Former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton wowed Hollywood when she scooped an Academy Award for her film about a deaf child. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about the family tragedy behind the story.
Rachel Shenton is enthusiastically trying to teach me the rudiments of sign language. ‘This is “Hello”,’ she explains, waving her right hand. She taps her chest with both hands, then holds up both thumbs: ‘That’s “How are you?”’ Another thumbs up: ‘That’s “I’m fine”.’
Rachel, 30, brought signing to the attention of the world earlier this year when she and her fiancé Chris Overton won an Oscar for their short film The Silent Child, which he directed and she wrote and starred in. Their nomination had already attracted excitement in the UK, owing to the couple being British and having met on the set of Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks, in which Rachel played glamour model Mitzeee Minniver.
But when Rachel took to the Academy’s stage, millions watching globally were transfixed by her passionate acceptance speech, accompanied by her fast-moving hands as she simultaneously translated into British sign language for the benefit of her then six-year-old co-star, profoundly deaf Maisie Sly, sitting in the auditorium. ‘My hands are shaking so I apologise,’ Rachel said, to cheers from the glitzy crowd.
‘Our movie,’ she continued in her soft Midlands tones (she grew up outside Stoke-on-Trent, where Robbie Williams was a neighbour – he tweeted, ‘So proud of you, Duck’, the classic local term of endearment), ‘is about a deaf child born into a world of silence. This is not exaggerated for the movie, it is happening. Millions of children live in silence all over the world and face communication barriers, particularly access to education.’
That speech was the culmination of a long and very personal crusade for Rachel, who wanted to learn sign language as a tribute to her late ‘superhero’ dad Geoff, who lost his hearing when she was 12 after being diagnosed with throat cancer. ‘He had huge amounts of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which treated the cancer but he suddenly became profoundly deaf,’ she says.
Diminutive (she’s 5ft 2in) and warm, with a much-remarked-on similarity to Cheryl Cole, there’s an endearingly unaffected quality to Rachel. She’s wearing a red poloneck, black gilet and jeans as immediately after our meeting at her agent’s office in Central London, she and Chris – who is waiting in the lobby – are catching a train to the Lake District for a long weekend of hill walking. ‘Walking and reading are what we like – we’re not very rock ’n’ roll.’
Such quiet moments are becoming increasingly rare: she has just finished filming the second series of the BBC Two comedy White Gold. She also has a new, unexpected sideline, as the face of the first clothing range for Debenhams by award-winning designer Richard Quinn, who made headlines earlier this year when his vibrant London Fashion Week collection was watched from the front row by no less than the Queen – the first time she has ever attended a fashion show. ‘Modelling is totally different to acting, but the shoot was fun and I love wearing Richard’s dresses; his floral prints are very me,’ Rachel says. ‘Richard is such a lovely guy and so young – only 28!’
She oozes positivity, refusing to dwell negatively on how her ‘incredibly happy’ childhood was shattered as Geoff, the owner of a road haulage company, first became ill, then struggled after his hearing vanished. ‘We were all very positive because to be successfully treated for cancer is great, but the hearing loss was difficult to adjust to,’ she says. ‘There are so many everyday things that you take for granted, such as answering the telephone, chatting over a meal or watching TV – virtually nothing had subtitles then. My dad dealt better with having cancer; he was very gallant and brave and tackled it head-on. But with deafness, I saw him feel vulnerable.’
Geoff, who died two years later in 2002, aged 69 (from causes unrelated to cancer), found it toughest to cope in group situations. ‘Luckily, he still had a voice and could express himself eloquently and he could lip-read Mum and me, but he struggled socially; it was so easy to leave him out, not intentionally, but when three or four people were talking at the same time,’ Rachel says. ‘I think if he had lived longer, he would have learnt sign language, but he was still in that period of getting his head around losing his hearing.’
Struck by just how challenging life must be for people who, unlike Geoff, had never known the speaking world, just two years later, while studying drama at a local college, Rachel took weekly evening classes in sign language – an impressive gesture for a 16-year-old. ‘It was quite a commitment,’ she shrugs. ‘But I wanted to be able to communicate with any deaf people I met and it’s such a beautiful language, I loved it.’
From then on she became a committed campaigner for various deaf charities; at the same time her career flourished with a small part straight from college in Holby City (‘I thought that was it, I was made up!’ she laughs), followed by a larger role in Waterloo Road. Aged 22, she was cast as Hollyoaks’s scheming Mitzeee. ‘The character was nothing like me but she was great fun to play,’ says Rachel. ‘She was gregarious, outspoken and over-the-top with everything.’
She brushes off suggestions that it’s been a huge leap from Hollyoaks to Hollywood. ‘Hollyoaks was a great training ground; I made so many friends there,’ she says. They included Chris, 29, who had a walk-on part as footballer-turned-cage-fighter Liam McAllister.
Their relationship endured when, after two years, Rachel left the soap for Los Angeles, having been cast as a sign-language teacher in teen TV drama Switched At Birth, the first US show to feature large numbers of deaf actors. Her background, she says, helped her win the part but she had to learn American sign language, which is very different to British sign language. The experience ‘was good fun, but I wouldn’t want to live permanently in LA. Not being around family and friends was tough; it made me realise how important England is to me.’
At the time in LA, Rachel was living with a profoundly deaf woman, whose story would prove to be the inspiration for The Silent Child. ‘I’ve promised not to talk about her, but there were some similarities between anecdotes she told me from her childhood and the film,’ Rachel says. ‘I called Chris and said, “This would make such a good movie,” and he said, “Write it!”’ When she returned to the UK after two series of the TV show, she and Chris, with her adored German shepherd rescue dog Cassie, found a flat in London’s Waterloo and devoted themselves to making the film.
Just 20 minutes long, The Silent Child is the moving tale of four-year-old Libby, played by Maisie, whose profound deafness isolates her from the rest of the world. After a social worker (played by Rachel) teaches her sign language, she starts to flourish, but Libby’s middle-class parents refuse to learn to sign, preferring that their daughter fits in with their ‘hearing’ world by lip-reading. ‘Unfortunately, for some children that is the standard story,’ Rachel says.
The point she was determined to convey is the lack of support for deaf children, 78 per cent of whom, like Libby, attend mainstream schools without any specialist provision. ‘I’ve always been so frustrated, continually hearing these stories about how deaf children are being failed by the education system when, with the right support, they can do every bit as well as hearing children.’
If ever there was proof of this, it’s in the form of poised Maisie from Swindon, the fourth generation in her family to be born profoundly deaf and to communicate by sign language. She and her elder brother and younger sister (also both deaf) all attend a mainstream primary school with a specialist support unit.
Rachel and Chris discovered Maisie after putting out a call for deaf child actors on Facebook. ‘We auditioned more than 100 children, but then Maisie, who had no acting experience, walked in and we knew she was it,’ Rachel recalls. ‘She had this strange maturity for a five-year-old – a laser focus that we hadn’t seen from anyone else, maybe because she does all her acting with her eyes and isn’t distracted by sounds.’
Before casting, the couple had faced the huge challenge of financing the film, something they achieved through a combination of crowdfunding online, giving school talks on sign language in return for donations and selling cakes (Chris’s parents, who used to own a bakery, made them and Rachel’s mother Joy, a buyer for an international company, sold them at work).
The film was shot in Rachel’s home village, with the school scenes set in her former primary school. Collaborating with loved ones, especially a partner, can be a recipe for disaster, but not in this case. ‘I think it would have driven other couples crazy,’ Rachel says. ‘But the idea of not being able to come home and talk about the film would have been strange – it was like our child.’
At this point, there was no thought of Oscar glory. ‘That was absolutely the last thing on our minds; we just wanted to get it shot,’ she says. But as soon as it was released last year, it attracted huge attention, winning an award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, which led to its Oscar nomination. ‘At every stage we said, “Well, if this doesn’t continue, we’re happy because it’s exceeded expectations,” but it kept going further and further,’ she smiles.
The couple flew to LA a couple of weeks before the ceremony, where they attended the nominees’ luncheon, meeting Rachel’s hero, The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin (‘I’d actually just done his writing course – how cheesy is that?’) and Steven Spielberg, with whom they took a selfie. Rachel (who, in solidarity with this year’s Time’s Up dress code, wore a black Suzanne Neville dress), Chris, Maisie and Joy all attended the ceremony, walking the red carpet behind Salma Hayek, while Maisie and Chris’s families and the film crew watched the proceedings at their rented apartment not far from downtown Hollywood.
‘We were a bit intimidated, but having a six-year-old with us put everything into perspective. She was completely unfazed,’ says Rachel. ‘She was going to Disneyland the next day and was far more excited about that. When people asked her what stars she was excited to meet, Maisie said, “Umm, Donald Duck?”’
After their names were read out, it was, Rachel says, ‘completely surreal. You think, “Did I hear it right?” Then all these strange emotions: “I’m so excited! What could this mean for the film and its message? Oh my God, 33 million people are watching us live” – someone had said that to us just before the ceremony and it wasn’t helpful. Walking up on stage is like an out-of-body experience – luckily I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see all the stars watching us, which was probably a good thing.’
Rachel decided to give the speech in sign language because ‘although Maisie had interpreters with her, I really wanted her to look at me’. Chris, who also gave a speech after her, thanking the crew and their families, kept talking even though the Teleprompter warned him to ‘Get off!’ ‘I’m so proud of him for having the nerve to do that,’ Rachel says.
After the ceremony, the couple briefly dropped in to the starry Vanity Fair party. ‘But it was only to grab a burger because we were starving – the ceremony goes on for hours and my dress was so tight I hadn’t dared eat before,’ Rachel says. They didn’t even stay to eat the burgers, instead scoffing them in the car as they returned to their rented apartment to celebrate with their families and the film crew. ‘We just wanted to be with them,’ she says. The couple were in such a rush, they didn’t collect their winner’s goody bag, worth an estimated £72,500. ‘We never even saw one!’ Rachel exclaims. ‘Maybe they only go to the really, really famous people.’
But Rachel isn’t bothered. ‘We still haven’t come down,’ she laughs. Amid all the buzz, she’s finding time to plan her and Chris’s wedding and also to work on developing The Silent Child into a full-length feature film. ‘Everyone asks, “Where do those characters go?” So we’ll tell them.’
Her mum, she says, is ‘so proud, she’s telling everyone that she brushes past in Tesco’. And what would Geoff have made of it all? ‘I had a moment where I thought none of this would have been possible without him,’ she says. ‘It felt so sad at the time. But hopefully something positive has come from it. So I hope if he can see me he’s proud.’ It’s impossible to see how he wouldn’t be.
WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH? Animals in hats or puppies doing funny things on Instagram.
RECENT GOOD READ The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
FEEL-GOOD SONG ‘The Day We Caught the Train’ by Ocean Colour Scene.
LAST FILM YOU SAW Loving starring Ruth Negga.
FAVOURITE FOOD Beans on toast.
BREAKFAST OF CHOICE A full English, but with a Quorn sausage because I’m veggie.
ACTING IDOL I grew up watching those great British stars Dame Judi, Victoria Wood and Julie Walters.
IN THREE WORDS, YOU’RE… Optimistic, positive, laidback.
MOTTO Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.
Richard Quinn’s first fashion collection for Debenhams is available in selected stores and online at debenhams.com from tomorrow.