As far as actor Jeff Daniels was concerned, taking a major role in a new TV movie meant he had to learn a foreign language almost overnight. And it was a language that he had never heard. No one has, in fact, because it's utterly silent.
To land his role in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie Sweet Nothing in My Ear, which airs tonight at 9 on CBS, WTOL-TV, Channel 11 in Toledo, Daniels had to learn American Sign Language, which is the primary means of communication for the deaf community in the United States, and it's quite different than spoken English.
ASL has its own complex system of syntax and grammar, and uses signs made with the hands as well as other movements, including facial expressions and body postures.
In Sweet Nothing, Daniels plays Dan Miller, the father of an 8-year-old son who lost his hearing at the age of 4. Daniels' character can hear, but he's learned sign language to communicate with his son, and also with his wife, Laura, who is deaf. She is portrayed by Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin.
In an interview from the film's set in Los Angeles, Daniels admitted that his agent "fibbed" a little bit when telling the producers that Daniels already had some experience with ASL. In truth, he had none.
"The first thing I did was go online and buy a 10-hour how-to video course," Daniels said. "I locked myself in my house in Michigan, studied those tapes, and didn't come out for days on end." (Daniels and his family live in the small town of Chelsea, Mich., about 15 miles west of Ann Arbor.)
The producers later set up a videoconference with an ASL dialogue coach, and she signed all of Daniels' lines for him. "They put a camera on her, and she stared into the lens and did all my lines really slowly," he said.
"Then I studied that tape like nothing else I've ever studied in my life. You should see my script. It looks like some wall in a Greek cave or something. It's covered in symbols - where the arms go, the hands go, the fingers go. You never saw anything like it."
Stephen Sachs, who wrote the play Sweet Nothing in My Ear and then adapted it for television, said in a separate interview that the average hearing person has no idea how intricate and subtle sign language is.
"They think it's just a straight translation into body language of what you and I are saying to each other in English," Sachs said. "Wrong. It's an entirely different language. It has its own syntax, its own sentence structure, the word order is different than it is in spoken English. If you ask an actor to speak English and sign at the same time, which is what Jeff Daniels has to do as Dan, it's like asking him to speak and juggle simultaneously.
"You may be saying, 'I want to go to the store,' while at the same time you're signing, 'Me, me store go fast.' It's just incredibly difficult."
It's conceivable that Daniels might have been able to play the role without learning ASL by using a double to do his signing for him, but he dismissed that approach entirely.
"It's that 'piano thing,' you know?" he said. "The viewer wants to believe that the actor sitting at that piano is actually playing the keys, and if he's not - if the camera cuts from a close-up face shot to a close-up hands-on-keyboard shot - then you know it's fake. And you want to change the channel.
"I wanted to get it right. I knew there'd be hundreds of thousands of people in the audience watching me very carefully, making sure I was really 'speaking' fluent ASL."
The story at the heart of Sweet Nothing is that of a loving couple whose marriage falters over opposing views of what's best for their son. But the movie also reflects a fierce real-life debate within the deaf community over a technology and a surgical procedure that can provide a limited form of hearing to deaf people.
Electronic devices called cochlear implants can be surgically placed deep within the inner ear, then connected to an external device that's attached to the outside of the skull. Unlike hearing aids, the implants don't make normal sounds louder or clearer. Instead, they bypass the damaged parts of the auditory system and directly stimulate nerves with electrical impulses, allowing individuals to detect a different type of sound.
Implanting the devices destroys any natural hearing a person may have, and if they work at all - they don't always - extensive training is needed so people can make sense of the new sounds they're hearing. Speech therapy is normally also required.
In the movie, Dan and Laura's son, Adam (played by Noah Valencia), is a healthy and happy boy who thinks that being deaf is the most natural thing in the world. But when Dan finds out about cochlear implants, he begins to think they might be the key to making Adam's life better, enabling him to hear again, at least in some fashion.
Laura, who was born to deaf parents and has known no other life, is appalled at Dan's suggestion, arguing that the invasive surgery is both unnecessary and insulting to their son. It would make Adam feel that something was wrong with him, she says, something that needed "fixing."
In an emotional confrontation, Dan argues that the implants might "give [Adam] back one of the basic human senses that nature wants all of us to have."
"But this is what nature wants," counters his wife. "Nature did it. Being deaf is as natural to Adam and me as being 'hearing' is to you."
Her perspective echoes that of many in the deaf community who don't consider deafness as a handicap or disability, but rather something that makes them unique. And that's something that's worthy of celebration, not correction.
Director Joseph Sargent handles the tricky challenge of keeping up with the often silent dialogue in the movie by providing his deaf characters with "voices." Like watching a foreign film with English subtitles, viewers of Sweet Nothing hear "audio subtitles" spoken by off-screen actors so they can tell what the deaf characters are signing.
The approach takes a little getting used to, but eventually it blends right in with the rest of the dialogue and becomes essential to understanding the movie's progression.
As the couple's disagreement intensifies, it takes a heavy toll on their marriage, and they separate and wind up facing off in a courtroom in a custody fight over Adam, each claiming to know what's best for their son.
In the midst of the legal maneuvering, though, it dawns on Dan that what he's doing may really be more for himself than for Adam. He misses talking to his son like he did when the boy could hear, and he misses hearing Adam's voice as well.
Meanwhile, Laura is dealing with a realization of her own. She loves her son the way he is, but she begins to think that in her fear of losing the special bond she has with Adam, maybe she's unfairly depriving him of the chance for a brighter future.
The two-hour movie is a warm and family-friendly tale, exposing the fears and prejudices of both the hearing and the deaf communities, and taking a fresh look at what's "normal" and what's not.
That's due in no small part to the stellar performances of its two lead actors. For Matlin, a terrific and accomplished film and television star who happens to be deaf, that's nothing unusual. After all, she won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in the theatrical release Children of a Lesser God.
But for the 53-year-old Daniels, the role further solidifies him as one of the most versatile actors in the film industry today. That's quite a stretch from his goofy turn in 1994's lowbrow comedy Dumb and Dumber, but hardly a revelation to those who saw him play a washed-up novelist in the touching and critically acclaimed 2005 drama The Squid and the Whale.
In Sweet Nothing, he turns in yet another performance that deserves to be seen - and heard.
Contact Mike Kelly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.