Oscar winner Rachel Shenton: 'It was so surreal... my hands shook and I couldn't take it in'
Rachel Shenton delivered her Oscars acceptance speech in sign language and became a global sensation. In her first interview, the former soap actress tells Samuel Fishwick this is just the start
When you win an Oscar, the rest is noise. But for a brief moment on Sunday night, as Maya Rudolph read her film's name aloud, Rachel Shenton felt a stillness envelop her.
"Everything's silent. Your whole world stops, and you stand there thinking, 'Could that actually be us?'" says the former Hollyoaks actor (30), who collected the best live action short film award for The Silent Child, a picture about a profoundly deaf four-year-old girl.
"I was in disbelief. You think there's something else coming, a mistake - then suddenly everything snaps back in an instant, you're being hurried for time and you have to get up on the stage." The "scariest part" was that she was told she had an audience of 33 million.
"Talk about bizarre. Meryl Streep had been sitting yards away from us all evening, looking so calm and serene. I guess she's a seasoned Oscar nominee. We'd followed Salma Hayek down the red carpet earlier, not quite knowing what to do with ourselves. It was such a surreal evening - one of those things where you can't take it in when you're right in the epicentre of it."
Shenton had eyes only for her deaf co-star Maisie Sly, accompanying her own acceptance speech with British Sign Language for the younger actor's benefit.
"My hands were shaking, so I was worried my signing would be a bit rubbish", she says. "But we could see Maisie and how happy she was. She was calm as a cucumber. She's six years old so she's got an advantage in all this business. She's totally unfazed by it and was more concerned with going to Disneyland today."
The trophy is "so much heavier than it looks" that her director and fiance Chris Overton (29) admits he struggled to keep it aloft.
By Shenton's own ambition, they're not a party couple. They live in Waterloo, south London, with her white Alsatian, Cassie, and prefer "long walks in the Lake District to crazy nights out". Did they make an exception for the Oscars? "We got to bed at 5am and woke up at 8am (but only because they were dealing with so many phone calls)," she says. "It makes a change from watching it in bed. They even forgot to pick up their $100,000 goodie bags.
After the ceremony finished at 8pm, they were whisked off to have their respective statuettes engraved and then took a cab to the legendary Vanity Fair afterparty. And then? "We were there for five minutes," says Shenton. "We went in, grabbed an In-N-Out burger and left. We just wanted to take the Oscar back to the crew, who worked so hard on everything. That was our priority - to get back to our family and have our own party."
They rented an AirBnB, which assistant director Bryony Pulizzi - one of their 13 crew members -had decorated with gold balloons. It had a little red carpet, so Sly's siblings could dress up and walk it like their sister.
The couple did, however, dine with Shenton's writing hero Aaron Sorkin and director Steven Spielberg over coffee mousse chocolate cups at the official Oscars Nominees Luncheon before the ceremony. Overton ended up directing the E.T. auteur as they tried to take a photo together. "The lighting was wrong, so I ended up shuffling him around to get better lighting," he says.
And there was a shout out from Robbie Williams on Twitter, Shenton's neighbour from her years growing up in Stoke-on-Trent. "I know his dad quite well," she says. "The whole community is buzzing. I love that."
Does she think Tinseltown struggled with her accent? "I like to think my accent isn't strong enough - but it's funny, I get people coming up to me in America and saying I sound like Mel B. She's from Leeds. They just hear a British accent and probably can't quite work it out. That's the nice thing about sign language - no accent."
The film, which is 20 minutes long, tells the story of Libby, played by Sly, who lives a silent life until a social worker, played by Shenton, teaches her how to communicate through sign language.
"We wanted to shine a light on deafness and raise the profile of deafness, but also put that light on the lack of access to education for deaf children," says Shenton, who has been an ambassador for the National Deaf Children's Society since 2011, and a patron of the charity dDeaflinks Staffordshire, for which she completed a 10-day fundraising trek across the Great Wall of China.
Qualified in British Sign Language, in 2014 she was cast in the American teen drama Switched at Birth, playing a student teacher who was fluent in sign language (a whole episode was also conducted entirely in American Sign Language while she was cast).
"Millions of children all over the world live in silence, failed by education. In the film, Libby's family is middle-class and refuse to let her learn sign language, limiting her to lip reading at school." But, Shenton says, "it can happen in upper-class families, middle-class families, lower-class families. These issues are universal, and they don't discriminate - there's a lack of awareness whatever your background".
On discrimination, she says her own black Suzanne Neville dress was not entirely in solidarity with the Time's Up movement. "I just love black - it's flattering," she says. But she does see International Women's Day as "a celebration". "Everyone - men and women - were saddened by all the stories that were coming out from the #MeToo campaign. It seemed like it was another day, another story. But I actually think from that a positive thing has happened, and it really does feel that times are changing. We had the first female cinematographer this year - and as much as that's crazy in 2018, it does feel that we've turned a corner."
Diversity, she says, is, however, about more than race and gender. "It's really important to remember that disability is diversity, and that disabled actors and disabilities are something that is hugely under-represented in film."
Not all men dominate the Oscars, as Overton had to talk over the exit music. "The autocue was flashing at me, 'Get Off!', and when the music starts playing you're in trouble. But the most important thing for me was Rachel and thanking her. It was her determination that drove us - me and the whole team."
They raised £10,000 to make the film via an Indiegogo fundraiser. "The writing, the fundraising and 12 years of work went into this film. It starts and ends with her. But we'd have worked on it for another decade. This had to get made."
The story is personal for Shenton. "My dad lost his hearing very suddenly when I was 12, becoming profoundly deaf. As I said in my acceptance speech, it's a silent disability. For me, I can understand that it's so easy to go through life not quite registering this world around you, one where everyday things from car horns to telephone calls are taken for granted. But it gave me the impetus to learn sign language and I fell in love with it and the deaf community."
The Hollyoaks-Hollywood connection ran strong this year. Shenton played Mitzeee Minniver in the Channel 4 soap, where she met Overton, AKA the cage fighter character Liam McAllister. "We owe a lot to that show", says Shenton. "I'm extremely proud of Hollyoaks. No one could be flying the flag more happily. What I think is that it's an excellent training ground, especially for actors who are starting out, because the schedules are so thick and fast, you have to adapt. I wouldn't have met Chris if it wasn't for Hollyoaks."
Overton proposed to her a week before they started filming - "We're private people, so I'm not going to go into details" - although there's no date for the wedding. Instead, they're focusing on turning their short film into a full feature after a holiday. As for Maisie, Shenton wants to teach the world to talk to her.
"Everybody should learn sign language, or at least, 'Hello, do you need help? How are you?'" That, she says, would break the silence.