Millicent Simmonds, Deaf Breakout Star of ‘Wonderstruck’

October 28, 2017

Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds’ life took an unexpected turn at about the age of twelve when she sent in an audition tape for an open casting call to director Todd Haynes and ended up landing the part! Over 200 other children tried out for Wonderstruck’s Rose, a deaf girl from the 1920s, but Millicent stood out. “There was something about Millie,” Haynes says. Her energy and excitement, as well as her pride in being Deaf, was enough to make him cry.

Millie was familiar with the story as she had read the original graphic novel of Wonderstruck previously while attending Jean Massieu School of the Deaf. She felt an immediate connection to the characters and the story and was convinced it was written by a Deaf person. However, both the novel and the screenplay’s author, Brian Selznick, is a Hearing person. He researched Deaf culture and has a lot of deaf friends and so was able to tell the story convincingly from a deaf person’s point of view.

Millie lost her hearing when she was a baby due to a medication overdose. Her mother, who she enthusiastically refers to as her “best friend,” researched the Deaf culture and made sure that everyone in the family learned American Sign Language. In third grade, Millie joined a drama club and enjoyed performing in local plays where she received positive feedback for being remarkably “animated and expressive.”

Haynes felt casting a person who was actually deaf was one of the most important things he could do for the part of Rose. “There are moments in the movie that only deaf people will truly understand,” he said. Millie had performed in a short student film, but Wonderstruck was her first feature. She stars alongside Julianne Moore as well as a number of other deaf characters. On set, Millie used sign-language interpreters. When it came to acting, the young actress says, “Todd allowed me to just do it. He allowed me to be authentic and just be my true self.”  The first third of the film is almost like a silent movie which reflects the personal experience of Rose. “I thought it was nice that Hearing people would be able to just experience the film without sound. They would have to rely on their eyes and the visuals,” Millie says.  

The film depicts the difficulties that Rose encounters at a time when Deaf people were in many ways cast aside. Those who worked with Millie insist she was an inspiration on set for both her lovely personality and her natural acting gift.

Millie is using her exposure to advocate for the Deaf Community. “I want to see more Deaf people have the opportunity to become actors,” she says. She also encourages Hearing people to learn American Sign Language, saying, “I want [people] to really recognize that Deaf people do have frustrations because of lack of communication access. And support the Deaf Community, inviting them into the greater society. That we’re all one big family.”

Wonderstruck premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Millie is currently, working on her next film; it’s a supernatural horror project entitled A Quiet Place to be released next year.