A Sit Down with Lauren Ridloff
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
As the founder of RoseBYANDER and a Deaf business owner, I encounter Deaf people from all walks of life every week. In 2020, RoseBYANDER really started growing and getting noticed. We were invited to show at NYNOW (and subsequently named as the "Brand to Watch"), and are well on our way to realizing my lifelong dream of having the ASL “I Love You” sign be universal. We have been seeking a brand ambassador for some time, and we knew Lauren Ridloff, who I knew from the Deaf community, would be the perfect ambassador for our mission. The first time I met Lauren, I was blown away by her warmth, spirit, intelligence, and kindness. She’s the human embodiment of bright, shining light, and she totally “gets” our brand and what we are trying to do with the ILY sign. We launched our partnership in early 2021, and soon after we had our first sit-down of the year with her on Instagram live. During the conversation, we were joined by hundreds of followers and were able to discuss Lauren’s career, ASL, and our collection.
Many of you reading this already know Lauren from the new “Eternals” movie and the popular show “The Walking Dead.” She began her acting career just three years ago when she was hired to tutor director Kenny Leon in American Sign Language as he prepared to revive the classic Broadway play “Children of A Lesser God.” After months of working together, it became clear to Kenny and the play’s producers that Lauren was the perfect choice for the lead. She pulled it off with resounding success, including two rave reviews from the New York Times and a Tony nomination. Long before acting, Lauren was crowned Miss Deaf America in 2000-2002 by the National Association of the Deaf, one of the highest honors within the Deaf American community. During that time, she traveled around the world representing our community. She went on to teach kindergarten for ten years in Manhattan and left to raise her two sons. At that point, she met Kenny Leon, and her acting career launched, fast and furious. Her first onscreen role was in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, playing a hearing woman in a silent film. She went on to become a series regular on the hugely popular AMC series, The Walking Dead. In 2021, Lauren will become the first-ever Deaf superhero opposite Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjani, and Salma Hayek in Marvel’s “Eternals”, playing Makkari, a role that was created specifically for her. Lauren recently received a 2020 BAFTA Breakthrough award, recognizing the most promising stars of film, games, and television in the US and UK.
It's easy to see why we partnered with her: she embodies our brand values, is hugely successful and is bringing visibility to the Deaf community in fresh new ways. I know there is much more coming in Lauren’s future. I’m so honored and thrilled to welcome her.
So, Lauren, how did you get started as an actress?
I was in the right place at the right time. You had mentioned before that I was a professor. I was a teacher. That was my career, my focus. I had taken some time off just to raise my two young boys. During that time, I was introduced to a director who had done some Broadway shows, and his name was Kenny Leon. He’s won quite a few Tony Awards for his past work. For example, he did “Fences” with Denzel Washington. (Yeah, kind of a big deal). He was interested in bringing back “Children of a Lesser God”, and before he decided to get into that project, he wanted to meet a real Deaf person, just to see what it was like to interact with someone who was Deaf. He wanted to learn some Sign Language and observe how people interacted with a Deaf individual. We first met in a coffee shop -- it was funny because he didn’t even drink coffee. He ordered orange juice. That was the first thing that I had taught him to sign. And so, we just met in the coffee shop about once a week for a year. We talked a lot about the script and he kept saying, “I want to work with you somehow”, but I never once thought that I would ever be considered for the role of Sarah. I am a woman of color and that character has always been played by a white woman. They asked me to come in and do a table reading, and one thing led to another.
I remember when we were just getting ready for the show on Broadway, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue pursuing acting. I had seen so many people who had pursued an acting career -- It was their dream. It felt kind of impossible. I was comfortable where I was in my life. But then, after working with the other cast members week after week, they had become so close to me, so dear. On stage, I really put my whole heart on the line every night, and I eventually realized it was something that I wanted to pursue.
How many nights did you have to perform every week?
A lot. The Broadway show ran for seven weeks. It was so gratifying. During that time, Kenny Leon gave me some valuable advice that has stuck with me through today. He always said over and over, especially during rehearsals, “Always remember that this needs to come from a place of love.” Any emotion you feel, you give, or you put out, you have to remember that the base of the emotion is love.
What gets you up in the morning? What do you look forward to every day?
Well, if I’m staying true to Kenny’s advice, I try to get up with love. Especially taking care of my two boys during COVID and being home. Everybody’s staying home! Both of my sons are taking classes online, and that’s why I get up every morning. I make sure that they’re ready, they’re dressed, they’re fed, that they’re motivated and ready to learn online.
What keeps you up at night?
Hmm. That’s a really good question. Again, love. It comes in the form of concern. I think: how can I make tomorrow better? What can I do for my boys? What can I do for my career? What can I do for my community? And in my community, what I mean by that is the signing community (and people who do support the signing community.) That includes fans, they’re so dear to me. That’s what keeps me up at night.
When did you start using ASL?
I started signing when I was two. My parents found out that I was deaf when I was two and my parents and I started learning Sign Language together. We all learned at the same time, but at that time it wasn’t American Sign Language. It was a different mode of communication, and it was more like Signing Exact English (SEE), meaning it followed the modality of spoken English, which is very different from American Sign Language. I didn’t learn American Sign Language until I went to school in Washington DC when I was 13. When I started learning American Sign Language, I really started to appreciate who I was. I started to identify as a Deaf person.
So, you felt your identity actually came from learning the language. And I assume the culture also, that you were seeing and experiencing at the school for the Deaf.
Definitely. My parents were both very culturally proud people. My mother identifies herself as an African American. My father is a Mexican-American. Both of them are very proud. And they already had that sense, that feeling that I needed to celebrate who I was. So they were very encouraging to me, and my parents did make that difficult decision of sending me away to school. I grew up in Chicago, but the Deaf school that I was attending was in Washington D.C., so I was sent off. Really, it ended up being the best decision that my parents could make for me because I finally understood the importance of what it meant to have an identity. I identified myself, first and foremost, as a Deaf person. And that’s how the world viewed me: as Deaf.
So, really, you’re a product of three different cultures. Three different cultures all make up Lauren. Wow.
Yes, I have a lot of intersectionalities. Before, I always felt conflicted. I wasn’t sure of myself. Like, am I being truthful if I just say that I’m Deaf? What about the Mexican part of me? What about my Blackness? I always felt conflicted. My identity has different facets, like diamonds, and I think it just depends on what mood I’m in. Maybe I’m feeling strong and Deaf at that moment. In the next moment, maybe I’m feeling a little Mexican. Maybe in the next moment, I’m feeling Black. I love that I understand intersectionality.
How do you see ASL changing throughout your lifetime?
I have seen ASL change a lot to keep up with technology. We didn’t have signs for the word ‘email,’ back in the day when I was a kid. Now we do have a sign for email: it's just like spoken language in that new words come up all the time. In the world of film, there really aren’t very many film-based signs or production-based signs for those technical words. Whenever I’m on set working and in the moment, I realize that there are technical terms that are very specific to production art films. Like if we’re signing in exact English, and following the exact modality of spoken English, things that are interpreted to me would make no sense. For example, we say “check the gates.” Check the gate? Like the horse gate? It doesn’t work in sign language. “Check the gates” is looking at the lenses and making sure that the lens is clear, and that there’s no hair or dust stuck on the lens. So, we’ve made a sign for that!
Have you had to come up with different signs for the role itself or for the film itself?
Yes, and I’ve enjoyed that part of my work, it's very fun. Creativeness usually comes through collaborations, like collaborating with the ASL consultant or the interpreters. In “The Walking Dead”, the characters “Whisperers” are a group of people that Connie’s group is usually fighting against. Those characters typically wear masks, so the sign for “Whisperers is like a general sign for wearing a mask! We wanted to come up with signs that look iconic that you can identify, even if you’re not using Sign Language. Someone pulling a mask over their head is very easy.
What is your name sign for Connie in “The Walking Dead”?
My name sign looks like this because Connie is wise and very visually keen. So you say “Connie” near your eyes with the sign.
Tell us about your role in “Eternals” and any signs from that film.
To sign “Eternals”, you use your pointer finger and start at your forehead, and zip away and down in a zigzag-like motion. In ASL, the word “eternity” is similar but harder to sign. This is easy and anyone around the world can do it.
Let’s talk about the ‘I love you’ sign, which is my favorite sign (yes, I think I am biased.) One reason that I founded RoseBYANDER is that I strongly believe in connecting communities and people through American Sign Language. And I think starting with ‘I love you,’ means we’re starting with love, which as you already mentioned, is the most important foundation in many things. so, I would love to know if you use that sign, how you use that sign, and why?
I have a history with that sign. Growing up, I really didn’t like it and just thought it was silly! I was 13 or 14 then, and now I feel so proud of that sign. It has the potential to become an international gesture, like the peace sign, which is a universal sign. Thumbs up, O.K., and others are universal, too. I think the ‘I love you’ sign will become universal. I use it all the time with my husband. We play around with it. For example, if one person says “goodbye” at the same time the other says “I love you”, we wiggle the fingers.
Do you have any favorite pieces from the RoseBYANDER collection?
Right now, I am using one of my favorite pieces. I’m excited about it. It's beautiful and my family loves it as well. When I first put it on, my husband said he wanted one, too.
What’s one thing that most people might not know about you? You don’t have to reveal any secrets.
That’s a fun question! I think what people may not know about me is the fact that I am actually painfully shy. I am so shy. That’s one of the reasons that I love acting because it gives me an excuse to not be shy if that makes sense. What helped me at first was when I was Miss Deaf America, there was something about having a crown and a sash. It gave me some type of armor that I could put on, and then I had a reason to talk with people. I had a reason to go up to somebody and introduce myself. It felt safe. I think that being shy is actually a good thing. I mean there are just some things that don’t need to be overcome.
Do you have any projects coming up that you might like to tell us about?
I am still so new to this industry, but I definitely want to be more involved in some projects that would require me to do than acting. I am interested in writing. Directing right now sounds too scary. On “The Walking Dead”, we have a different director for each episode, and I watch them and I think: wow! I admire them; their commitment, their focus, their attentiveness. It's definitely something to aspire to.