BOUNTIFUL — While every little girl often dreams of becoming an actress, it’s no longer just a dream for Millie Simmonds.
The world has always been slightly different for this 14-year-old Bountiful resident, though. Millie went deaf when she was still an infant, eventually learned American Sign Language and attended a school for deaf students until she decided to start regular high school in her teens. But Millie’s high school experience has also been a bit peculiar.
In 2016, the high schooler landed a leading role in the upcoming film “Wonderstruck” starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams. The film is directed by Todd Haynes, known for his work on the film “Carol” with Cate Blanchett, and based on the novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” adapted to the film “Hugo”.
“Wonderstruck,” produced by Amazon Studios, follows the story of Rose and Ben, two deaf children living 50 years apart, one in the 1920s and the other in the 1970s. Both children work to understand their own world as they seek the mysterious connection between them.
Millie, with no film credit to her name, beat out 250 other candidates to land the role of young Rose, and she and her mother moved to New York to begin filming in April 2016 until they returned to Utah in July.
“Filming was pretty overwhelming at first, it’s hard work,” Millie said through her interpreter, and mother, Emily Simmonds. “There was a lot of makeup, and I’m not used to it, so it was a little hard for me. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening and there were times I didn’t know what the director wanted. But my interpreter was great and then it just came together really smoothly … (the director and I) had a really special relationship and we understood each other really well.”
Several ASL interpreters were available on set and Millie made good friends with the crew, who took ASL classes each Tuesday and would sign ‘Good morning’ or ‘How are you?’ to Millie when she arrived on set.
Though filming was initially difficult, one of Millie’s favorite experiences was working with Academy Award winner Julianne Moore, who she says is one of her favorite actresses and who she’s loved watching in “The Hunger Games” and “Still Alice.”
“I was fascinated watching her ... and I was overwhelmed with meeting her because I just think she’s an amazing actress,” Millie said.
And it seems the crew enjoyed watching Millie act just as much. For one scene, she was required to cut her hair, but only had one shot to do it, since she would be cutting a very expensive wig the crew had imported from England. According to Millie, she practiced over and over again on other wigs, making sure she got it just right before go time. While she was very nervous to film the scene, the day finally came.
“(The director) said, ‘When you’re ready, we’ll start filming,’” Millie explained. “I remembered everything and the scissors went right through (the hair) and when he yelled cut, I didn’t hear it, but I turned around and everyone was crying and clapping for me, and my interpreter was crying, and the director was crying, and I just felt really proud and accomplished, like I had made him proud of me. That was probably my favorite day on set.”
Millie is also especially excited for her opportunity to advocate for the deaf community, especially in film, and hopes everyone will read “Wonderstruck” to gain a greater sense of understanding of the deaf community.
“I want to show other deaf people that they can do anything, even be in a movie,” Millie said. “And I really want to try and tell hearing parents to encourage them to sign to their deaf children.”
According to Millie, 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents, but many don’t learn to sign, making it difficult for their children to communicate with them and causing a sense of isolation. Millie believes “Wonderstruck” can help parents understand what it’s like for their children in such a world.
“Rose learns sign language in the end and she has a relationship with a brother that she reconnects with, and it shows hearing people that it’s fine to learn sign language,” Millie said.
“It also shows the hearing community the struggle that we have every day trying to communicate with people that don’t know our language and don’t know what we’re capable of. … I don't want them to look down on us and pity us anymore. It’s fine, we are equal and we can do anything the hearing community can do except hear.”
Millie plans to continue both acting and advocating for the deaf community and is currently in negotiations for her next film, which also includes some A-list stars, though she’s not allowed to say too much more at this point.
“I’ve always thought that she’s had a bigger calling out there,” said Simmonds. “I just had no idea it was this big. But there’s no sweeter girl that this could happen to … (there’s) no better role model to me than this girl. I’m so proud of who she is and what she stands for and just has so much to offer. Honestly, I’m just excited to get to be a small part of her big adventure.”
And Millie plans to continue her big adventure at the Cannes Film Festival in France May 17-28 and the premiere of “Wonderstruck” October 10.
“Wonderstruck” will be released in select locations October 20, then see a wider release in November.