Gen Z Deaf Actress Shaylee Mansfield Breaking Barriers For Better Representation In Hollywood

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP – The cast and executive producers of ÒThe Company You KeepÓ gathered to celebrate the upcoming series premiere of the all-new ABC drama at Hotel Per La in Los Angeles on February 7th. (ABC/Alberto Rodriguez) SHAYLEE MANSFIELD

Although we know Hollywood is slowly making change when it comes to diversity and representation on screen and behind the camera, it has been well-documented that disability representation is an area that is sorely lacking. The CDC reports that 1 in 4 people in the United States are disabled, and over 1 billion people are disabled worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. So why is Hollywood, arguably the world’s most effective and popular vehicle of message and communication, slow to change and understand the need for better representation?

According to the Ford Foundation’s 2019 Road Map for Inclusion report, fewer than 25 percent of characters in the media are depicted with a disability, and those who are, are typically played by a non-disabled actor. Behind the scenes, disabled people are vastly underrepresented as writers, producers, directors, and more. While the industry must be responsible for creating effective systemic change, what gives us hope in the meantime is the way actors and public figures are using their platforms to raise awareness and rally advocates to the cause.

This is something that impacts all generations, and when you see the work Gen Z actress Shaylee Mansfield is doing and has been doing for a while now, you will no doubt be inspired by her, as we are! If you aren’t yet familiar with Shaylee’s work, here’s your opportunity:

Shaylee Mansfield is making history in Hollywood as a young Deaf actress. In 2013, Shaylee began making videos for her family’s YouTube channel ASL Nook inspiring millions to learn sign language worldwide. Shaylee’s first big acting break was in ‘Noelle’, the 2019 Disney+ holiday film starring Anna Kendrick. In 2020, Shaylee debuted in her first lead role in the 2020 Netflix’s hit film, ‘Feel the Beat’ starring Sofia Carson, making her as one of the youngest Deaf actresses to play a lead role.

Shaylee continues to shatter barriers in the entertainment industry by being the first Deaf person to be credited as a voice-over actress for a signing role with Dreamworks, playing the character named Shaylee in the series ‘Madagascar: A Little Wild’. She can also be seen in ABC’s hottest new series ‘The Company You Keep’ with Milo Ventimiglia and Catherine Haena Kim, playing the role of Ollie.

We had the chance to speak with the up-and-coming actress about representation, the Youtube Channel she started with her family, and what she wants the world to know when it comes to learning from disabled people.

Where did your love for acting and performing begin? 

My love for acting began when I first discovered cameras. When I was little, I dressed up in front of a mirror making up dialogues and stood in front of the TV mimicking all kinds of movie characters.

My first ever commercial was with my family for Disney Parks which went viral reaching over 20 million people. The next thing, my family was featured in A&E documentary ‘Deaf Out Loud’. Then I ended up landing my first ever acting job on the Disney+ ‘Noelle’ series when I was 8 years old. This was when I realized I wanted to try more acting. Five years later, I’m still here doing the thing I love the most. 

You have been making Youtube content with your family since 2013. What kind of topics and videos did you share with your audience? 

My mom, raising two girls – one Deaf and one hearing – was frustrated by the lack of family-friendly online videos of Deaf people teaching ASL. So, ASL Nook was created by our family which inspired millions worldwide to learn our language. Halloween, feelings, and sports, were some of the topics we covered. What brought worldwide attention to ASL Nook was my ASL renditions of Christmas tales such as ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ and ‘The Night Before Christmas’. Currently, my Instagram page @ShayleeMansfield posts reels showing what it’s like to be an unapologetic Deaf teen girl. Every now and then, my family is in my reels. 

You are the first Deaf person to be credited as a voice over actress in a Dreamworks TV show. What does this mean to you, and how do you hope it will open more doors? 

To be credited as a voice over actress would’ve never happened if not for Dreamworks’ push to change. Sign language is very much a voice and equally rich as other languages. I hope it opens more doors as well as encourages other companies to push for change because there are incredibly talented Deaf people.

Who are some of your role models in the film industry right now, especially other actors/performers who are deaf? 

I’m working closely with CJ Jones, the ASL consultant for ‘The Company You Keep’… He’s been acting on stage and screen for over 40 years. He is hilarious, so much fun, has a good heart, and works so hard to get where he is today.

What was it like playing the role of Ollie? 

Playing the role of Ollie has been thrilling, very new, and unlike any other roles I’ve played before. Julia Cohen, the showrunner, and I had an in-depth conversation about Ollie’s character. Honestly, I’m still very surprised by the fact she (and everyone else) gave me the opportunity to shape my role and also give feedback sometimes. Ollie is so much more than a typical sweet and cute Deaf girl that I usually play as in the past. The best part, I got to learn some magic tricks!

Why is it important for more people in the film industry, as well as the rest of society, to learn ASL? 

Really, no one is expected to learn ASL. What is far more important is to have an open heart and mind. Listen to Deaf people first. Let Deaf people lead. Get to know them as humans, engage with them as you do with other people. 

Actors, depending on their character, learn a variety of skills. Be it dancing, playing a musical instrument, holding breath underwater for a few minutes, or putting on an accent. Learning sign language is often not taken as seriously as other skills. It’s not something to practice the day before. If you are learning ASL as part of your character, find time to practice several hours daily and do not give up. It is also a way to build a strong, close relationship with Deaf actors on and off screen.

As for the rest of the society, I connect more with people who know my language. They are the ones who know more about me. My relationship with them is deeper and richer. Unfortunately, Deaf people are the ones accommodating hearing people and left out by their hearing family. If you really want to get to know a Deaf person, take the time to learn ASL.

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP – “Against All Odds”- The Nicolettis persuade a wealthy woman to seek revenge on her con-man fianceŽat a horse race. Meanwhile, Emma meets Charlie’s family, and the CIA and Nicolettis catch wind of Daphne expanding her business beyond the Maguire drug enterprise. SUNDAY, MARCH 5 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EST), on ABC. (ABC/Raymond Liu) SHAYLEE MANSFIELD

What kind of messages about inclusion do you think audiences will learn when we see more visual representations of disability on screen? 

Visual representations of disability on screen are not enough. Authentic representations of disability on screen AND off screen are more important. What kind of roles are they playing? How many lines do they have? What about their screen time? Is it meaningful? Move the story along? Are there any disabled producers, directors, and writers involved? If we hire them, that will definitely send a message. 

What have been some of your biggest challenges so far as an actress? 

The biggest challenge so far that hasn’t been solved yet is that I’d like to be considered for ANY role, not just Deaf roles. There’s so much I want to do, but Hollywood’s fear of the unknown gets in the way sometimes. 

Can you tell us what your ideal project or role would be, and who you’d like to work with? 

So many! But my top two are to play as Brystal from from ‘A Tale of Magic’ and a live action Rapunzel from ‘Tangled’. My team and I are also working on some pretty incredible projects hoping at least one of them will come true!

I’d love to work with more Deaf people as I’m usually the only Deaf person on set. As for someone super famous, The Rock and Zendaya.

You can follow Shaylee on Instagram, and check out ASL Nook on Youtube. Watch Shaylee in action on ABC’s ‘The Company You Keep’ and Dreamworks’ ‘Madagascar: A Little Wild’ on HULU.

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP – “Against All Odds” – The Nicolettis persuade a wealthy woman to seek revenge on her con-man fiance at a horse race. Meanwhile, Emma meets Charlie’s family, and the CIA and Nicolettis catch wind of Daphne expanding her business beyond the Maguire drug enterprise. SUNDAY, MARCH 5 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EST), on ABC. (ABC/Raymond Liu) SHAYLEE MANSFIELD, WILLIAM FICHTNER.

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