She writes. She acts. She sings. She directs. She produces short films. She teaches young stars. And she has a laugh, so joyous and contagious, it’s impossible not to leave her presence smiling! Yes, Ana Maria Belo is one of Australia’s most exciting and versatile performers – and she’s constantly using her platform to advocate for the deaf community.
The NIDA graduate who has appeared in the Aussie productions of Fame, Hair, 9 to 5 and In the Heights, countless TV shows including Home & Away, All Saints and House Husbands, as well as acclaimed web series It’s Fine, I’m Fine (which will premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival this August), began losing her hearing at the age of 7. Ana tells us all about her acting journey, the challenges she’s faced and the advice she has for other aspiring deaf stars:
What are your earliest memories of acting?
AMB: Honestly, if I had to think of any early acting memory, it’s when I dressed up as an owl for this thing we had to do at school and myself and Sandra Long, a girl in my class, we were on stage and we had to sing and act out this little bit. Then we had to walk backwards and sit on a box and what I remember is (laughs) Sandra sitting down on the box first and shuffling the box forward and so when I sat down I landed on my butt! In front of everyone! So yeah, my first memory of acting is me falling on my arse in front of a hall filled with parents!
But acting was always fun. It was just make believe, dress ups. My little brother and I would constantly re-enact anything that we’d seen on TV. He was way better at it than I am, still to this day! He was very good at mimicking, imitating people. We would do “Fawlty Towers”, we used to sit down and watch a lot of Bert Newton, “Ab Fab”, “Golden Girls”, “Press Gang”, basically anything that was on our TV we would re-enact.
When did you know this was the career you wanted to pursue?
AMB: I knew the day that I watched “Hair” at the Footbridge Theatre in July of 1992. I sat in that audience. I was what, 15 years old? And I watched all of them up there pouring their hearts out and I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the naked scene? (Laughs) I’m not sure. I just knew that I was one day going to do this, that that was the job for me. I just knew I had to be a part of it. Funny story is that ten years later, like exactly ten years later, I got to do “Hair” in Melbourne and I got to play the role that I fell in love with! I got to play Jeannie so that was a full circle event for me.
Which acting role are you most proud of so far and why?
AMB: Oooh. That’s a hard question isn’t it! Each role has its own hurdles. Each role has its own thing you need to overcome. So when I did “In The Heights” that was such a big deal because it was the first time I was doing a musical with hearing aids and there was a lot of my own mental anguish that I had to overcome. And things I needed to prove to myself that I could do because I had not sung in a musical before that. I’d done little bits here and there but nothing big, like a full musical and I guess I was kind of testing myself.
Then there’s “Tribes” when I played Sylvia, it was the first time I was going to use Auslan on stage. I didn’t grow up using Auslan, my family don’t use Auslan at all so I’d been learning I think three years, prior to doing it on stage so I really wanted to make sure I was honouring the Auslan community and doing the best I possibly could. Not only that, but I also had to learn how to play the piano properly! I had to play Clare de Lune, like properly! I don’t know what I was more nervous about, using Auslan or playing Clare De Lune ’cause holy, moly that was really hard! So I’m really proud of myself for that. I feel very attached to all of my characters.
Are there any specific actors/directors you hope to work with in the future?
AMB: I’ve been really, really, really lucky with who I’ve already gotten to work with. I mean, I got to work with John Cleese for God’s sake! Like, that’s the biggest comedy hero ever! I find it hard wishing for things because then I feel like I don’t respect the people that I have been working with. I just finished up with Caroline O’Connor, Marina Prior, Casey Donovan. These are the people I was hanging out with and working with on stage and that to me is just, I feel very lucky!
But who am I fan-girling over at the moment? I’m fan-girling over Miles Teller. Oh my gosh. I just watched “Maverick” and thought he was just brilliant! I am loving Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown, Julia Garner in Ozark. Sarah Snook, I think she is phenomenal and watching her in”Succession” is just, Oh My Lord!
You recently marked 10 years of wearing hearing aids describing it as a time of fear, frustration but also joy. Can you tell us more about that?
AMB: When I got my hearing aids, it was a massive sense of failure for me because I had been operating on my deaf ears since I was 14 when I lost my right ear because of a skin ball, a cholesteatoma. I had a few different operations to get the bones out of my head that were infected and I felt like I was really doing well with lip-reading and being able to operate and work and still be employed. But still, it was a massive secret. Nobody knew I was deaf. I kept that very private out of fear.
And then I went to a wedding and I had had a thing that was happening where if I was surrounded by a lot of noise or high volume noise, that would affect my hearing for the rest of the week. I wouldn’t be able to understand a word anybody was saying. Even the tiniest drop on a table was so painful to my head, I basically had to lock myself up in a room and my head had swollen. The bones behind my eardrums would swell and so the sound wasn’t being transported the same way. It took about 16 weeks to settle the distortion and when we got to the end of that period of time, we could see just how much damage had been done to my actual hearing.
It was pretty scary because I was like, I can’t teach, I can’t work, I can’t operate in the way that I had been so then it was like, ok cool, you’re getting hearing aids now. And I just wasn’t ready for that. I’d also just chopped all of my hair off so there was no way to hide my hearing aids either, so I couldn’t have a way to shield them and I honestly just believed that my career was over because I couldn’t tell you of another actor in my position on TV or in theatre at the time. I had no one to look to to go ‘oh well look, they’re doing it so everything will be okay’.
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That was the fear and the frustration. The joy was that, things that I didn’t know made sounds, like the indicators in my car! I didn’t know it went tick tick tick and I got in my car and I was like, what is that sound? (Laughs) I didn’t know that the wind had a sound. I didn’t know there were so many birds occupying my street. I didn’t know my cat made a sound. I thought she was mute! And there was one moment where I honestly couldn’t stop crying and I still can’t stop crying when I think about it. I was able to listen to music with my eyes closed for the first time and that was an amazing realisation. I have always associated music with what I see. So it was amazing to be able to be sitting in an audience and to have someone singing on stage and hear them. It was Shaun Rennie singing and it was Jeremy Brennan on the piano and I have so much love and admiration for both of those boys so it was a very special moment.
There are many resources and support systems out there today for the deaf community – how does it compare to your own childhood and the support you and your family were able to access?
AMB: I started suffering ear problems when I was about 7 and we didn’t know anyone else that had anything like that so we felt very isolated. Basically, we could only look to our doctor for support and guidance. What I love about social media, the internet, there are so many avenues for families to go down. You have Deaf Australia, Deaf Connect, The Shepherd Centre. There are so many different organisations there to support parents and kids. Statistically, there are more deaf children born to hearing parents so the first time a hearing person who’s going to meet a deaf person, it’s probably going to be their own child. That can be quite daunting and only because of what we understand about deafness and what we’ve been told about deafness. I think it’s time to re-write the book on that. There are so many different avenues and it’s up to each family to pick what’s right for them.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about deaf actors?
AMB: That all their needs are the same. I think people have got to understand that the word “deaf” can mean different things depending on whether it’s a little ‘d’ or a capital ‘D’. Or that they’re going to speak very loudly. Or their facial expressions are so big because they’re deaf. Or they’re going to be so animated because they’re deaf. Nope. I know some deaf people that aren’t! Deaf actors are actors. And they can do anything that pretty much any other actor can do. Not every actor is the same. Not every actor is Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep. We all have a lane based on our personality, not on our deafness.
What challenges, if any, have you personally faced in your career?
AMB: My own brain! I got in my way a lot, because I was taking everything personally. Everybody does that to some degree. I think because I was dealing with losing my hearing and because that affected how I was singing, I think I put too much pressure on myself to be perfect and that was stupid.
There was one day, I went into an audition in about 2006 and for the very first time I saw the words on the audition form, ‘do you have any known hearing loss?’ This had never been on the forms, this was a brand new thing that came in. I was like, well, I can’t lie. Curse my Catholic guilt coming in, so I put ‘yes’ because I did have known hearing loss. And I remember going in, the whole panel was there, I was singing my song. I could see them all talking to each other because I can lip read, so I know exactly what people are saying. And then I saw the director go ‘nope, she’s deaf.’ And I didn’t get a recall. I was a recall wonder! I would get a recall for every audition I did! This was the first time I didn’t get into the next round and I was like, is it because I’m deaf? It really affected my views on the industry and what I was able to do from then on in. And then, years later, I worked with a few people and we tried to challenge it all and now, I haven’t seen that question there since 2016. That was the biggest challenge for me to overcome, feeling not wanted because you’re deaf.
What more can we be doing in terms of accessibility when it comes to the entertainment industry?
AMB: There’s just so much. I can’t speak on all disabilities, I can only speak on mine. But in terms of the deaf community, I’m still shocked we don’t have AUSLAN interpreters on every single news station. Like my dad, when we turn the Portuguese news station for him, there is a little box, with a sign language interpreter there. Why don’t we have that? We are really far behind in that regard.
Going to the movies, it is so difficult to go the cinema and actually have the captions up on the screen? It’s ridiculously rare. Why can’t we have more open caption sessions? The tele-text on the TV is terrible. If you’ve ever turned that on, it does nothing. It makes no sense whatsoever. I just think there’s a lot we can do.
What advice do you have for aspiring deaf actors?
AMB: That’s easy. Just never give up. Keep working. Keep following that dream because there absolutely is a place for us and very soon I hope there will be more stories for deaf actors, for deaf characters. And deaf actors don’t just play deaf characters. That’s something I’m really trying to break – like yes I’m a deaf actor but I also do hearing roles. So yeah, don’t give up just because somebody told you you should give up.
Follow Ana Maria Belo on Instagram: @anamariabelo17
Check out her website: anamariabelo.com
(Feature Image Credit: Kate Williams)