Given only 48-hours to create a short Dickie Hearts, delivers an endearing, driven short, ‘Passengers’. Hearts brings his heart, soul, and unique perspective to the narrative as the driver behind it all as the writer, director, and actor. He is paving the road and inspiring all artists and not just from the ASL community. He talks with us about his process and inspiration. We can’t wait to see what he does next!
Tell me about yourself:
I was born in Queens, New York, then moved to Newport News, Virginia, at the age of four when my parents found better job opportunities there. They were immigrants from Guyana, South America. I grew up attending public schools with ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters throughout my entire education. It’s called being mainstreamed. Then I enrolled at Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing (AKA the Deaf Mecca). I graduated from there in 2009 and two years later, when I heard about Switched at Birth, a show that cast actual and real deaf actors, I decided that was it— I just had to move to Los Angeles to chase after my acting dreams that I’ve always had since much younger than I can ever remember. So I drove across America.
Did you go to school to become a filmmaker?
Well, Gallaudet University isn’t exactly New York Film Academy, but I still took filmmaking courses there. I just knew that I had a strong, innate passion for making movies; it was something I truly absolutely loved to bleed, sweat and break tears over. Thus, I just took all the film classes provided there. Most of my skills come from a lot of hands-on filmmaking that I did outside of class.
Being a deaf actor, writer, and director how has that influenced your storytelling?
It’s influenced me hugely. It’s a great, huge part of who I am every day in my life. I know I have a unique perspective, a way of different experiences throughout life, which definitely allows me to bring out storytelling not only as a deaf but as well as a multi-racial and gay person. Everyone has a story to tell. I know I do. I’d love nothing more than to see my story told on film and hopefully, people out there will be like, “Oh, my god, yes! I can totally relate!” Love, pain, loneliness, sadness, and happiness— those are all universal experiences we share, regardless of our backgrounds and who we are.
What has been the biggest challenge and misconception about you in the industry?
Get ready for a loaded answer, sorry not sorry. The biggest challenge in the industry, I have to say, is booking constant work as a deaf, ethnic actor. Generally, it’s pretty hard for all the actors in the industry, but to be an actor with a disability— be it deaf, blind, paraplegic, short, you name it— it’s super-duper bajillion times harder than you can imagine. We’re talking about an industry that highly cherishes near-perfection and able-bodiedness more than anything else. What truly bothers me is to see those able-bodied actors take on roles that actual actors with disabilities could do. We’re looking for work, we really are. Those roles only come for us, like once a year or something like that (sadly).
For instance, hearing actors taking on deaf roles is a huge, huge disappointment and letdown to me as a deaf actor. It’s not just taking away the opportunity from us, but also failing to bring 100% authenticity to the role. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen hearing actors, no matter how hard they try to study deaf people or try to learn their language in a certain amount of prep time when they act deaf— I can’t help but just cringe or cover my eyes. Like, no. That is not how we do it.
While the experiences are completely different, it’s very much similar to whitewashing or a cisgender actor taking on a transgender role. The list goes on.
Biggest misconception? That we’re often suited only for roles that are defined by our characteristics. Say, there’s a written TV character named Will, and he’s the deaf guy. Do I want to be Will, the ‘deaf guy’? No. I want to be Will, who happens to be deaf. Major difference. I audition for hearing roles even though I’m deaf. I still do.
Who has been your inspiration in the industry/life?
I would have to say, growing up, deaf Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin. Every time she was on TV, I just got too excited. I’d point and say, “See? Deaf people can be on TV, too! Wait till I get on there!” Now? I would have to say, Mindy Kaling. That girl is hilarious. And a pioneer, truly. Ryan Murphy as well, who’s seriously paved the way for LGBT on TV and also Shonda Rhimes— wow, her work, I just can’t. I would die to work with any of them. Truly. Oh, one more, Sarah Michelle Gellar!
What drove (pun intended) you to write your short ‘Passengers’ ?
Love punny. I took on being a Lyft driver to make extra money on the side (who doesn’t these days). And there were a lot of interesting experiences. One of the most memorable ones was picking up this absolutely gorgeous, handsome guy and I was just like, oh…my…god. And I have to tell you, I am a huge hopeless, romantic sap. I still cry at badly-written, super predictable rom-coms and so of course, this entered my mind— what if in a rom-com film, my character, and his character from two completely different worlds actually connected? What if it went further and developed into a budding, romantic relationship? How would it work out between those two? And it wasn’t just that, but I wanted to tell the story of a deaf person who’s driving around to make extra money while he wants to become a star— that’s something universal that people can relate to.
But then I shelved the idea away…Until the 48-hours Disability Film Challenge came up in an SAG-AFTRA mass email!
You shot your short in 48 hours! What was the biggest challenge shooting in such a short time period?
That was insanity. I’m not going ever do that again. Actually. That’s a lie. I probably will. I’ll just keep denying it until the very last-minute to enter. Biggest challenge? Directing and acting at the same time. It wasn’t even 48 hours. We shot in like, in one day. My brain was overloading. I was thinking 100 different things at the same time, planning ahead for the next scene while trying to focus on my character in this scene. Not to mention we were racing against the sunset.
I take acting very seriously. So, all I’m going to say, would I direct and act at the same time again? I don’t really want to, but I probably will, only because I want to learn and get better each time I do something. I don’t know how actors were able to act and direct at the same time. Kudos to you, Ben Affleck.
Oh yeah, I never slept. My 8-year old MacBook Pro crashed on me, after all, that overnight editing.
How did you go about casting?
I quickly cast all of my friends, who were natural actors. And they were all deaf too, each from different backgrounds (i.e. deaf schooled, mainstreamed, etc) and varying levels of ASL fluency. One crew member actually had to join the cast the last-minute as himself because he had a great ethnic look— I know, but I always to strive to increase diversity whenever possible (because you know, that’s just a reflection of real life). I also searched for a hearing actor for the role of the love interest, but I’m actually really pleased with the final casting and how it all came together. I’m really happy and I would not replace anyone, were we to do it all over again. They were really talented and they contributed hugely to the project. It was a great, wonderful artist collaboration. I’m super thankful for not only the cast but the crew as well, who happened to be deaf. So yes, it was an all-deaf cast and crew production, which I’m so proud of.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on an action short film that’ll involve characters with disabilities requiring them to save the world (or day haha) one way or another.
What advice do you have to your fellow filmmakers?
Originally my advice was this– keep hammering away at your next filmmaking goal until it gets done. I still say that, but I much more strongly resonate with this more:
Keep learning and keep collaborating. Keep talking with other filmmakers and artists alike. Just whatever you do, don’t stop learning and don’t stop talking with other filmmakers. You learn and gain so much that way. Collaboration is really the key today.