For a decade, Lauren Ridloff spent her days teaching elementary school students in New York. These days, she commutes to television and film sets for work. While the two careers are vastly different, the leap from the classroom to casting calls has been nothing short of a fruitful journey. The dynamic actress landed her breakthrough role as Sarah Norman in the 2018 Broadway play Children of a Lesser God and earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance. Shortly after, she transitioned from the stage to the small screen as a series regular on The Walking Dead.
Now, she’s making history as Marvel’s first deaf superhero Makkari. As a deaf woman, Ridloff never saw herself reflected in mainstream media growing up. For her, Makkari is the type of representation she’s been waiting on, and the character leaves her optimistic about the increased inclusion of Deaf talent in Hollywood. “It’s a huge honor to be the first deaf actor to play a superhero [in the Marvel Comic Universe],” she says. “But, I don’t want to be the first and only for very long.” Ahead, Ridloff opens up about filming Eternals, her curly hair routine, and the three things she does for self-care.
As a child, what did you think you wanted to be?
Well, little Lauren wanted to become a famous writer. I wanted to write children’s books and become the next Beatrix Potter. Obviously, life had other plans for me.
I know you spent many years as a teacher. What made you decide to pursue that career path?
During college, I majored in English with a focus on creative writing. I thought there was no better way to get into children’s minds than becoming a teacher. I decided to move to New York and start teaching kindergarten and first grade. I worked at a public school with both hearing and deaf children.
When did you feel called to make a pivot in your career and pursue acting?
I taught for almost ten years, and I think that’s where I got my early acting training. When I had a room of 15 students, I had to keep them engaged and interested. Then, I decided to take time off when I was ready to start a family. I have two young boys, and after my second son was born, I got an email from somebody I knew from my Miss Deaf America days. They asked me if I’d be interested in working with a high-profile Broadway director as a tutor.
So, I started meeting with the director Kenny Leon, and I realized it wasn’t just American Sign Language he was interested in learning. He was also interested in learning about the daily life of deaf people. I met with him once a week for about a year, and then I started to learn more about the play he was considering bringing back to Broadway, Children of a Lesser God. At that time, I didn’t even consider the possibility that he would want me to play the lead Sarah because the character has historically been played by a white woman in their early 20s.
A year later, Kenny reached out to me and said he was starting the casting process and wanted me to meet the casting director to help them figure out how to work with deaf talent. After talking with the casting director about deaf talent, he asked me to do a table read as a placeholder until they found the right person to fill the role. I jumped into the table read with Joshua Jackson from Dawson’s Creek. After that, Joshua said that he wanted to work with me specifically. The rest is history.
Since then, you’ve been on an upward trajectory in your acting career. Now, you’re taking on the role of Makkari in Eternals. How did that opportunity come about?
I was already working on The Walking Dead as a series regular at that point. I took my son to an audition for himself, and the casting directors saw me. They said, “I think I want you for something in the Marvel universe.” I didn’t take them seriously because I was still a newbie in the acting world. But a few months later, I received a call asking me to fly to Los Angeles to meet with Eternals director Chloé Zhao and executive producer Nate Moore. They broke down the story and my character. On Valentine’s Day, I got a text asking if I would like to play Makkari. It was mind-blowing.
How did you prepare to play her?
Marvel is so secretive. I didn’t know much until the first day on set. But, the most obvious way to prepare was to start getting physically ready. Makkari is a speedster, and in real life, I love running. I’ve been a runner since high school. I also did a lot of lifting and Pilates. All of that helped me get into the right mindset.
BYRDIE / LAUREN RIDLOFF
Makkari is the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Comic Universe. What does that mean to you to play her?
It’s a huge honor to be the first deaf actor to play a superhero [in the Marvel Comic Universe]. But, I don’t want to be the first and only for very long. Marvel and Disney are introducing other deaf characters very soon. Actress Alaqua Cox is playing Echo in the Disney+ Hawkeye Series. I’m so excited they are getting ready for more deaf people to come and claim that space. We’ve been waiting for a long time.
Do you have a favorite memory from the Eternals set?
It was seeing everybody dressed up for Halloween. Angelina Jolie dressed up as a giraffe. She had black heels on, so she was a very glamorous giraffe. Brian Tyree Henry and I dressed up as characters from the movie Midsommar. We won the best Halloween costume of the night.
You were able to work alongside other incredible actors and actresses like Angelina Jolie and Brian Tyree Henry. Were there any pieces of advice they shared with you?
I’m so grateful for my time in the hair and makeup trailer. That’s when I would have so many conversations with my castmates. One thing that impacted me was something Brian Tyree Henry mentioned. He’s the one who helped me understand that all actors have their own needs to deliver the best work possible. I would get to set with the idea in my head that I didn’t want to ask for too much. And if I ask for too much, I’ll seem difficult to work with. I didn’t want to create any barriers for other deaf actors. I wanted to make it as easy and smooth as possible. But, I learned quickly just to ask.
Let’s talk about beauty. You have beautiful curls. What is your haircare routine?
I’ve discovered my preferred products tend to depend on the climate I’m in. What works well in London doesn’t work great in California. Right now, I’m in love with Oribe’s Styling Butter Curl Enhancing Crème ($46). I just tried their Moisture Control Deep Treatment Masque ($63), and it makes my hair feels so soft. I also am a huge fan of Briogeo’s Curl Charisma Chia + Flax Seed Coil Custard ($26). I’ve also been working with Vernon François, who I love. He’s really big on hair positivity, and he’s affected how I perceive my hair. For the very first time, I feel having frizz is good. It’s a natural thing for curly hair. Why do we keep trying to fight frizz? If your hair has frizz, embrace it.
What are some of your skincare essentials?
Honestly, I don’t do much. I am a strong believer in leaving your skin alone. I drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. I get as much sleep as possible. I also use sunscreen. Right now, my favorite is the Supergoop! Mineral Mattescreen Sunscreen SPF 40 ($38). I’ve struggled with wearing sunscreen when I run because many of those products turn my face white while I sweat. Supergoop! doesn’t do that. After I wash my face, I like to use a serum and face oil from True Botanicals. If my skin needs extra radiance and tightening, I use Hanacure’s The All-In-One Facial-Starter ($48).
How do you practice self-care?
One of the good things that came out of the last year was having more time for self-care. Before that, I didn’t spend much time with my family, and I was always on the go. When everything came to a stop, I could spend time resting and being with my family. We did boring things like making banana bread.
Another important thing was exercise. For me, I did a combination of strength training, yoga, Pilates, and running. Running is my form of meditation. I find my internal rhythm when I run. I do a lot of problem-solving in my head while I’m running and I love it. I feel centered after a long run.
I also do therapy. I’m sad there’s still a bit of stigma that comes with it, but I think therapy is so important. Therapy is not a sign of something being wrong with you mentally. I think it’s a sign that you are taking care of yourself.
What do you want to accomplish next in your career?
After Eternals, I still need to focus on The Walking Dead because we’re now wrapping up our final season. After that, I would love to play a role in a deaf-centric story. I want to do something that focuses on a deaf person and their experiences, not just about what it’s like to be deaf, but also explores other layers of their identity.