Millicent Simmonds is the definition of one to watch.
The 14-year-old actress from Bountiful, Utah, had performed Shakespeare in her school drama class before Todd Haynes cast her in the crucial role of Rose in his acclaimed new movie Wonderstruck (out Oct. 20). Rose is a 12-year-old deaf girl living in the 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey, who runs away from home and wanders through New York’s Museum of Natural History. Her story is interlaced with another taking place in 1977 New York, focusing on a lost boy (Oakes Fegley) and a woman (Julianne Moore). How these three characters are related in revealed in a lyrical late-film twist.
Haynes, the daring, eclectic director of Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and Carol, hit the jackpot with the Simmonds. The young actress, appearing in her first movie, delivers one of the most expressive, touching performances of the year. She also happens to be, like her character, deaf.
While directing Simmonds on the New York City locations, Haynes was utterly dazzled by the actress, citing a scene where Rose observes other girls chatting and laughing with each other. “I’ll never have an explanation,” he says, “for how Millie communicated that feeling of being left out, which everybody has experienced, especially in childhood, with such economy and subtlety and confidence. You can’t do that unless you know how to communicate with the world around you.”
At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Simmonds received rapturous reviews for her performance, putting her on track to become the first deaf actor to score an Oscar nomination since Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. EW chatted with Simmonds via email about getting acting in her first of what should be many big movies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hello Millie, congratulations on being part of such a beautiful movie. I was moved to tears by your performance.
MILLICENT SIMMONDS: Wow! Thank you so much for saying that! That means so much to me!
Can you tell me about how this all happened? What was the auditions process like? And what was it like meeting Todd Haynes for the first time?
My drama teacher at my deaf school saw the casting call and sent it to my mom. She thought I would be good for the part. So my mom recorded me doing the scenes on her phone and we sent it in. We just thought it would be fun. My mom got a call from the casting agency saying they wanted to see more so we recorded more scenes on her phone. And then a couple weeks later they called and said they wanted to fly me out to New York to meet Todd!! I couldn’t believe it! I was so excited. My mom and I went to New York and we went to the casting office and I met Todd there. He was so nice. They dressed me in a 1920s dress and I put a wig on and acted out more scenes to do. Todd was very easy to work with and I had the best interpreter.
Was there on piece of direction that Todd gave you which really helped to unlock the character?
Todd said to me that he wanted me to “bring Rose to life.” I just knew what he meant by that. What I love about Todd is that he trusted me. He made me feel comfortable from the very start. He wouldn’t just tell me what he wanted me to do. He would show me. He’s very comfortable with his expression. I wanted to make him proud. I hope I did. I felt like we were a good team.
I think it’s meaningful that Todd Haynes chose to cast a deaf actress to play Rose. Can you tell me if you feel the same way?
Yes! I Do! I’m so glad and lucky that he felt like finding someone deaf to play Rose was important to him. Yes he could’ve found someone hearing, and that’s what acting is right? To play a character or be someone else. So that would’ve been ok too. But I felt I could really relate to Rose and feeling isolated and alone. I feel that around hearing people everyday. I’m grateful he chose me to play Rose. And I think it means a lot to the deaf community for them to see someone deaf play a deaf character.
I’ve been told told that when Todd called “action” on the set, a production assistant would drop aluminum bars on the floor so that you could feel the vibrations.
Yes! That’s true! So cool right? Todd and the crew came up with the coolest ideas. When my back was turned to the camera, they would hide my interpreter behind a bookcase in front of me and she would sign action to me, or for the bigger street scene, they dressed my mom as an extra and she was ahead of me and would sign action behind her back when I had to start walking.
The movie is just so beautiful to look at, especially your scenes. But how difficult and time consuming as an actress to get the visuals exactly right, in terms of the crowds and the sets and the lighting?
Gosh! Thank you for saying that! Todd did such a good job. This is how smart he is. For the bigger scenes with the cars and horses and a lot of people, he had a body double come in before I got there and he would record her doing the scene how he wanted me to do it. Then when I showed up to set he would show me the recording and I would watch the girl and know where I had to walk and when. So my job was easy!