By Meghan Smith | WGBH.org | March 2, 2022
Troy Kotsur’s journey to an Oscar nomination began in Gloucester. To portray fisherman Frank Rossi, the patriarch of a deaf family in “CODA,” he learned the ropes, literally, watching local fishermen work. He also observed bar fights, almost got a black eye and learned how to communicate while wearing fishing gear.
Kotsur made history on Sunday when he became the first deaf man to win an individual SAG Award for his role as Rossi, and the entire cast surprised the industry by winning best ensemble in a motion picture. “CODA” made news again when Kotsur became the first deaf man to be nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the film, which also became the first best picture nominee to feature a predominantly deaf cast. In addition, Director Sian Heder — who grew up in Cambridge and spent her summers in Gloucester — was nominated for the best adapted screenplay Oscar.
Kotsur said his journey to big screen success has been “tough,” as meaningful opportunities for deaf actors have been few and far between.
“I think 30 or 40 years ago, Hollywood wasn’t ready for a deaf director, and that was one reason why I went into acting, because I was able to work closely with many different directors and learn all of these different skills,” he said through an ASL interpreter.
The cast of “CODA,” as well as members of the local deaf community, hope that the film’s success will spur even more representation of the deaf and disability experience on screen.
CODA stands for “child of deaf adults,” and the film is a coming-of-age story about Frank’s daughter Ruby, the only hearing member of her Gloucester fishing family. She has dreams of becoming a singer and studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but leaving home would mean that the family could not rely on her to interpret for them.
The story is based on a 2014 French film, “La Famille Bélier,” which cast hearing actors to play deaf roles. During the casting process for “CODA,” Kotsur’s co-star Marlee Matlin, the first and only other deaf actor to win an Oscar(she won best actress for her role in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986), insisted on having deaf actors play the deaf characters. Kotsur says that authentic representation was important to Heder, who encouraged the cast to improvise and incorporate bits of deaf culture into their scenes.
Since Kotsur was often acting on a fishing boat with thick rubber gloves, he had to get creative to communicate. “There were some signs in ASL that didn’t exist for some of this fishing equipment, so we had to develop almost our own fishermen sign language and develop these gestures for what tools to use,” he said. “And then when our gloves came off, we could go back to adapting to ASL with our hands without these thick rubber gloves.”
Kotsur said he is thrilled that the film was able to “showcase ASL,” vulgarities and all, saying, “how often do you see that on the big screen?” Throughout filming, there were always multiple ASL interpreters on set to facilitate communication between the actors and crew, as well as ASL consultants behind the scenes to make sure dialogue wasn’t cut off and the actors’ signing was always in the frame.
“We were kind of inventing a new process,” Heder said, and hopes that “CODA” can provide a blueprint for future film and TV sets. “I’m almost as proud of the way that we made the movie as I am of the actual movie, because I think it was groundbreaking and it did set a path for other people to follow.”
“CODA” resonates with the deaf community
Ashley Armand is a CODA who grew up in Brookline and now works in the tech industry. Raised by a deaf mother who immigrated from Haiti, she communicates with lip reading and home signs, a gestural communication system created between a hearing child and a deaf parent.
Armand said she was glad to see “CODA” create opportunities for deaf actors, but the film highlighted the “privileged lens” that the Rossi family had, which does not necessarily reflect the experience of all CODAs or deaf families. She says there are many other dynamics that the film could have explored.
“What does it look like to be a CODA, a child of immigrants, where you not only have to interpret ASL, but what if your parent does not even know ASL because they’re trying to learn English at the same time? That’s something that happened with me,” she said.
Armand said that there are scenes in the film — like when Leo and Frank’s boat is pulled over by the Coast Guard after not hearing and responding to police sirens — that could have played out much differently had the characters not been white.
“I feel like the deaf community, in general, prioritizes white experiences, especially in Massachusetts. It’s not as diverse as I would like it to be,” she said.
However, some scenes rang truer for her, like the scene where Ruby interprets for her parents at a doctor’s appointment. Armand has helped her mother with medical appointments since she was a kid because hospitals can’t always find a culturally sensitive interpreter to assist.
“But what we do not discuss in the film is, I think, this stigma, bias and racism that is perpetuated in hospitals and how that intersects with the deaf experience,” she said. “Black, deaf women experience racism at a much higher rate, and as a CODA navigating these dynamics in a hospital, it’s incredibly difficult.”
In 2019, another film about the deaf community that was filmed in Massachusetts also picked up Oscar nominations: “Sound of Metal,” a film about a heavy metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing and wrestles with getting a cochlear implant.
“The deaf and disabled community has been really ignored by Hollywood, even in all of the diversity conversation. And so it feels like this is the next movement and the next step.”
-SIAN HEDER, “CODA” DIRECTOR/WRITER
Joe Toledo, a deaf actor who lives in Milford, was cast in the film along with his family, who are also deaf. He was thrilled to see Kotsur’s Oscar nomination.
“I think it was really key for Hollywood, and all hearing communities, to be able to see that — to see a deaf actor carry that torch,” Toledo said through an ASL interpreter.
As a Latino and deaf actor, Toledo hopes that Hollywood will start telling more intersectional stories. “My hopes are that this will break the glass ceiling so that more actors could be in the [industry] in the future, whether they’re Black, deaf, Latino, or short,a little person — that these [actors] can also be given these opportunities,” he said.
A more inclusive future for Hollywood?
Heder acknowledged that one film can’t represent an entire community, especially one like the deaf and disabled community that has been so underrepresented in Hollywood. “This was one family,” she said. “By no means was I trying to represent the deaf experience or the CODA experience, because there’s a huge range of experiences in those communities.”
What the cast and crew learned from making “CODA” can hopefully “kick the door open” for more inclusive projects in the future, she added. “The deaf and disabled community has been really ignored by Hollywood, even in all of the diversity conversation. It feels like this is the next movement and the next step.”
In the last few years, movies like “A Quiet Place Part II,” Marvel’s “Eternals” and television shows like “Only Murders in the Building” have featured deaf actors playing deaf characters.
Kotsur said he has also noticed this shift in the film industry. Just last week, he was meeting with a producer about a role originally written for a hearing actor. They are now considering adapting the role for a deaf actor. “I’m seeing now this new willingness and motivation and open-mindedness,” he said.
For Daniel Durant, who plays Ruby’s brother Leo in “CODA,” it’s welcome progress. “Daniel and Leo, my character, I feel like we have a lot of similarities. We’re both strong deaf people. We don’t feel like being deaf is a disability or it makes us less than,” he said through an ASL interpreter.
Durant added that he would like to see deaf actors get bigger, “juicier” roles.
“I did feel like ‘CODA’ was going to be kind of a world-changing movie in some aspects because there were so many deaf people in it,” he said. “Hollywood, I think, should see us as actors, not as deaf actors — we’re just actors, and I would like to bring that energy, that professionalism to any role that we can that we can do.”