HOLLYWOOD — Even when she is not acting, Marlee Matlin burns as brightly as a Fourth of July sparkler.
Because the 25-year-old actress is deaf and because she has a lot to say, her hands are in perpetual, magically expressive motion.
But that's only part of it.
Best known for her Oscar-winning performance in "Children of a Lesser God," Ms. Matlin has an infectious, radiant energy, a fire that lights her eyes and ignites her easy smile.
On this recent afternoon, she is glowing brightly again -- even though she's dressed mostly in black -- black jeans, black jacket, black boots, with a white shirt, long, gold '60s-style medallion around her neck and simple frames bracketing her face.
Accompanied as usual by her interpreter, Jack Jason (who is also vice president of Ms. Matlin's production company), the actress is talking at a corner table at her hotel about what may be her greatest challenge ever -- a starring role in a prime-time series.
This fall she will play opposite Mark Harmon in the NBC drama "Reasonable Doubts" (premiering at 10 p.m. Sept. 27), cast as a hearing-impaired assistant district attorney named Tess Kaufman who is assigned to the felony division. Mr. Harmon is police detective Richard Brandt, paired with Kaufman, albeit reluctantly, because he knows sign language.
It is a unique hour, already cited by NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield as one of his network's examples of innovative programming and a reply to those who say this coming season will be a wall-to-wall return to the tried-and-true of the past.
Reaction to the drama has been mixed. But that is primarily due to what is perceived by many critics an too-dark, somewhat gratuitous sex-and-violence vision of creator-executive producer Robert Singer ("Midnight Caller") rather than because of Ms. Matlin's role as a district attorney.
Ms. Matlin has had some experience with television in the 1989 TV movie "Bridge to Silence" -- her first speaking role. But the actress says that when she made this pilot, "I was overwhelmed by the decisions that you had to make, and I didn't know how many people would be so involved and how it would be made, so I was very nervous -- more than I was making a movie, because . . . this is an ongoing process."
Ask Ms. Matlin if she's happy with the results, however, and she doesn't hesitate to say, "Yeah, you bet I am."
What apprehension there is, she says, has to do with the speed of the work, a new, wider audience and the entertainment arena she now enters.
The actress assumes that the network will probably get the biggest reaction to the show -- good and bad -- from people who are deaf: "There are 23 million hearing-impaired people in the United States, so they'll be very thrilled and very excited for me and for the fact that there's a hearing-impaired individual in a role on a series and breaking barriers."