SALT LAKE CITY — A big-budget Hollywood movie opening Nov. 10 in Utah stars young local deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, who hopes the film will encourage hearing parents with deaf kids to learn to sign.
“I feel very lucky my mom learned sign language and taught my family,” said the teen actress, who goes by Millie. “I don't know how hard my life would be if she never did that.”
“Wonderstruck,” based on a bestselling book by Caldecott Medal-winner Brian Selznick (known for his 2007 bestseller "The Invention of Hugo Cabret") simultaneously tells the stories of two deaf children: Rose, who lives in 1927 New Jersey, and Ben, who lives in 1977 Minnesota. Both, secretly wishing their lives were different, set out on individual quests to find what they are missing.
Millie, who is from Bountiful, plays young Rose in “Wonderstruck,” with Oscar-winner Julianne Moore playing the older Rose. Millie was chosen from a group of more than 250 other candidates after her former drama teacher notified her mom, Emily Simmonds, about the film’s open casting for the role, encouraging her daughter to audition, according to a KSL article.
Prior to “Wonderstruck,” Millie’s acting experience included a performance at the Utah Shakespeare Festival with her deaf school’s drama club and playing the lead in a deaf student's short film, “Color the World.”
Millie said it meant a lot to her that Selznick, who wrote the screenplay for the film, and director Todd Haynes wanted a deaf person to play Rose.
“I can relate to (Rose’s) frustration of not communicating with people and not understanding what they are saying,” Millie said. “Deaf people feel that every day.”
The Utah actress said she wishes hearing individuals understood how hard it is for deaf people to communicate on a daily basis.
“We don't want to be left out. We want to laugh when everyone else is laughing. We want to be included,” Millie said. “It's harder for us to learn to speak than it is for hearing people to learn ASL. And we all don't lip read. It’s really hard.”
Millie's mother said she hopes seeing how hard it is for deaf people to communicate with the hearing world in the film will help family members of deaf kids want to learn to speak sign language.
“Millie has very few family members that can communicate with her,” Simmonds said. “I feel bad for them.”
She added that sign language should be every deaf individual’s native language, as it opens doors to communicating and connecting with people in their community.
“It's what makes sense to them and it comes naturally. Just like speaking does to us,” Simmonds said.
Millie said the message of the movie is very similar to the book: looking for the people that we belong with. She said she loved Selznick’s story since she first read the book.
“I'm always reading and this was the first book I'd ever read or seen about a deaf person,” Millie said.
For Millie's mother, the story is about finding the people who we want in our lives, whether or not they are family.
“People often feel guilty or feel like they have to force relationships with family. They don't. Especially when the relationships are dysfunctional and parents are emotionally unavailable,” she said.
Simmonds said she has felt extremely proud as she has watched her daughter participate in this film project.
“She's blown me away,” she said.
“Wonderstruck” is rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.