Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in “CODA,” premiering in select theaters and globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, August 13.
Actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and writer and director Siân Heder discuss filming the Apple Original Film “CODA,” incorporating American Sign Language on set, the importance of authentically casting and portraying people with disabilities, and the universal stories that connect us all
At the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the Rossi family portrayed in “CODA” greeted viewers with wit, raw emotion and a level of family love and dysfunction relatable to all. Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the film introduces the world to the hard-working Italian fishing family of four, three of whom are deaf. Ruby Rossi, played by Emilia Jones, is the titular CODA — or child of deaf adults — stuck between her familial obligations and her journey to pursue her own dreams to sing, a passion that could potentially create a wall between her and her non-hearing family. Ruby’s life revolves around acting as interpreter for her parents Jacki and Frank Rossi (played by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur), and working on the family’s struggling fishing boat every day before school with her father and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant).
Apple TV+ spoke with writer and director Siân Heder, and lead actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, about their experience working on the film, the collaboration required between the hearing and non-hearing cast and crew to bring “CODA” to life, and the barriers they hope the film will break for future productions that look to authentically represent the Deaf community and all communities of people with disabilities.
“CODA” premieres in select theaters and globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, August 13.
“CODA” features four co-lead actors: Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant and Emilia Jones as the CODA, or child of deaf adults. How important was it to you that “CODA” included authentic representation of the Deaf community?
Siân Heder (SH): The key to representing a character from a community that you are not a part of is specificity. Whenever we get into generalizations about a community, that’s when it gets really problematic. So I didn’t feel like my job — as a writer — was to speak for all Deaf people or the Deaf experience, or even all CODAs or the CODA experience. “CODA” felt like a very specific story of this one working class family that were fishermen and isolated not just by being deaf, but more so by the fact that it’s a very solitary life out on a boat. … And so the specificity of who these characters were and their backgrounds and their hopes and dreams and desires, all of that is really key whenever you’re representing characters from a community that is not often represented.
There’s incredible sensitivity when it comes to someone like me, who is an outsider, who is not a part of the community, coming in to tell that story. And I approached “CODA” with a lot of sensitivity and a feeling of responsibility that I needed to make sure that I had deaf eyes on set. So my American Sign Language (ASL) masters were really essential creative allies for me on set to make sure that I was putting some of my own perspective in check when I was trying to portray aspects of deaf culture that truly I didn’t know about. So the important thing is, if you’re coming in as an outsider to these communities, you have to know what you don’t know. And I felt like my skillset as a writer and a storyteller and filmmaker, if I can be a conduit, and if I’m open enough and collaborative enough and empower the right people around me, then I can make sure that I can tell this story authentically.
Daniel Durant (DD): I was drawn to “CODA” because it seemed like a great family movie, not specifically a Deaf movie. I also strongly identified with my character Leo — like me, he’s a strong, industrious Deaf man who’s willing to do whatever it takes to support his family and succeed in his business. I wanted to show that Deaf people can take on any role and I believe that anyone who sees “CODA” will be able to relate to the issues we raise, and I hope that “CODA” will open the doors for even more diverse actors in the future.
Marlee Matlin (MM): I was very drawn to Siân’s script and story. It was a very familiar coming of age story, told with a very fresh and eye opening perspective. And when I saw that Siân had done her homework and worked with directors of sign language to develop the story, when I saw that she had embraced the community and had learned sign herself and finally, was committed to casting the film authentically, I said I just had to be in it.
Siân, you learned ASL because you knew you wanted it to be featured prominently in the film and wanted to understand its intricacies. How did that help you on set when you were directing Marlee, Troy and Daniel?
SH: We had interpreters on set and that was very essential in terms of creating accessibility on the set and communication with the cast and the crew, but it was a challenging thing to have them in the middle of that director/actor relationship, especially when delivering acting notes. So much of what I’m communicating as a director is on my face. It’s in my expression or the emotion I’m communicating through my eyes and it’s not necessarily in the perfect word choice. So on the first day after working, delivering a couple acting notes through the interpreter and realizing that my actors were looking at the interpreter and not at me, I talked to Troy and Marlee and Daniel, and just asked them if it was okay if I signed with them directly to really forge that direct relationship. They were so excited and down with that, and so we just went with it. We found a way to be in it together and form really strong connections whereas sometimes we were using sign to communicate, sometimes we were using our bodies or gestures, or I would be acting something out which, as a director, you’re told never to do. In this case, it worked wonderfully for us.
Also, I remember one of my camera operators coming up to me on the first day and asking, “Well, how do I tell Troy to move over?” I said, “You have a body, you have hands, you can gesture, you can touch his shoulder, you can point him in the right direction.” So it was really about getting everyone in the crew to get over being self conscious and realize that we have many tools at our disposal as humans that we can communicate with.
Were there any key lessons you took away from that experience?
SH: It was cool for me to find a new way to work as a director. Sometimes you get into patterns about how you communicate your ideas or the language that you use to express yourself, but being outside of my comfort zone and working in a different way, I had to be much more direct and clear about what I wanted and how I was communicating. It’s something I will take forward into all of my work: saying less. It was a powerful thing to realize that when you have a set that’s entirely focused on communication and enabling communication, it really bonded the cast and crew that we were making a movie about a family, and we became a family, and I’ve never had any experience like that on a set before.
Tell me about the scene where the father character Frank is sitting with Ruby on the back of his truck after Ruby’s choir solo at school. Was that scene improvised at all?
SH: That scene was kind of an amazing epiphany for me. Even though I had all of these deaf collaborators, I’m always going to have a hearing person’s gaze on the world and when I wrote the scene, I think I really imagined that there was this sort of transference of music that was happening, that Ruby was going to sing for her dad and somehow magically, he was going to get what music is. And looking back, that feels like a very naive idea in terms of understanding the Deaf experience, and the relationship to music.
When we were shooting the scene, it wasn’t really until we got there and they were sitting on the pickup truck and Emilia started to sing for Troy, and I said, “Can you feel anything on her neck or chest?” and he said, “No.” And I said “Nothing?” and he’s like, “No, nothing.” And I said Emilia sing louder. And so she sang a little louder, and he was like, “Oh, I sort of get something,” and I said, “Well Troy, what if you move your hands around on her neck and what if she sits closer, and Emilia, what if you sing louder?” And suddenly I realized that the scene wasn’t about this father magically understanding what music was, it was about intimacy and this father daughter connection that transcended music at all; it was about closeness and the two of them working as a team, and him trying to understand what she loved about this, and being close to his daughter in that moment and so the direction that I gave them was to work as a team, so that Troy could feel something as an actor. I burst into tears watching this scene, because I was watching a real moment. I wasn’t watching something that I scripted or wrote. It came alive in a way that was so authentic and genuine based on the way that the actors needed to work together.
Troy Kotsur (TK): I was just so grateful that we had such an amazing director like Siân who had an open mind. As I was reading the script, the word that I read, after Ruby sings, Frank signs, “Thank you.” And I felt like that didn’t resonate with me, because I notice the sign for thank you — you might just go to Starbucks and order a drink and then they say, “Thank you” — it felt like talking to a stranger. But here, this is Frank’s daughter and I knew I needed something different to really connect, and so I talked it over with Siân and I said, do you mind instead of saying thank you, if I just show it on my face to show that appreciation? And so I thought that my face conveyed a lot. And as we locked eyes when she finished singing, and we looked at each other’s face and she said, “Do you understand, do you get it?” with her face, I gave her a short smile and a nod, and then I kissed her on her forehead and that was the equivalent or even better than saying, “Thank you.” I could have said more, but I wanted to keep it simple. I felt like, less was more in that scene and I’m so happy that we captured that. And I was so happy that Siân was so open to let me try out different possibilities, which I hope that I really aligned with their vision or even enhanced it. And wow, what a scene. It was such an interesting experience to go through that.
What do you feel are some of the myths that create obstacles for Hollywood to cast and hire more people with disabilities in its productions?
SH: A lot of it is about breaking down those boundaries and getting people to realize that we are humans who actually know how to connect outside of spoken language. If people were less fearful, we would do that more often. And so I think the lesson that the cast and crew took was just about getting over the walls that we put up and realizing that we’re all the same, and that we can be creative in how we problem solve and how we communicate. In the way that all of movie making is problem solving — we figure out how to flip a car or burn down a building or shoot out on a boat — it’s easy compared to all of those things to figure out how to make a set accessible. It requires a couple extra people who know what they’re doing.
DD: Deaf people are just like everyone else. We may have a few small differences in terms of our deafness, but at the heart of it, we’re just like everyone else. I also hope that the awareness and perception of us as regular people will help lead to greater strides in access for the Deaf, especially for Deaf children who are in dire need of increased opportunities and education.
MM: We can do the work. We can do just as well as the hearing community when it comes to telling good stories, and be successful at it. We can play any characters you can identify with. We can also write, we can direct — basically, we can do anything you need in a film. I mean, look at “CODA.” Its numerous accolades and awards at Sundance is an affirmation of that!
Is Hollywood making progress on how it represents people with disabilities overall?
DD: Absolutely! It’s great to see authentic actors in roles (such as Deaf people playing Deaf roles) not only because they are capable of doing the work, but also because it’s impossible for someone who has not lived that experience to bring the same level of truth to their performance.
TK: It’s time to blow up the paradigm in Hollywood and just wake people up. In the 1980s, there was a movie called “My Calendar Girl,” and they were looking for a deaf person to play a hitman. There were all these protests because ultimately they picked a hearing actor to play that deaf character, and I was confused. I was very young and naive. I thought, “How cool would it be to play any role, to portray just about any character?” But over the years, it’s become clear there needs to be a difference between what acting is and the definition of “actor,” and authentic representation. Ultimately it depends on the story. It depends on the script, and how authentic you can be.
Marlee’s Academy Award-winning performance in “Children of a Lesser God” opened that door. But there has been a decline, every year since then. And now we’re getting more disabled and deaf people having opportunities, but the question is, is Hollywood ready? I don’t know, I think we need to give it time.
MM: Somewhat, but it does not yet equal the level of representation of other under-represented minorities. Hollywood understands how important it is to be authentic and have Deaf actors in Deaf roles; and this pertains not only to Deaf actors, but all actors with disabilities. Not to slight the wonderful actors who have played people with disabilities in the past, but that was then, and now, I believe Hollywood gets that deafness or disability is not a costume for an able-bodied or non-Deaf actor to put on and take off. What hasn’t changed is that I still think that discussion about the importance of diversity still ignores the lack of representation of people who are Deaf or disabled. It’s also a fact that if and when an actor is included, it’s in supporting or background roles; as if somehow Deaf and disabled people occur in a vacuum or that we lead solitary lives. That’s why “CODA” was so freeing for me. Three of us, Deaf actors, in leading roles, communicating entirely in sign. What a wonderful breakthrough — it’s one I hope will continue!