Gabriella Leon starred as ‘Jade Lovall’, Casualty’s first deaf series regular in the shows history between 2018-2021.
Gabriella’s main storylines on Casualty involved a team of deaf creatives, where her character ‘Jade’ met her birth mother for the first time and put the authentic experience of being deaf at the front of the narrative.
The episode contributed to ‘Best Continuing Drama’ BAFTA win 2021, it was also nominated for a Rose’D’or.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your deafness?
Hello, I’m Gabriella, I’m a deaf actor, writer, and theatre-maker and I’m half Spanish. And I would say that comedy is my favourite genre in terms of acting.
I have something called cookie bite syndrome in terms of my deafness, which basically just means a big bite is missing from my hearing.
My story I would say, is individual, just like every deaf person’s story is. I found out I was deaf when I was 18, so later in life. But I’ve actually been deaf from birth.
But I thought that lipreading really heavily was normal. It was a big shock, if I’m honest, I had a massive identity crisis. At the time I didn’t know where to start discovering my deaf identity and what it meant to be deaf and the pride and the identity that comes with that. And I didn’t have the right support at the time when I found out. It took me quite a few years to get used to my hearing aids because I had 18 years without access, basically, so I didn’t have access to sign language growing up.
I do think about the difference it would have made to me in my education, etc., but better late than never.
Q: You use British Sign Language as well as lipreading, at what age did you start learning BSL?
So, at 18 I found out I was deaf, and then I started drama school with hearing aids literally about three months after I found out. So, it was a massive life change, and I really did struggle sort of navigating who I was and all of that. I always say that it was only when I grew in confidence as a deaf person and started talking about my deafness more.
I would say that sign language found me. I think that’s how I feel about it.
I was 22 when I started to learn BSL and it kind of coincided with my journey on Casualty, it kind of married up. And that’s why I think Jade will always be really special to me as a character, because it was, you know, the first time I played a deaf character and I’m a deaf actor. It was just beautiful.
It was you know, right place, right time. I’m so happy that I have sign language in my life now. I get emotional thinking about it because it has just given me full access, full clarity to my communication and I’m still learning. It’s a beautiful language, it grows, and you meet different people, you learn their signing styles and it’s a beautiful gift of a language, I think.
It’s my third language because I speak English and Spanish, so sometimes my brain gets a little bit confused.
Q: Do you do any Spanish sign language?
Sadly not, no, I don’t have any Spanish family members, but I think I will learn one day. But I kind of want to do one at a time, I’m sure it’s beautiful as well.
Q: What was your favourite part of learning Sign Language?
It’s a really good question!
Meeting deaf people that I look up to and being able to have a conversation with them, converse and talk and laugh. That was probably my favourite bit because it meant that I was a part of the deaf community. So yeah, the first time that I could probably properly converse with a deaf person.
And I think that will always be my favourite. My favourite signs change every week. But yeah, I would say the moment of having full access and fluid communication with the language.
Q: Do you think your deafness has impacted on you as an actor?
Oh, see, I think this is a really interesting question because I think people would answer it differently.
I would say that my deafness has never affected my acting, but only non-accessible environment can and has because if there’s no access, I can’t do my job to the best of my ability and we’re not equal in the room. But I feel like that has nothing to do with deafness or disability and everything to do with attitude. I feel like no one’s deafness or disability would affect their ability to act or their ability to do what they’re really good at. But I think society and the environment really impacts that ability to do our jobs properly, I guess.
Q: Do you think your deaf identity changes the way you act and certain rules?
Yeah, I think so. Because, you know, sometimes I play characters that aren’t openly deaf, you know, it’s not about a deaf character or a deaf person signing. I’m just an actor playing a character, and I wear hearing aids so my character’s automatically deaf and it’s almost like my character’s secret, my character’s thing. It doesn’t have to be spoken about, its normalised. I always really enjoy those roles because I’m a deaf woman, I’m a deaf actor here I am doing my job.
So, yeah, I think my deaf identity does positively affect and impact some of the characters that I play because I have that extra layer and that extra level of understanding. I think it’s something quite amazing and special to bring to that character.
Q: And where does your passion for acting come from?
When I was little, I saw Singing in the Rain for the first time. It’s a classic, and I just felt this surge, a spark and I was really hooked, with that film. The visuals and the colours and the story and tap dancing. It’s literally why I started dancing when I was younger. I loved it, it was visual storytelling, and I didn’t realise at the time, probably why I enjoyed those stories more because of the visual aspect. I think that was the spark. I always just used to go to acting classes, I’m quite lucky in the sense that I’ve just always known that I wanted to tell stories and pretend to be different people.
I used to make plays with my sisters growing up and I’d force all my family to watch them. I’d write, direct and star and, you know, have all the costumes and the different sets and all that stuff.
Acting, the arts and theatre and dance and film, everything else has just always been a part of my life and something that gives me great joy. And I think satisfaction. To be honest, I have never thought about doing anything different.
Q: You’re involved in the Red Tree stage show and Maryland this year, can you tell us any more about those?
Yeah, I am.
Red Tree was back in January it was a theatre play, it was cool it integrated a BSL performance, working with other deaf actors and hearing actors as well. I’m really interested in new writing that’s kind of my background in terms of theatre-making. So that was interesting.
I’m not allowed to talk about Maryland just yet.
Q: Do you have anything else coming up that’s exciting to look forward to?
Again, I can’t really say, everything is really secretive in the acting industry. We’re not allowed to talk about anything exciting that’s happening. But there’s a couple of things that I’m doing that I’m really looking forward to, people will still see me.
I look forward to what the rest of 2022 will bring, as the world sort of recovers from what we’re continuing to go through with covid and things like that.
I just want to continue doing what I love doing!
Q: And what would you say has been your greatest achievement in acting?
I want to say, because I think it’s important that people and young people seeing this understand that success is judged by the individual. I think that’s really important to remember. Because there are so many things in my acting career so far that I’m really proud of, that someone else might say, Oh, that’s really small, that’s nothing. You know?
I’m really proud that I was the first deaf regular in Casualty’s history. I think the first actor with a disability in the history of that show, as well, so that felt, monumental.
Obviously, the episode where Jade met her birth mother for the first time, that in itself was a massive achievement because it was deaf led, creatives, the whole team. And the story just felt really special to be on mainstream television with all of these deaf people involved. And then the fact that that episode was one of the episodes that helped Casualty win the BAFTA that year, is so memorable I think I will remember that forever.
But you know, the thing about achievements is the list keeps growing, it goes on. So, bring on more good things.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I really love foreign films because I love different languages and the best thing about foreign films is that there are always captions. There’s none of this messing about. Beautiful. I would watch foreign films all day.
I like seeing my friends. I enjoy doing 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles I find that really relaxing, strangely, I know some people get stressed by them I find them really relaxing to do.
I love going to art galleries, all the normal things that people do.
I like cooking as well.
Q: What’s your favourite thing to make?
Oh, it has to be Spanish food, because I’m a bit biased. Yeah, something like Tapas or a really good Paella. Yep. Chef’s kiss.
Q: The BSL bill is currently going through the process of becoming a legal language, hopefully. What difference do you think that might make to the deaf community?
I feel like it will be life-changing. I really, really do. I think it’s that serious for the whole deaf community and all people that support us and our allies as well. I think that the effect will be felt throughout society. Even on a personal note, the thought of being able to go to my medical appointment and accessing that better and not have my partner with me communicating. You know, I got the privacy back of the individual, just like hearing people do when they go to the medical appointment. I mean, I feel like the effect will be seen and felt everywhere.
It’s been a long time coming and I hope the act will put less responsibility on deaf people to fix, organise and plan all of our access. You know, we’re the ones that think about access more than anyone because how do we access anything? How do we integrate with anything? And I feel like passing some of that responsibility back to the government will change everything hopefully
We just need to meet and make sure that we’re still being listened to and received. It is exciting that we’re going to be a bit more equal, it’s mad that we’re even talking about this. You know, it’s monumental. I just think about all of the young deaf children that will benefit from this and as they grow up. It can only be a positive thing.
It makes me emotional; I think it makes every deaf person emotional and the community and their allies as well.
Yeah, so bring it on!