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At Home with Marlee Matlin

updated 04/28/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/2008 01:00AM

Marlee Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old. But spend an afternoon at her home and it's clear she doesn't live in silence. Her four children, combined with six or so of the neighborhood kids, give the patio sliding door a workout going in and out of the house to get a football, a basketball, a Popsicle, a drink—hollering all the way. "This is how I grew up," the Chicago native yells over the backyard bedlam. "It's like this all the time. I love it!"

And she's loving Dancing with the Stars, though at the halfway point, "it has been a marathon," says Matlin, 42. Her days are maxed out with rehearsals, shuttling the kids to school and trying to help with homework. But, she says, it's all worth it—and not just because she's back in her skinny jeans (see box). "I was surprised that I was able to be more fearless than I ever thought I could," says the actress, whose near-total hearing loss (from a childhood illness) means that she can barely make out the music and relies on her partner, Fabian Sanchez, to keep her on the beat. The deaf community has been cheering her on. "I've gotten hundreds of letters each week about how much they appreciate that I've opened the eyes of hearing people that deaf people can do anything except hear," says Matlin, who also stars in the April 20 CBS movie Sweet Nothing in My Ear, about the controversy surrounding cochlear implants that give the deaf a sense of sound.

Currently starring on Showtime's racy series The L Word, Matlin says Dancing is "the only show other than Blue's Clues my kids have been able to see Mommy on!"

Their daddy is Matlin's husband of 14 years, Kevin Grandalski, 43, a law enforcement officer. Home to the couple and their kids—Sarah, 12, Brandon, 7, Tyler, 5, and Isabelle, 4—is a five-bedroom Tudor in an L.A. suburb. Matlin's 1986 Oscar for Children of a Lesser God isn't on display (it's tucked away in a bedroom), nor do scripts litter the kitchen table. "She's in all that glitz and glamour, but we don't live that way," says Grandalski, who drives a 1957 Chevy Corvette the family calls "the kitchen": Matlin wanted to do a kitchen remodel, but when he fell in love with the car, she caved. Grandalski's parents are living with the family to help out while Matlin puts in long hours working on Dancing. "It's the most physically challenging role I've ever done. It's not been an easy journey," Matlin says. "My kids miss me a lot, and I would like to be with them."

The most devoted Dancing fan in the family is Sarah, who attends all of the shows with her father. When Mom gets stressed, Sarah steps in with a pep talk. "She worries and goes 'I might get eliminated,' and I'm like 'There's no way. You're good,'" says Sarah, whose career goal mirrors her mother's. With five minutes to go before she has to head off to dance rehearsal, Matlin powers down a Red Bull on the back porch. She then catches Sarah striking a dance pose on the patio. "Sarah is M-I-T," Matlin says, rolling her eyes and laughing. "Marlee in training."

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