In Netflix's new YA Drama The Society, Sean Berdy speaks two languages at once. His hands and words work in tandem to deliver emotionally gutting lines, his body punctuating the heartbreak in his voice as his character, Sam, navigates a perilous new reality. Though deaf, Sam speaks English and signs in American Sign Language (ASL) simultaneously — a huge challenge considering Berdy already has to focus on conjuring tears.
"People, I think, don't realize. They just say, wow … you're signing and talking, it's touching. But the fact is [that] doing both languages at the same time is extremely difficult," Berdy tells Bustle. "It's like having two separate parts of your brain working at the same time."
Berdy rose to fame playing Emmett on Switched At Birth, a character who primarily spoke only ASL. Playing Sam, then, was a challenging shift, but Berdy says he enjoyed adding new layers to his performance.
"I am bilingual — I can speak and I sign — and now I'm able to do that on the show in a way that's very moving," he says. "It's moving to see Sam speak in certain scenes and it's used for effect."
Some of his character's most poignant scenes happen with his onscreen best friend, Becca, played by his offscreen best friend Gideon Adlon. Essentially a modern Lord Of the Flies, the show tells the story of what happens when all the adults mysteriously vanish from a small town, leaving the remaining teenagers to rebuild their own civilization. Sam and Becca stick together through it all, becoming an investigative duo as they attempt to uncover what happened. Although Becca is not deaf, she talks to Sam by speaking and signing, which meant Adlon had to dedicate hours to studying ASL with an on-set coach — and with Berdy's help, of course.
"[Adlon] is amazing. In such a short amount of time, she's learned so much of the language that she plays it very convincingly," Berdy says.
But while Sam communicates effortlessly with Becca through ASL, that's not the case with his love interest, Grizz, a soft-hearted jock who's been harboring a secret crush on him. As their relationship grows, Grizz begins learning ASL so that he can communicate with Sam in his own language. It's not a smooth process, but it is a very, very sweet one. "The word that comes to mind is beautiful … It's just a beautiful relationship," Berdy says of the couple.
Netflix has yet to announce plans for a second season of The Society, but Berdy hopes he gets the chance to further develop Sam and Grizz's relationship, as well as continue working with Adlon and the rest of the cast. In the meantime, he plans to keep advocating for the ASL community and working to bring sign language to mainstream media.
"Sign language is on the rise right now and I'm thrilled about that. Sign language is an amazing, beautiful language," Berdy says. "That's what I'd like to represent — the beauty of American Sign Language."
In The Society — as Sam struggles with first love, parenthood, and his family vanishing without a trace — Berdy gets to do just that.