Ellen Gray: Berdy of 'Switched ...' isn't the silent type

Sean Berdy (left) portrays Marlee Matlin's (right) son in the show.
Sean Berdy (left) portrays Marlee Matlin's (right) son in the show.
Posted: January 24, 2012

* SWITCHED AT BIRTH. 8 tonight, ABC Family.

PASADENA, CALIF. - You might not guess it from watching him as the teen rebel Emmett on ABC Family's "Switched at Birth," but Sean Berdy is a bit of a chatterbox.

Like his character, Berdy's been deaf from birth. But Emmett, who's managed to draw the romantic focus of both switched-at-birth teens, Daphne (Katie LeClerc) and Bay ("Gilmore Girls' " Vanessa Marano), sometimes says as much with his moody silences as he does with his hands.

Berdy? Not exactly the quiet type.

In fact, at a recent press conference at the Television Critics Association's winter meetings, the 18-year-old appeared more adept than many twice his age at making himself heard in a forum where it's not uncommon for supporting actors to go for a half-hour at a time without getting to open their mouths.

Following the Q&A through an interpreter (and speaking through one using American Sign Language), he found his way into the conversation, especially when his cast mates talked about learning ASL for their roles in a show that includes both deaf and hearing characters.

"May I?" he asked at one point. "I have to tell you that every one of the cast members has learned some sign language and they're doing fantastic . . . Can I just toot Vanessa's horn? Believe me, when we started working together in the sixth episode, we did this deaf charades scene - that's what we call it - and Vanessa just blew me away."

Berdy's "Switched at Birth" character has spoken aloud only once on the show and though Oscar winner Marlee Matlin plays his mother, he at first seemed to be there mostly to remind viewers that her and Daphne's relative ease in both the deaf and hearing worlds wasn't representative of all deaf people. He expected, he said, to be the "traditional deaf guy in a hearing cast," not the heartthrob he's become.

"As far as Emmett's character taking off, I didn't expect that. I never envisioned that. I'm thrilled."

He's also, he insisted to me afterward, not a chatterbox.

"I'm a Twitterbox. I'm a Twitter freak," said Berdy, who has more than 43,300 followers on the account @SeanBerdy, where "I don't need an interpreter at all. I can talk to the fans . . . We can text to each other. I guess it does level the playing field in that sense."

In person, he said, "I talk a lot, but I'm rather reserved. But I do like to talk." He noted that although he relies on an interpreter in interviews and in public because "it makes everything so much smoother and faster," he can speak well aloud.

He can also hear a bit more than Emmett can, picking up "probably 80 percent of the ambient noise" with a hearing aid.

"I can hear the words, for example, that are coming out of your mouth," he told another reporter, "but if I'm looking the other way, they sound garbled. I don't know what they are. . . . If I watch your mouth, I can probably put two and two together. When I listen to music, I read the lyrics along with the music and that helps me understand the words. But without the word sheet, I wouldn't understand what the words mean."

On "Switched at Birth," where Emmett's integration into the rest of the cast has included his joining a band with Bay's brother, Toby (Lucas Grabeel), it's been the rhythm that's mattered more than the words.

"I'm not a pro drummer, but I've been banging on stuff since I was a little boy," Berdy told reporters. "For the show, I use my hearing aid during rehearsals. I listen to the beat, some time in the studio with some headphones and some major volume to listen to Toby's music . . . and practice all week before the shoot and do the best I can. I can feel the beat, and I listen to it with my hearing aid during rehearsals, and that's how I get by."

For Emmett's first appearance with the band, added executive producer Paul Stupin, "We had a drummer double ready. Didn't use him. Sean came on and just nailed it."

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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