Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture often demands so much more than simply making a great film. Sometimes, it comes down to peaking in the minds of awards voters in the final weeks of the season, capturing late awards and having the cast and story to charm the voters.
The film that finds itself in that enviable position of having the last-minute momentum this year is surely CODA.
In addition to its Best Picture nomination, the film’s director Siân Heder is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the deaf fishing family patriarch played by Troy Kotsur is a favorite for Best Supporting Actor after several wins including a SAG Award. Fellow cast members Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant haven’t made the nominations list, but they have been as united in awards promotion as they were when they shot the film in Gloucester, Massachusetts, reassembling in high spirits for Deadline’s cover shoot on the evening after the Oscar Nominees’ Luncheon in Los Angeles.
The late surge is uncharacteristic because CODA’s awards road began way back in January 2021, when it swept the major awards at the Sundance Film Festival and set a festival record $25 million deal from Apple. But the cast camaraderie remained a well-kept secret; instead of a thundering audience reaction at an Eccles Theater premiere that would have created awareness, the film’s debut came at a virtual version of the festival, necessitated by the Covid pandemic.
CODA premiered last August on Apple TV+, before most of its Best Picture competitors. The performances, charm and struggles of deaf cast members Kotsur, Matlin and Durant, feel fresh. Having Matlin along for the ride is helpful. The youngest Best Actress Oscar winner at age 21 for Children of a Lesser God, Matlin was also the first deaf actress to win, and she saw the realities of almost zero demand for non-hearing actors. She has turned in a career’s worth of acclaimed performances, but hers was a harder road than for most bright young actors with an Oscar, simply because Hollywood has never known what to do with deaf actors. She and Heder had to fight financiers who wanted to go with hearing actors for deaf parts. Along the way, they were helped by the dogged determination of producers Patrick Wachsberger and Philippe Rousselet, who refused to let CODA fall into the trap of tired industry cliché, even if it meant realizing the movie with one third of its original budget.
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DEADLINE: Troy, you’ve faced many challenges on a long road to Oscar nominee. Name moments that led you to challenge your belief in yourself, and how you pushed through.
TROY KOTSUR: It’s funny you ask me that question. Before CODA I started to feel like I was ready to give up because I was a bit worried about my family and I didn’t have a retirement plan. I was already in my 50s and my wife was beginning to get on me a little bit. I really was getting ready to get a regular job, maybe in the Deaf community. I was all ready to work in a cubicle in a full-time job.
The accumulative nature of my career led me to get the audition for CODA. I got offered the role after the audition and I’ll never forget it. I was typing on the computer, and I got this call. It was my former agent who texted me to inform me that I got the role and asking if I should negotiate. It felt like this ice cube was melting into my hand. My body temperature was starting to decrease. I just put my hand onto my desk with shock, I was just like, wow. Of course, the computer screen just shut off because the space bar was causing all of these characters to fly across the screen. I felt ready to quit and I gave them 30 days notice, and I was able to leave that job.
I was thrilled to get started. Siân asked me not to shave or cut my hair for five months before the first day of shooting and it was very fun to transform into that character of Frank Rossi.
The longer I was in acting, the less hope I had, and the more frustration I was feeling. I didn’t see so many opportunities. I was almost getting used to the lack of opportunity. Deaf folks who could use their [speaking] voice better than I could would have more of a chance and more of a possibility to get work.
This character, Frank Rossi, really fit exactly the description of what I was looking for. I felt like I was able to dive in and that this was the right character for me. Frank Rossi wasn’t a victim or someone to have sympathy for. It would be a challenge around how to make an audience love a character like that. With Frank Rossi, of course, I found a personal connection, and it was easy for the audience to connect with him and shift their perspectives. I can see that Frank was such a positive character and a positive role and now I see that it’s beginning to influence Hollywood to open their hearts and minds, and this is just the beginning.
DEADLINE: What were the movies or roles that sparked your own early passion to be an actor?
KOTSUR: As a kid, I loved to read comics and fantasy and superheroes. When Star Wars came out, it just was overwhelming, it was mind-blowing. It was such a visual language. It said so much, even with me not being able to hear the dialogue. It was so fun to see all these aliens and this diversity in the characters.
I watched it again and again as a young boy. I’d go to a bookstore like Barnes & Noble and typically they have a big rack with all these film magazines. I would read everything I could about film, and I saved money because I’d just read the magazines right there. Because back then as a deaf person, I didn’t have access. TV didn’t have closed captioning. I really had to rely on magazines. And so more and more when closed captioning came onto the scene, I really loved seeing the creation and the production side of how they make movies.
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Of course, I was challenged to have opportunities as a director, but I was able to be an actor on the stage and that’s where access was for deaf actors. National Theater of the Deaf and Deaf West Theater, all of them really helped me with my training as an actor. And then, of course, that became my bridge and my connection with Hollywood. Marlee Matlin would be in the audience sometimes and I’d say hi, and then we made that bridge, we made that connection and we got to work together.
MARLEE MATLIN: All of the years that I’ve watched Troy work on stage, he’s one of a kind. There were so many deaf actors who are great on stage, like Daniel here, but watching Troy in particular for longer than I’ve known Daniel, I always wondered, why wasn’t he in the Hollywood scene, making movies like I’ve been doing?
His talent just outshone everything I’d ever seen. It was so unique and every time I’d see him perform, I’d see him afterwards backstage and I’d say, “You’re great. I’m your No. 1 fan.” And then I stopped because he knew how I felt. So, when I was talking to Siân about CODA, we both agreed he would be perfect for this role.
We’re on the way finally to get him involved in the Hollywood landscape, but it’s a long process. It takes a lot of work to break in for anyone, I’m sure you know that. And in this particular case, it’s unusual. He mentioned that he felt that he was always passed over because he doesn’t speak well, and I get it. That’s something that we call discrimination.
Now Hollywood has the chance to see this film, to understand his work, and say, “OK, you can make it happen, you don’t have to look at things the old way and create roles for us.” Yeah, it’s a long process and I lost a job myself because a producer wanted me to speak the entire scene in a role and I can’t speak like that, so he took the role back. I get what Troy’s going through.
SIÂN HEDER: Troy told me a story about going to an audition for a job he did get, but it was a room full of hearing actors, an entire hallway of hearing actors auditioning to play deaf. You went to that audition by accident because a friend told you about it and you were the only deaf person to audition.
KOTSUR: That was for Criminal Minds. There was a friend of mine who happened to be fluent in sign language and felt like it wasn’t appropriate for him to play a deaf role. He was extremely concerned and disgusted with that actually, so he actually gave me his audition time.
At first his agent was upset, and he said, “No, trust me, we’re sending Troy in.” I show up and that person who became my interpreter actually, because he was fluent in sign language, he voiced for my auditions. I sat down and I saw all these hearing people really struggling with basic finger spelling and ASL, and someone was literally covering their ears as they sat down. I was like, “How the hell can you do that? Oh, that’s a terrible choice.”
The first person they called in was me. I came in and the interpreter sat across from me and I just did it, I went for it, I put it all out there. I envisioned that the police were coming for me, and other actors would pull a gun and point it at the cops, but I pulled the gun up to shoot myself in the head. They ended up liking my audition because I wanted, as a character, to shoot myself before the cop shot me. It was really a shock and a surprise, and they actually clapped after my audition. I said, “Thank you for your time.” I left and then I was offered the role later that night. The guy who sacrificed and switched with me was my interpreter on set, which was really cool.
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HEDER: That’s an amazing story because all of those hearing actors were only focused on playing deaf. Troy had no interest in playing deaf, he was playing the character and he was playing the moment that the character was in. This is something that people I think don’t realize is the idea that he is an actor who’s focused on the character’s motivation. “This is the moment I got to shoot myself quickly before the cops come in.” An entire line of hearing actors is out there trying to figure out how to pretend to be deaf.
KOTSUR: But they didn’t know. There’s no excuse out there. We’re all out there, you can’t play deaf, you should really know by this point. I think in the past, people just weren’t clued-in, they weren’t educated.
DEADLINE: What’s your favorite movie? What’s a film you wish you could have been in?
KOTSUR: The Killing Fields, about Cambodia. The American photographers, and everything they go through in their journey, it’s truly incredible. That film is incredible. I’m obsessed with it. It’s so heavy and it’s just how to survive in that type of situation, with lack of communication and communication in different language. It’s truly interesting because they had a lot of visual communication that was so powerful in that film. I would enjoy playing a role like that in the future or any type of historical epic that was based on a true story with some serious conflict.
I don’t want to mention Marvel. It’s fun to watch the fighting, but it’s too much. They destroy buildings, the Incredible Hulk tears a car in half. I’m like, “I need to call my insurance company. The Hulk just destroyed my car.”
DEADLINE: Marlee, what about you? What movie or TV show did you see that inspired you to become an actor?
MATLIN: I have several. When I first saw Happy Days, it was for Henry Winkler, because I was always a fan of his. I saw Linda Bove, who was deaf and playing opposite Henry Winkler. She’s from Sesame Street. I said, “Wait a minute, she’s using my language. If she’s there, why can’t I be there?”
If you talk about films, one that really grabbed my attention was The Wizard of Oz.
I’m a fan of many films, but a film that just tugged at my heart, because it’s part of my family and part of who I am, is Schindler’s List. I’m Jewish and my family, they were victims of the Holocaust. To be able to get into this story to see from their perspective the people who were victims of the Holocaust. What Steven Spielberg did with that film, really made me feel… I got a taste of what my relatives went through and the struggles they suffered.
DEADLINE: Daniel, what were those films for you?
DANIEL DURANT: So many. I like to watch how the actors dive deep into their character and I can’t see their person. I can’t see who they really are, I see only the character. Johnny Depp, he’s so good at putting on a crazy character that you can’t see Johnny Depp in there. It’s just the character, and I really enjoy that. Also, Jim Carrey. His expressions are so visual. He’s so visual with his acting. He’s very physical and I’ve never seen another actor match that level of expression. Deaf culture tends to have exaggerated expressions while we sign, and it’s our language with our face, so that’s how we show how we feel. And Jim Carrey really fits right into our culture with his exaggerated expressions, I love him in all his movies.
KOTSUR: I worked with Jim Carrey, actually.
DURANT: Oh yeah? I’m so jealous.
KOTSUR: Our director was Joel Schumacher, and he directed Number 23. I noticed that the director and Jim Carrey were swearing at each other with a lot of F-words going back and forth, and they were feeding each other this energy to have the character feel that anger. And so, our director asked me on my fifth take, he goes, “Tell him something like, ‘F— you, Jim Carrey.’” And I was like, “Are you serious?” And he goes, “Yeah.”
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I was so nervous, and so after the fifth take I look over at our director, he’s sitting there like that and he gives me a thumbs up. So, I’m opposite Jim and the camera’s on both of us. I do my lines and say, “F— you!” And I’ll never forget his face. His face just sinks, and he actually dropped out of character, and he became Jim Carrey. He looked so unhappy with me. And we’re looking eye-to-eye and I go, “Hey, it wasn’t my idea. It was Joel’s idea.” And so, Jim looks over at him and he goes, “Hey, that’s a good one.” And the crew was just relieved and started cracking up. After that we were just great friends for three days.
DURANT: I also loved watching Charlie Chaplin. When I was growing up, I collected all the VHSs, DVDs, they’re all at home. I watched Charlie every day. I still enjoy it, because of his physical acting. And he acts clear, it’s so obvious what he’s doing. He’s funny. He learned all that stuff from his deaf friends. And he became very good with his physical acting, but it was deaf people behind that. I forget the name of his character in real life, he was extremely tall with a long mustache, and that actor was deaf in silent film and he acted quite frequently with Chaplin.
KOTSUR: Granville Redmond.
DURANT: Yeah, that’s him. A lot of people don’t realize that, because Chaplin knew how to finger spell and could actually sign a bit on set.
DEADLINE: Emilia, people watching might think you have a strong singing background, but you had to learn to sing and sign. What were the biggest challenges of each?
EMILIA JONES: The biggest challenge was learning American Sign Language (ASL). I didn’t just want to learn my lines, I wanted to learn about the culture and the language. I had the most work to do in that area because I didn’t know any ASL coming into CODA.
My dad is a singer, I grew up in a musical household, but I’d never had a singing lesson before, so I did have a lot of work to do. I was also 17 at the time, my voice was still maturing and the songs I was singing were Etta James, Marvin Gaye; they were huge songs. I found that a little bit daunting. I trained for nine months sign language, but also nine months singing. I loved it. I found it so rewarding learning these two skills.
When I got the role, I had auditioned with four dialogue scenes, and I sang “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. That was meant to be the song instead of “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. Then I sent three more songs, which were just songs I was listening to at that moment in time.
I Skyped with Siân and I loved how she spoke about the project and how passionate she was and then I basically copied her friend signing the scene, when I tell the Rossi family that I want to go to Berklee. I copied it the best I could with no sign language training, and then two weeks later I got the role.
DEADLINE: What were the complexities of learning to sing?
JONES: There was a lot to learn technique-wise. You know the line in the movie, when Mr. V says, “You have a pretty voice, but you have no control.” They got my singing teacher to tell Eugenio [Derbez, who plays Mr. V] what I was doing wrong, and he said, “She has no control whatsoever.”
When I was training, I had the tone, but I just didn’t know how to breathe. A lot of the songs were big songs and I had never done that before. Nine months I trained; I’m still learning now. I am not having singing lessons, but I feel like I’ve still got so much to learn.
DEADLINE: Why did the song change from “Landslide”?
JONES: After hearing hundreds of girls audition with “Landslide”, Siân said she never wanted to hear the song again, so we changed it. Also, it’s a rights thing, too. I remember in the time that I was training with sign language and singing, I would be singing 10 different songs every week and then we’d find one that they liked and I’d start rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and then they’d say, “Oh, we didn’t get the rights for that.” Then you’d go back to the drawing board and get 10 new songs. It was a really long and complicated process, but I’m so happy it worked out the way it did because every song in the movie I think is lyrically perfect.
I was very nervous to sing “Both Sides Now” because the song and Joni Mitchell are so iconic. In a Joni Mitchell documentary that I watched, she said “Both Sides Now” is the work about the end of her childhood. It’s perfect and I’m so happy it worked out the way it did.
DEADLINE: What was the song you most loved singing that got dropped over rights?
JONES: A lot of Etta James songs I loved, although I can’t really sing them. I loved learning them and putting my own spin on it. Stevie Wonder, too. “For Once in My Life”, I love that one.
DEADLINE: Take me back to shooting this movie in Gloucester. What was it like for you to be immersed in this world together?
HEDER: It’s a beautiful place, first of all. I think we were all living in this incredible landscape, the beach and the quarries. I remember in rehearsal Emilia and I went out and we both jumped off each cliff around the quarry. I had to do it first because I felt like if I was a director asking my actor to do that, I had to show her that I could.
Our DP jumped off too. We all went out and had rehearsal, and learning how to fish. I had gone out with Paul Vitale, who was the captain of the boat that we used, the Angela Rose, and we somehow talked Paul into letting us use his boat. We had an amazing marine crew. We had this guy, Joe Borland, who was our Marine Coordinator, and this guy Smash who was a local fisherman. Smash taught us all how to fish.
Smash and Joe and Paul Vitale took Daniel and Emilia and Troy and I out. I was going to use fishing doubles because those boats are really dangerous, and all of that equipment takes years to learn. How to pull in the winch, and deal with the nets, and there are these big iron doors that come up as you’re hauling stuff in. It’s pretty treacherous. I had fishing doubles planned, but these guys all took to it in an instant. It was amazing to watch.
Troy is from Arizona, but he looked like he’d been running that boat all his life. After a day out at sea he really looked like he knew what he was doing, and they were all learning to identify fish and separate them. Emilia was gutting cod and throwing the guts over the side of the boat and the seagulls would come down. And I think that was a real bonding experience for them.
KOTSUR: Oh, we were all stuck out on the boat, and that’s really how our relationship grew and blossomed, because we were on that boat all day in really close quarters. It really was a massive benefit to us. I had never fished or even touched a fish before, so it really wasn’t easy to hold some of these slimy fish. The lobsters were alive, and I was afraid they would just clip me on the nose, and I had to be extremely careful. Daniel was pretty good at it. I really had to get used to it.
HEDER: We had that location early, the house that we found which was this amazing falling down house out on Conomo Point. We did a lot of rehearsal in the house, and it was really nice. Marlee would be hanging in the kitchen and because we had so much time in the house as a family to sit around the table, it was really helpful for these guys to start to take ownership of the space and feel like a family in that house as well.
Some of those scenes at the family dinner table, like, “Tinder is something we can do as a family,” were really funny. The scene where Emilia’s character is describing to the doctor the problems that mom and dad are having in bed because of rashes… How much improvisation was involved?
HEDER: The interesting thing is that the subtitles are not always what you’re seeing on screen in ASL. The subtitles are probably pretty close to what I wrote, but the way that Troy uses ASL and the way he improvises and expands and riffs, it’s so much fun but it’s almost like there’s no way to then subtitle it because ASL is so much more expressive in a lot of ways than English. So much of the comedy came from Troy taking the English line and then just riffing on it and improvising within it and adding all sort of color and flare to the line.
KOTSUR: Sometimes as Frank Rossi I didn’t trust my CODA daughter as my interpreter, so I had to gesticulate, and I knew that my daughter wouldn’t be comfortable with that. I had to make sure it was loud and clear and that they understood me. And so sometimes it was a bit too much and they would edit it out but you could see the daughter’s reaction, cut away to the doctor’s reaction. And so, we started with the lobster, and I said, “Oh, her red p—- was the color of the lobster,” and they cut that out.
HEDER: I was like, “You can’t sign p—-, Troy.” We had to tone it down.
JONES: He was also using props and he got his lighter out and everything.
HEDER: At one point he was talking about his balls being on fire and he pulled out a lighter out of his pocket and he was running the lighter underneath his balls and I was like, “Let’s lose the lighter. I think we’ve crossed the line.”
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MATLIN: It’s also funny that he did every take differently and I thought, “OK, the next one will be fine. I won’t lose it. I won’t lose it.” But no, I still lost it after every take. It was like, “F—, come on.” That was it.
KOTSUR: It was really important to keep the energy up in that moment because it’s going to be permanent in picture when it’s printed, and so it’s extremely important to give as many options as possible rather than be robotic. But the script is a guide. We knew the intention of what was written, but we wanted it to fit our Deaf culture.
HEDER: That doctor I cast was my friend from high school, and he came up and apologized to me halfway through this thing. “I’m so sorry, I swear I’m a professional actor, but I’ve never broken so much on film.” He couldn’t stop laughing every take we had because Troy was so funny. He just couldn’t keep it together. We were so lucky. My ASL master is Anne Tomasetti, who was the person on set with me. Having Anne there at the monitor with me was so important to catch words like ‘p—-’ that I might not have caught. I mean just in terms of how we find the right level of edginess and dirtiness honestly, I needed deaf eyes behind the camera with me to be watching the ASL and how do we walk right up to the line in terms of comedy, but not go so far across it that we can’t end up having this film be for everybody?
KOTSUR: And, if I may chime in, it’s really important to have a deaf eye behind the camera because as a deaf actor I feel much more freedom when I know someone’s there. If not, I might be worried if they’ll really get it, or would they keep my p—- line or not? And so, it’s important to have that deaf eye to make sure that the deaf lines really shine.
DEADLINE: We see the challenges the Rossis have in integrating into the Gloucester fishing community. What was it like for three deaf actors to embed into the community?
KOTSUR: We were booked into a hotel. I saw all these tourists going back and forth outside the hotel and I felt uncomfortable in that setting, so we decided to move to an Airbnb where Daniel and I were roommates. It was a beautiful house on the water and the harbor. You could see the boats passing, and a beautiful sunset. We wanted to switch on the patio lights, and they had these light switches. We were flicking them on and off. Deaf people need to see each other to communicate in sign language. So, we went outside on the patio, and we were watching this beautiful setting, having a drink. The police show up. And suddenly we see all these flashing lights.
So, the guy approaches us with his shiny cop badge and a hand on his gun, and he was saying something. So, we said, “Hey, we’re deaf. Am I in trouble?” Maybe they think we’re criminals and we broke into the house. But they wrote down something on a pad of paper, and it said, “The foghorn has been blaring for hours.” All the neighbors were complaining and calling the police because of how loud it was. Of course, we weren’t aware of that. The policeman actually had to call the owner of the house to figure out which switch it was. When they finally found it, they taped on a piece of paper that said, “Do not touch!”
Our pizza delivery guy came at the same time the foghorn was blaring. And so, we apologized, and after that was all done, we gave a slice of pizza to the cops with a bottle of water. So that’s where all the rumors spread, and everyone knew about the deaf guys in town the next day.
HEDER: Troy texted me a picture of him eating pizza with the cops. And I was like, “What is going on? Please tell me what happened.” We had so many run-ins with the cops. Remember the cops busted our party? I had a dinner party…
JONES: It was the weekend before we were wrapping.
HEDER: And the cops showed up and Marlee and Troy answered the door. It was a noise complaint. We were being too loud. Our 10-person barbecue, the cops came.
DEADLINE: Well, it sounds like those cops were a little more amiable than the Coast Guard guys we see in the film who board the fishing boat with little compassion when Frank and Leo are alone and don’t hear them coming.
HEDER: I remember talking to Marlee’s friend, Alexis Kashar, who’s a civil rights attorney. She was talking about how she was glad that scene was in the movie because I think the relationship between deaf people and law enforcement can go south very quickly. Cops are amped up and not immediately responding to verbal direction. That Coast Guard scene in the movie felt important for a couple of reasons, just because it also represented a way of interacting. And I’m glad that the cops ended up eating pizza with Troy and Daniel. But that also could have gone another direction.
KOTSUR: I suppose, yeah.
HEDER: If they thought these guys had broken in…
MATLIN: Didn’t the cops also get you guys for playing Frisbee in your kayaks?
KOTSUR: Oh yes, they did. We were out on the kayak and the cops asked us to put life jackets on. They came up and they were like, “You have to have your life jacket on.” And we said, “OK.” It was the same cop again and we recognized each other.
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HEDER: You were lucky that the Harbor Master in Gloucester [T.J. Ciarametaro] is in our movie. He’s former Coast Guard, the guy who jumps aboard the boat and does that amazing stunt, because he’s done many boardings in his life. But T.J. definitely was our good law enforcement hookup in the town. Once T.J. was in the movie, I felt like he was taking care of us.
DEADLINE: Your “get out of jail” card. Sounds like your merry band of outlaws fit right in with the roughneck commercial fishing community.
HEDER: Troy was hanging out in Pratty’s bar every night. I would be texting him, “Please get out of there…” Those boats come in, those guys start drinking at like 1 p.m., and then by 9 p.m., there’s a fight almost every night. Troy would text me videos of these fights and I’d be like, “Why are you filming this? Get out of the parking lot and come home.”
KOTSUR: It was just to study, a character study that would influence me as a fisherman.
DEADLINE: No brawls yourself?
KOTSUR: No, I wasn’t involved [laughs]. It got close a couple of times.
HEDER: I got them sweatshirts from Pratty’s bar just so they can have something to remember by.
DEADLINE: Movies that have dealt with deaf stories in the past have typically made silence a scary, ominous place. As Ruby Rossi’s parents sit in the auditorium experiencing their daughter’s duet, you realize that this is one of the first movies where silence is not something to dread. What did that mean to you guys?
MATLIN: Actually, it’s the ultimate choice by Siân to represent our point of view as deaf people when we go to things like concerts. It also conveys a message as parents watching their daughter do something that’s so completely outside of their sphere of understanding. She’s doing it because she loves it. Yet we can’t identify with it or connect with it. It’s an examination of the journey of what is initially fear, especially from the perspective of a mother, to puzzlement, to eventually something positive.
HEDER: It’s about also coming from a hearing perspective or a Deaf perspective. One of the first of those moments was in the bar when Leo goes out and he’s with a bunch of hearing guys at the table. Daniel and I were texting the night before that scene and I was asking him to tell me, what is it like when you’re at a table full of hearing people and you’re trying to follow the conversation? And he was explaining to me the way his eye moves around the room and the way he needs to almost be a detective to pick up on different clues to follow what’s happening.
Anne Tomasetti wrote me the most beautiful essay about that experience as well, about a Thanksgiving with her hearing family and trying to follow a conversation around the table. I gave that essay, and Daniel’s explanation, to my DP and then she operated camera for those moments. She wanted to operate from the Deaf perspective. Not to operate as a hearing person who’s imagining what this must be like, but really trying to follow those moments in the way that a deaf person would. The same was true for the concert.
Troy and Marlee both have hearing children, have CODAs, and have sat through many a concert. They described to me the way that they watch a concert, which is to pick up on the other audience members and the way they look around and see if they’re reacting emotionally or engaged. That’s amazing information to give to my DP and camera operators, because then we are not hearing people judging that moment. We are living empathetically in the Deaf experience and operating and trying to understand the visuals from that place. I think that having these collaborators was incredibly helpful for me, as a hearing person, to try to get out of my own hearing perspective.
DEADLINE: In the movie on which this is based, the parents were played by hearing actors, and right now, there would be more blowback than there was at the time that movie was made. Marlee, why did you feel so strongly that you couldn’t do this movie if the family was not comprised of deaf actors, when the financiers wanted Troy and Daniel’s parts to be played by recognizable names?
MATLIN: It would’ve been essentially robbing the opportunity for deaf actors to be involved in the film. It would’ve totally changed the story. I have yet to see the French film, I just haven’t had a chance. It’s not authentic, even though they wrote the original story, and they wrote the characters and created story elements. And then they cast hearing actors to play deaf actors, except the brother. I’ve always spoken out to anyone who was willing to listen over the course of 35 years, that I’m not the only person out there. There are lots of deaf actors out there. When we did Broadway and I did Spring Awakening with Daniel here, there was a cast of both hearing and deaf people together, and it was quite successful. And I’m thinking, if we could do it on Broadway, if we could do it on other productions, we could do it in a film like this with more than one deaf actor. I wouldn’t be sitting here, and the movie wouldn’t have been as well-received, if we had cast hearing actors in those roles.
HEDER: It’s not that it was the right thing to do. It was an incredible creative opportunity. These are brilliant actors. There was no charity here in like, “Oh, I’m giving these roles to these actors because they’re deaf.” These are incredible actors who have craft and skill and, as Daniel said, completely disappeared into these characters and transformed to play them. The ability as a director to have this rich visual language on screen that could only be expressed in this way… because Troy and Daniel and Marlee are native signers, and this is their language, and they are getting to explore and play and improvise in this language.
And Emilia’s success in signing was so dependent on having this team around her. That fight on the beach between Leo and Ruby is an amazing scene, but the speed of the sign language and the rapid-fire way that these two are fighting… Emilia’s performance was brought up in sign by having these scene partners who could bring you there in terms of the language.
JONES: There’s actually a saying that I was thinking about as you were talking about it. “Nothing about us without us.” And I think yes, full stop. And for me, as Siân said, going into this, I was so grateful I had a deaf teacher. It made me learn faster. I had Anne Tomasetti, as Siân did. She was my rock on set. She pushed me in the two weeks of training when I got to Massachusetts. I met Troy, Daniel and Marlee, and they took me under their wing. And I learned not just the language, but about the culture. Troy was telling me stories in ASL, and I was following. I was finger spelling words that I didn’t know how to sign. And Daniel would always say, there’s a sign for that. You all just really, really helped me and I learned so much faster.
With the scene on the beach, I remember Daniel celebrating that I had my first ASL injury. We were mad in that scene. And so, I was banging my hand really hard. I remember I had had this huge bruise and Danny was like, “This is amazing, this is so good!” I was like, “What is good about this injury?”
DEADLINE: Siân, given the drive to ensure that the cast was comprised of deaf actors, what was the pushback from financiers, and how did doing it your way impact the finished project in areas like budget?
HEDER: I was originally hired just as the writer, in 2016. They wouldn’t even commit to me as the director until they saw the script. I went into the studio and pitched my take, and I wrote the script. And in writing the script, I did a massive amount of research and became very invested in the Deaf community and in the collaborators, I had; the people who I had working on the script with me. And I knew that it was not an option, both in the world, but also for me, to make the film without deaf actors playing these roles.
I had finished the script and they all flipped over it at Lionsgate. It was a weird movie for Lionsgate to be doing, because it was a small family drama. It didn’t fit into their idea, I think, of what they do. Patrick Wachsberger loved the movie, and it was his baby. He and Philippe Rousselet were nurturing it there. But I think the rest of the studio wasn’t fully behind it. Then I had to go in and pitch myself as the director, and part of my pitch was, “I want to do this with deaf actors in these roles.” Immediately, financing questions came up. “Well, there aren’t famous deaf actors, Marlee Matlin is the only one. And so how were we going to finance the movie with these actors?”
I think it wasn’t pushback, like, “No, we are creatively against that.” It was from the financing side, with the budget level it was, it was like, “Well, how are we going to do this without bankable names?” So, then they pushed me to try to have the Ruby part be some kind of pop star.
JONES: They’d have saved a lot of money on singing lessons.
HEDER: Yes [laughs]. I’m truly not throwing anyone under the bus, because I think that they were a studio that had always made films a certain way and they couldn’t see how to make it. They couldn’t see a way to please all their investors with these names. So, it became, “Well, I want Ruby to be a pop star, and sure, OK, we’ll trade you, you can have your deaf actors in the deaf roles.” But I couldn’t do that either. I wanted to find this girl, and this is a really hard part. She has to sign fluently, she’s in every scene in the movie, she needs to be a brilliant actress.
So, then I started crafting that teacher part to try to go after some names. But also, it became clear that the studio was never going to make the movie the way that I wanted. It wasn’t just the deaf actors. It was pushing me to have Ruby talk through every scene, to make a hearing audience more comfortable. And, “What are we going to do with all the silence?” “Well, maybe these ASL scenes should be shorter.” “Maybe there shouldn’t be as much of the family.”
So, I started to just get the feeling that I didn’t want that movie to exist. I’d rather see the movie die than make it the way that they wanted. And at that point I had seen Troy Kotsur on stage. I saw him in a Deaf West Production of At Home at the Zoo. I was in love with him as an actor. I met with Marlee, and Troy was her first thought as well. We were on the same page there. And when I showed Troy’s audition to the studio, it was so undeniable that he was the guy that they were like, “OK, we agree that this is the guy, but also, we can’t finance that movie.”
There were probably six months where I thought the movie was dead at the studio. I thought I was going to sit on a shelf somewhere. I was heartbroken, but I also felt like…
MATLIN: I was texting you.
HEDER: Marlee would text me every day, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” And I actually took another movie because I had another indie project that I was going to get going. I thought, OK, I have to let go of this, this is tragic, but also there’s only one way this movie should exist, so it’s OK.
And then Patrick left Lionsgate and he, as he says, put the movie in his luggage. It was the one project that was really important to him that he basically got as part of his exit deal from the studio. It so rarely happens like that. And then of course we had an indie movie on our hands and then we had to figure it out at a third of the budget of what it was when it was at the studio, and how do we make this movie basically for nothing, but make it the right way?
Patrick went to Cannes and got a bunch of people to sign deals on cocktail napkins. And then he called me and said, “OK, we’re going.” And I didn’t believe him that we were greenlit until we were on set, because it had been so many years of trying to get the movie made. Philippe Rousselet, his company Vendôme ended up financing the film with Pathé. So it was Philippe and Patrick together, believing in it and taking a risk. They believed in my vision, and it was completely execution-based. They gave me total freedom on set to make the movie that I wanted to make.
DEADLINE: Marlee, usually when someone wins an Oscar, doors open and they are flooded with offers. What was the reception like after you won?
MATLIN: If you’re talking about 1987 here, there was no social media, no awareness. People weren’t clued into my culture, my language, whatever it may be. So, it was so very small in terms of awareness, and work. It never came my way. Probably now would’ve been different, and you can see what’s happening with Troy. But for me, that was a fact that was very much the times. Now, there’s so much more awareness of our culture, awareness of using deaf actors, awareness of the fact that we even exist.
So, the first job that I was offered was a movie with Ed Harris, Walker. I grabbed it, because, first of all, I was a big fan of Ed Harris and his wife. Then I got a little movie with Jean Reno, but that was a few years later. And I was doing some episodic work in television, but it was very slow. I changed agents. I went from a small agency, Susan Smith, to ICM, and I stayed with them for 15 years. And I drowned in the big agency at ICM. I had a great deal of respect for them, but they didn’t really quite know what to do with me. I had to get the right team together. It took me a while to get the right team to help me get the work. And that’s when I developed my own production company because that way, I could create the roles rather than wait for roles to come to me. I’ve worked consistently, but a lot of it has been in television, The West Wing and The L Word and shows like that. But it has been a struggle. I think now with CODA, I trust that things and the doors will be wide open.
DEADLINE: Are you feeling a different groundswell as this movie gets that award season momentum at exactly the right time, giving you, Troy and Daniel a chance to be noticed? Are those doors opening for you and your co-stars?
MATLIN: I think so. It’s fun to watch them go through the process, the journey that I went through. And I’m laughing with them, but at the same time, I have their backs. If there are questions that they might have, I’m available to answer. They’re in good places.
When I did Connecting the Dots: The Story of Feeling Through last year, I was the executive producer, and it was nominated for an Oscar last year. I started to say, “OK, I hope this isn’t the flavor of the month.” But I think I trust that this is a different process. I think this really will make a change, that people will open their eyes and their ears. I’m feeling good about this. And I hope I get to work with them all again.
JONES: I really want to be directed by Troy. I would love for him to do something where we can all be in it and he could direct and act in it.
KOTSUR: I would love to.
HEDER: We were at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last weekend, where Emilia and Troy were being honored. It was the first time I saw captioned clips from all the other movies, and I wanted to cry, because I couldn’t believe that awards ceremony had finally done the thing. These guys normally are sitting there and all the clips from all the other movies come up and ours is the only one that’s captioned. Well, Santa Barbara captioned all the clips. There were interpreters on stage.
I think there’s so much fear in Hollywood about changing. I’m starting to see an opening up of people’s minds of realizing it just takes being slightly creative and asking a few questions. I remember after Sundance, when these guys won that ensemble award and the movie won four awards and I was doing the Zoom water bottle tour where you’re going around and meeting everybody… I’d meet with all these executives and they’d go, “Oh my God, these actors, I mean Daniel Durant, where did Daniel come from? He’s brilliant. He’s so hot. Oh my God, this guy’s the next…” And I go, “Great. Why don’t you meet with him?” And they go, “Oh. How?” And I’m like, “What do you mean how? You get an interpreter and you put it in place.”
MATLIN: It takes time to teach. It takes time to collaborate. It’s funny. We’re talking about the Oscars, we need to let the Academy know that they need to subtitle all the clips that they show. I mean, they need to do that.
DEADLINE: The path for this movie has been littered with firsts, starting with the acquisition at Sundance for a record amount. How keen are you that it also avoids becoming the last? That a young deaf kid might watch this movie and feel the same inspirations you were talking about earlier to get into acting and find their place? What makes it a success from a long-term standpoint for each of you?
HEDER: I think that idea of representation is so important. Troy saw Marlee on screen, he saw her win the Oscar when he was 17, 18.
HEDER: He thought, ‘I could do that. That’s a path forward for me.’ When I was auditioning deaf actors, I was struck at how many actors Daniel’s age were working. And I really think it’s because they grew up looking at Marlee and realizing, “I could be an actor, this is something I could do.” To see yourself on screen and know that there is a world of deaf kids out there now who can watch these guys and know that this is a path forward… Hopefully Hollywood will change and there will be more roles, more representation, more stories told, because this is just one story. This is one family. It’s not every CODA story. It’s not trying to represent the Deaf community. It’s one very specific family. And there are hundreds of incredible stories in this community that need to be told.
KOTSUR: About 30 years ago until the present, I have worked at Deaf West Theater, and I would teach acting workshops to young deaf children. And some of them were at hearing schools or elementary or junior highs for many years. When CODA came out, I received all these messages, and they were pictures of these young kids. And then they’re grownups and they’re saying, “Hey Troy, I remember when you came and taught the workshop at our school.” I feel so proud that these children are now grown up and they remember those days when I visited them, teaching those acting workshops. It’s important that young deaf kids have a role model.
Daniel is young and I’ve worked with Daniel for over five years. He reminds me of myself when I was younger. These children now have hope. They feel inspired and maybe at Gallaudet University, the teachers will be so overwhelmed by how many folks are signing up for these acting classes. But I really want that tradition of sign language to carry on for the next generation. We won’t live forever, but it’s nice to have this moment, documented in history, and we maintain hope for these young deaf actors. Marlee being an Oscar winner gave me hope. It gave me life because she proved that to me. And now we’re hitting with CODA right now.
HEDER: DJ Kurs, who’s the artistic director of Deaf West, he texted me the other day and he said, “I am being pitched so many bad ideas for deaf movies. And I want to thank you for that. You’ve created a monster. I just got pitched deaf Flashdance.” So, I think that was his feeling, that progress was happening. That now there was a lot of interest in… Wait, Marlee doesn’t like that.
MATLIN: I’ll talk to you later about deaf Flashdance…
See, I was inspired by Linda Bove and Phyllis Frelich and Bernard Bragg, these are actors who were a generation before me. So, they were the ones that inspired me and gave hope to be the actor that I’ve always dreamt of being. And with Henry Winkler’s support being there since I was 12 years old. Mentors and role models are important. Just like Troy said, when deaf kids are little, I would visit them at schools throughout the country and the world, and would see them become adults. They’d say, “Remember me?” And I’d say, “Yes, I remember you when you were a kid, but you still look pretty much the same as you did when you were a kid.” But that’s a great feeling. I mean, it really gives you inspiration.
This movie is a feel-good movie. At the end of the day, it’s a feel-good movie. And it’s also a point of identification. It’s for everyone. It’s not just for deaf audiences, it’s for everyone. Even people who don’t even speak our language.
HEDER: I think the universal nature of this story was so important because people see themselves in the movie. I’ve had so many people come up to me with personal stories of how they’ve been moved by the film. I had a Korean man who was a child of immigrants, and he came up to me just bawling after a screening and said, “I just saw my story on screen.” That the CODA journey was his journey of being between two cultures and translating for his parents. So then, the deafness is not the point. The point is that this is a family just like yours. It’s a movie about a family where the family happens to be deaf.
DEADLINE: And what about deaf Flashdance, Marlee?
[She groans and shakes her head.]