Actress Lauren Ridloff shares insight on representation

Tony-nominated actress Lauren Ridloff, the first Deaf superhero in the Marvel film universe, shared a message about inclusion and representation during the Kean University President’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Ridloff told an audience of students, faculty and community members that she rarely saw Deaf actors on TV or in films as a child and is thrilled to increase representation.

“I realized I was making an impact,” she said during the event on Monday, December 11. “Visibility is so important. Follow people on social media who have disabilities. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. Let’s start listening.”

After she starred as Makkari in the 2021 Marvel movie “Eternals,” Ridloff said Google reported a 250% increase in searches for American Sign Language (ASL) classes.

Ridloff, whose lecture was entitled “The Universal Language of Inclusion,” also served as the Kean University Commencement Speaker in 2022.

Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D. said he wanted to bring her back to campus.

“As we listen to Lauren share her experiences and insights, let us be inspired to find our own paths,” Repollet told the audience. “Lauren Ridloff’s story is not just about her individual triumphs; it’s a reflection of the possibilities that unfold when we dare to dream and persevere in the face of challenges.”

Ridloff, who gave her lecture in ASL with an interpreter, said her acting career was launched in the Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” a role she landed after she was initially hired to tutor the director in ASL.

She was first inspired to pursue the arts – initially as a writer – when, as a child, she saw Deaf actress Marlee Matlin in the 1986 movie version of “Children of a Lesser God.”

“It was not often I got to see myself,” Ridloff said. “I didn’t dream of being an actor.”

After her Broadway run, Ridloff, who had been a kindergarten teacher, said she planned to return to teaching.

“I thought this would be temporary,” she said. “A friend said I should try it for a year. ”

Roles in TV’s “The Walking Dead” and “Eternals” followed. She has been an executive producer and has projects in progress.

Ridloff offered advice to students on communicating with the disabled and Deaf community and learning about their world. She, her husband and two sons are all Deaf; Ridloff said she has invited hearing actors to her home, including Academy Award winner Julianne Moore.

“See how other people navigate their lives. That makes us better storytellers,” she said.

Millie Gonzalez, Kean communication strategist and a disability justice advocate, moderated the lecture. Ridloff also met for a master class with students, where Kean Theatre Conservatory Director Rachel Evans served as moderator.

“She was amazing,” Evans said of Ridloff. “She was able to give context to the history of Deaf theatre and connect it to her own story, so students can learn the importance of representation in the performing arts.”

Afterward, Ridloff said she was impressed by the Kean students and their “thoughtful” questions.

Students, in turn, said they were inspired by her message.

Musical theatre major Eric Tayler, a junior from Roxbury, noted the sense of community Ridloff described.

“I thought that was super cool to learn about, because I feel like theatre is all about community. Everyone is working so hard to put on a great product, whether it’s TV, film or theatre,” he said.

Alina Lessing of Scotch Plains, a sophomore performance-musical theatre major, said she hopes to minor in ASL. She was glad to learn that the performing arts are becoming more welcoming of different people.

“I liked being able to see how you can really work with someone in the industry, with ASL coordinators and how all that works,” Lessing said. “It’s really important to me to be able to work with all different kinds of people.”

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