hard, and made everybody in my life a little bit crazy for a couple weeks while I worked on the accent. And I went back in and had a screen test, and eventually I got the role."
"I got it, and it is a dream come true," she says. "My life has been different in so many wonderful ways, and unexpected ways."
Leclerc admits she had a little bit of apprehension, at first, about portraying Daphne with a "deaf accent." Now, "I absolutely do feel like it was the right move," she says. "My early concern in developing the accent (was) that I absolutely want to be respectful in every way possible. Because it is a culture that I love."
The actress met with deaf friends and made every effort to be sensitive to those whose speech is affected by hearing loss.
"I never want to step on anybody's toes," Leclerc says.
She calls Ménière's disease a "blessing" in that it provides her the opportunity to better understand the deaf culture.
"I never want it to come off as, 'Who is this hearing girl who's doing that?' No. In fact, it's somebody who does have a hearing loss that is actually, performance-wise, strong enough to know the lines and put on an accent," Leclerc says. "I felt really grateful that (creator) Lizzy (Weiss) and ABC Family sort of let me try it on and gave me the opportunity to try it with the accent. I think it was the right choice for the character. Most definitely."
"My personal friends and the people that I really care about, they're just happy for me to be on this great ride. The feedback that I've gotten has always been outstandingly, overwhelmingly positive, which is great," she adds.
"Switched at Birth" debuted in 2011 with the highest-rated premiere in ABC Family history. The series was picked up for a whopping 32-episode first season and took home the Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming trophy at the Television Critics Association Awards.
"It's so much fun," Leclerc says. "We love each other. I didn't expect to - it sounds cheesy - become a family off-screen, but we support each other. We talk to each other regularly. I mean, in the six weeks after we wrapped filming, (co-star) Vanessa (Marano) and I were asked to do this promotional thing. And in the parking lot, as we pulled up in Pasadena, it was like a cheesy romantic comedy. We both dropped the stuff that was in our hands in the middle of the parking lot and just ran to each other, so we could hug each other, because we hadn't seen each other in six weeks."
"It's great to love your cast members," Leclerc says.
The final 10 episodes of "Switched at Birth's" first season begin Monday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m. on ABC Family. Leclerc says, "Daphne kind of, toward the later part of this season, she kind of gets into a little bit of trouble. She gets a new job and, in getting a new job, she gets some new friends, and she makes some choices that are somewhat questionable. However, all of your choices have consequences, and we sort of have to deal with that at the end of the season."
"Switched at Birth" was renewed for a second season, which is expected to begin in 2013.
For more on "Switched at Birth," visit http://www.abcfamily.go.com/shows/switched-at-birth.
Katie Leclerc is online at http://www.katieleclerc.com. Follow her on Twitter: @katieleclerc.