NEW YORK (AP) — Three years ago, Lauren Ridloff gave an interview that concluded with the actor contemplating what she wanted to do next.
Ridloff had only one role, but it was a well-received one. Ridloff was the star of that film. a Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God,”She performed a powerful performance which earned her a Tony nomination. This made her an international star.
Ridloff hadn’t set out to necessarily be an actor. She initially was just helping “Children of a Lesser God” director Kenny Leon as a sign language tutor. Ridloff still had high hopes at the time. Talking to The New York Times in May 2018, she said she’d like to play a superhero.
To Ridloff’s surprise, the wish came true. To be continued in Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals,”Ridloff portrays the first superhero for deaf people in Marvel’s “cinematic universe.” In the film, which Disney releases in theaters Friday, Ridloff plays one of 10 immortal guardians alongside Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani.
“It was a manifestation,” Ridloff says, laughing. “At that time, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue in acting. It was terrifying. After quitting my teaching career, I tried acting. But then I was forced to end my Broadway show. What’s next? Do I even bet on auditioning? I didn’t think Hollywood was ready for a deaf actor at the time, let alone a deaf superhero.”
“Eternals,” in which the age-old superheroes have long secretly lived among humans but are now roused to prevent a cosmic apocalypse, seeks to expand many of the traditional notions. A person with hearing loss is seen alongside the other great saviors in a 26-film blockbuster film.
“In the beginning, I admit I was terrified,” Ridloff said in a recent interview by Zoom from Los Angeles through an American Sign Language translator. “It was almost like I couldn’t get out of bed. It was overwhelming to be the only and first deaf superhero. How do I even start to represent people and a community?”
Ridloff experienced an epiphany as she jogged, which is something that she regards as a kind of meditation. It was a fitting place to find clarity: In the film, her character Makkari has super speed, one of several traits of a character — a beefy white guy in the comics — that’s party drawn from Ridloff’s own characteristics.
“I realized when I started talking about me and when I started using pronouns like ‘I’ rather than ‘we,’ that’s how I can be my most authentic self. I can tell my own story, and I can allow people to decide if they identify and relate to me,” Ridloff says. “With that understanding, I feel so much more comfortable in my role.”
The 43-year-old Ridloff, who has been deaf since birth, had been primarily raising her two boys with husband Douglas Ridloff when her work with Leon led to a impromptu table read on “Children of a Lesser God.” Since then, Ridloff has had a recurring role on “The Walking Dead” and poignantly played a teacher in last year’s “Sound of Metal.”
“Working as a kindergarten teacher, let me tell you, they are a tough audience,” says Ridloff. “I had to be engaging. They had to hear these wonderful stories. That’s the only way that you keep them engaged. I think that’s where I developed my acting powers.”
Ridloff caught the attention of “Eternals” casting director Sarah Finn, who was looking for a wide spectrum of performers for the film. When Ridloff was brought in for a meeting with Zhao and producer Nate Moore, she didn’t know what movie or role she was being considered for. She figured, she says, “maybe I would be some woman in distress, some sort of victim, maybe they wanted me for ‘Black Panther.’”
Zhao and Ridloff met in Los Angeles. Zhao received an instant response.
“There’s so much joy in her, and she’s very proud of who she is,” says Zhao. “She’s very mischievous in real life. She’s got a twinkle in her eye and she flirts with the camera. She’s got a presence. When she first met (‘Eternals’ co-star) Barry (Keoghan), there was such a beautiful thing going on that I had to incorporate it into the characters.”
Ridloff’s casting is one of several MCU landmark moments in “Eternals.” The film also, in Chan, features the films’ first Asian American woman protagonist, the first gay kiss and, perhaps the biggest shock of all in a brief PG-13 scene, the first superhero sex.
“I do feel like we’re entering the revisionist period for this genre,” says Zhao. “It’s about time because it’s been a couple decades now. This desire is shared by both viewers and producers. Let’s challenge some of those fundamental ideas this genre was born out of.”
Ridloff notes that she soon won’t be the only deaf superhero in the MCU. Another will be featured in the upcoming Disney+ series “Hawkeye.” In the comics, Jeremy Renner’s character has often been rendered as deaf.
“I’m not going to be the only deaf superhero in the MCU,” says Ridloff. “We’re going to have another one joining very shortly, which I’m thrilled about.”
But in even the lengthy star-studded “Eternals,” Ridloff stands out as one of the performers you most want to see more of after the credits have rolled. As played by Ridloff, Makkari’s deafness isn’t just a limitation but a gain that makes her stronger. Ridloff’s harrowing scene includes a broken cry. This is more honest and real than the giddy superhero movies. It’s a meaningful moment for Ridloff who stopped using her speech from the age of 13 until it was necessary performing in “Children of a Lesser God” because she felt people were equating her intonation with her intelligence.
“That scream wasn’t included in the script at all. I just dove into the moment and I made the decision to scream,” says Ridloff. “I didn’t know at the time that that shot was going to make it into the film. Surprised to find it there. At the premiere, my dad had gone to see the movie with me, he was like, ‘That was a scream!’ He was shocked.”
But one question remains for Ridloff. Now that she’s a superhero, what would she like to do next?
“I would love to be a part of something that is similar to ‘Bridgerton,’ something that’s a period piece film because, really, you don’t see that many deaf people in period pieces,” says Ridloff. She smiles. “So I’m putting that out there.”
Follow Jake Coyle, AP Film Writer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP