On Her Own Two Feet
I saw the casting call on the Colorado Hands & Voices Facebook page in the autumn of 2020. Casting directors were asking for a deaf 6-year-old Hispanic female. I had one of those! My daughter, Abiah, had always shown a love for performing in our living room. Since she’s adorable, we sent in her photo. When the casting agent sent us the script to record a video audition, Abiah made it clear that she was NOT going to do an audition for a movie without singing and dancing. However, after the deadline for the video audition passed, the casting agent called us. We submitted the video and, shortly after, learned that Clint Eastwood himself was reviewing her tape. He chose Abiah!
I clearly told the casting agent that my daughter is not fluent in ASL. She uses hearing aids for her bilateral loss. As a toddler she used ASL, and we were all working hard to continue our understanding and fluency. Over time, she has chosen to use more speech, so her ASL has decreased. The casting director said that since Abiah’s role was minor, she didn’t need to be fluent. After asking a few more questions, we signed a contract with Warner Brothers.
Cry Macho was filmed in New Mexico. Abiah had her own trailer and wardrobe, and four other kids on set joined her with a tutor in a schoolroom. When she first walked in, all the other kids signed “Hi, my name is -----.” Abiah immediately signed back “My name is A-B-I-A-H” and then said orally “I can talk this way, too!” The interpreter on set had been working with all the kids on basic ASL conversational skills. The other children had acting experiences in movies and television, but this world was new to Abiah. She knew basic ASL. As a result, she was able to help the others learn some signs while they helped her learn how to perform.
The day that all the children met Clint Eastwood found the older girls giddy and giggly in their excitement. Abiah followed their lead. I asked her, “Who is Clint Eastwood?” She said all she knew was that he was old and she hoped he would stay healthy. (All the Covid testing, masks, and crew members in full blue suits with face shields were concerning to her.) When Abiah met Mr. Eastwood, she told him her name and her home state; Colorado. He was kind and nurturing to all the kids, but for Abiah, he sent back his assistant to ask what she would need on the set.
I try to allow her to advocate for herself as much as is reasonable for her age. I looked at her for an answer. She asked for people to face her and take their masks off when speaking to her. Clint’s assistant said they wanted the children to be as comfortable as possible and have fun. And Abiah truly did. She met new friends, gained acting experience, ate good food, spent time with animals, and witnessed the ins and outs of a feature film production while working with a Hollywood legend.
When filming, Abiah’s hearing aids came out because the movie was set prior to the existence of high-tech Phonak hearing aids. In one scene, she signed something that wasn't in the script. After Abiah signed it on multiple takes, an editor asked me what she was doing. I explained the sign. One of the producers explained that children either sink or swim in the intense environment of making a feature film, and Abiah was soaring. She was patient through hours of waiting, of school, and filming the same scene over and over from different angles. I was shocked at how naturally it came to her!
However, my proudest mama moment had nothing to do with filming. The crew had been told that when Abiah was on set, they had permission to take off their masks to give her instructions. However, no one was doing that! While the other kids and cast knew what they were supposed to do, Abiah had no idea. Due to Covid, I wasn't allowed on the set, so I was watching from a distance. I could see her frustration level rising and was about to talk to one of the crew members. But before I could say anything, Abiah raised her hand and said respectfully, “Excuse me. I want to follow directions, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do because I can’t see anyone’s mouth.” As tears formed in my eyes, I saw crew members apologizing to both Abiah and Clint Eastwood because they had forgotten their instructions.
While in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people, she was able to respectfully advocate for herself! So many times as a mom, I wonder how much I am missing or failing with her. Will she be angry with me for not following through with ASL once she decided to be oral? Do I baby her too much, or have I ever thrown her to the world unprepared? Will she be bitter that she was the only student in her class who is hard of hearing or deaf? But in that moment, I saw how strong my little girl is. On the set of a movie about how strength isn’t always about muscles and machismo, I saw my little girl’s strength to speak up for herself.
One day, Abiah will understand what a huge deal it is that she was able to spend day after day with a Hollywood legend, especially amid a pandemic. But for now, she just knows that Clint Eastwood made her laugh, that he was kind to her and good with the horses. Someday she’ll understand that it’s not normal to send in one picture and one video and get cast in a feature film. But for now, she’s simply excited to see her face on TV, along with the sweet friends she made.
From the day she was born, her daddy and I knew that her life would look different from what the world considers “typical.” And though there’s a learning curve while being a hearing parent to a child who hears, sees, and learns differently than we do, we’ve always been excited for what her future holds. During a year when the world has seemed so harsh and unforgiving, I’m beyond grateful for this experience that will be etched in Abiah’s mind, always. ~