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Meet Lauren Ridloff, a superhero both on and off the screen.
The 43-year-old actress is set to make history as the star of Marvel's upcoming film Eternals, in which she's cast as Makkari – the franchise's first-ever deaf superhero.
Makkari is predominantly known for superhuman strength and super speed, which gives her the ability to create cyclones, defy gravity and run on water. Ridloff's character in the Marvel Studios adaptation is similar to that of the original comic, but with an added element of uniqueness.
In the forthcoming film, Makkari will also be deaf, giving her an advantage over her fellow defenders. "Let's just say Makkari would not be as fast as she is if it wasn't for her deafness," Ridloff told the Los Angeles Times at the Eternals world premiere.
The film's cast also includes Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie. Oscar winner Chloé Zhao is the director.
Eternals boasts one of the most diverse casts of any Marvel movie to date. Ridloff is a Black and Mexican American deaf actress joined by nine other Eternals who represent a mix of abilities, genders, ages, ethnicities and sexualities.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty
"I hope it just starts to normalize what should have been there in the first place," Jolie recently told Reuters. "I hope people watch these films in years to come and we don't even think about it as being diverse, it just becomes what's normal and what's right, and what's appropriate representation of the world we live in."
The 26th Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film centers on an immortal alien race created by space gods (the Celestials) and a group of 10 superheroes (the Eternals) who fight to protect humanity from evil against their enemies (the Deviants).
Keep scrolling for more about Ridloff's unexpected start to acting, her successful run on Broadway, lessons learned on the set of Eternals, and more.
Lauren was raised in a supportive family.
Growing up in Chicago, Ridloff was born into a hearing family. Her father is of Mexican descent and her mother is Black. Her parents made it a point to instill a strong sense of identity in her at a young age.
Her parents didn't assume she was deaf when she was first born, thinking she might just have a developmental delay. It wasn't until she was the only 2-year-old who didn't turn her head to look at an alarming fire truck that they came to the realization.
When doctors said that the deafness would limit Ridloff's educational and professional goals, her parents thought otherwise – and set her up for success. They sent her to a Catholic school with hearing children, taught her sign language, and later placed her in the Model Secondary School for the Deaf.
"That was an awesome, amazing experience," Ridloff told the New York Times. "I was just like everybody else."
Lauren was a teacher before she became an actress.
After she graduated from Hunter College in New York, Ridloff pursued a teaching career — having always had a passion for English and writing. Prior to her teaching pursuits, the educator's original dream was to be a children's book author (a continued aspiration).
"My goal growing up was to write a book," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "That's why I studied English and creative writing in college, and that is a big reason I started teaching. I wanted to write children's books." She continued, "I felt that the best way to understand how a child thinks in their mind is to be with them all day. So I started teaching because of that."
While in New York, she taught kindergarten and first grade at Public School 347, a Manhattan school for children who are deaf, hard of hearing or born to deaf parents.
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Lauren tutored her Broadway director in American Sign Language (ASL).
It wasn't just the students at Public School 347 who learned from Ridloff. She tutored the director of Broadway's Children of a Lesser God (a story about the relationship between a deaf student and her former teacher) in ASL. That job unintentionally led to her being cast as the star of the show.
Only ever having dabbled in community theater and some film work for friends, Ridloff's stint on Broadway left critics mesmerized. Director Kenny Leon told the New York Times, "If you didn't know her résumé, you'd swear she'd been doing this her whole life." Ridloff was nominated for a Tony Award in 2018.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
The actress' performance left a huge impact on the deaf community as well. Her costar, Joshua Jackson, said "She's brilliant, and it would be truly stupid of our business not to make a space for a talent like that."
Lauren has TV experience, too!
Ridloff was cast as Connie in season 8 of The Walking Dead, marking her first-ever TV experience. Her performance in this role left her in high demand, and soon after, she was cast in the upcoming Marvel movie.
Her character in Eternals will be presented much differently than Connie in The Walking Dead, in terms of deafness. The difference? There will be no learning curve for the supporting characters in Eternals.
"It's just presented as who she is. And in talking with her, she didn't want the movie to have to stop to address it, because [in] The Walking Dead they had to because for the first time in nine seasons, somebody had this difference," Marvel Studios producer Nate Moore told ComicBook.com. "These Eternals know Makkari's deaf."
Lauren learned to advocate for herself on the Eternals set.
A big reason why Ridloff never had plans to pursue acting growing up was because she never saw people like herself on screen — but theater was different.
"Every once in a while, like maybe Marlee Matlin, I saw on the big screen, and then years went by, and you would see somebody appear on one episode of a TV show or another episode there," she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty
She explained how theater was a "much more natural and inviting medium for deaf actors" because the production came equipped with staff and a complete toolbox ready to support its deaf and hearing cast members.
Since The Walking Dead was her first TV role, she always felt pressure on set to prove that she was easy to work with — and feared asking for too much. It wasn't until she worked alongside A-list, Hollywood actors, who "know exactly what they want," that she learned to advocate for herself on a job.
courtesy of Marvel Studios
She developed a close relationship with her castmates and applied the lessons learned to herself. She told The Hollywood Reporter: "They all have their own needs, and they have their own specific requests. At the end of the day, it seemed very similar to what I was going through. The common shared goal for all of us is that we want to be able to deliver."
Lauren is a former Miss Deaf America.
Ridloff competed in the National Association of the Deaf's Miss Deaf America in 2000, having been inspired by the competition two years earlier. As a representative from Illinois, she not only placed first in the preliminary rounds, but she won the entire competition!
— Ezekiel Payton (@EzekielsPayton) May 6, 2020
She was the second person from her college to win, but the first person of either African-American or Mexican-American descent to claim the title. "There was no swimsuit competition — it was about ambassadorship, not beauty, and I did a performance of 'The Giving Tree,' because I love Shel Silverstein," Ridloff told the New York Times.
Lauren hopes to inspire the Deaf community to dream big.
The actress shared why her character Makkari is so important for the deaf community, and how they need a superhero who represents them.
"I didn't dream of becoming an actor because I didn't see enough of myself on the screen," Ritloff told The Hollywood Reporter. "I didn't get to dream that big, so now, with Eternals, I'm hoping that more people will be able to dream bigger. If I can do it, they can do it."
She also hinted that this is just the beginning of deaf representation in the Marvel Universe. "I might be the first but I won't be the only one for much longer," Ridloff told Reuters. "There's another deaf superhero coming into the MCU very soon, so this is definitely a game-changer."
Eternals hits theaters Nov. 5.