Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur – CODA stars Reveal the Process Behind Their Award-Winning Film
Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur
CODA stars Reveal the Process Behind Their Award-Winning Film
by Brad Balfour
In a major triumph for deaf representation in cinema, the ensemble of CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) clinched the top prize at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards winning the coveted prize for Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. The acclaimed feature stars newcomer Emilia Jones as a hearing teen raised by a deaf mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant).
Taking place in Gloucester, Massachusetts, daughter Ruby Rossi is the only hearing member of her family; parents Frank and Jackie and older brother Leo are all deaf. She assists with the family fishing business and plans to join it full-time after finishing high school. But then she joins the Choir where she discovers she has a beautiful singing voice. This changes her life's trajectory.
Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA is an English-language remake of the French-language film La Famille Bélier, which was released in 2014 and was a French box office success. Philippe Rousselet – one of the original film's producers – had the rights to do a remake. He and producer Patrick Wachsberger approached Heder to direct a remake for a United States audience. Heder said, "They were interested in adapting the film, but they wanted someone to make it unique and take the premise from the original and, also, reinvent it.
For playing Sarah Norman in the romantic drama Children of a Lesser God, Matlin's 1987 Best Actress Oscar win made history as the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award as well as the youngest winner in the Best Actress category.
Additionally, Kotsur made further history on Sunday, February 27th, 2022, as the first deaf actor ever to receive an individual SAG Award for his supporting performance. As tender-hearted fisherman Frank Rossi, prevailing over hearing actors Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto and Kodi Smit-McPhee. And on Sunday, March 6th, at the 37th Independent Spirit Awards, Kotsur also won the Best Supporting Male Actor award for CODA and is the first deaf actor to win a Spirit Award. He was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The film has had further wins at BAFTA, Critics Choice Awards, PGA Best Picture and WGA Best Adapted Screenplay. CODA is streaming on Apple TV+.
This Q&A was held after a recent screening of the film just before the SAG Awards night.
Marlee, when you read director Sian Heder’s screenplay, how did Jackie speak to you? What was the sense of her that you got about the character?
Marlee Matlin: When I first read the script, I went “Hel-looo.” This isn’t something that I typically get to read. So, I looked at the script. It was as if I had experienced it myself. My character Jackie, and I … One thing that perhaps we are the same about is that we’re deaf. Other than that, there’s so many things in this script that I found challenging. It really, really, really thrilled me to pieces. I knew that when I read about Frank, I thought of Troy immediately. It really was a script that I knew I wanted to do. And I went after it.
Troy, when you read the script by Sian Heder and saw Frank on the page. What connected you to him and what keys to him did you find in the script?
Troy Kotsur: Well, so many reasons. I had so many connections with Frank. First of all, I told myself that “it’s about fucking time.” Finally you all get to see Volker ASL (American Sign Language) on the big screen. I had been waiting for so long. The two of us have already seen all of your movies, where we see the subtitles with all your swear words, and we’re like “Okay. But in sign language? Are you all ready?” Imagine what happened at the MPAA. They decided to give us an “R” rating at first. We were like, “Wow, we have to go back and forth and really fight with them with our whole team to get them to reduce their rating to PG‑13.”
That’s a part of deaf culture: to us, we feel like that vulgar sign language is just a part of our culture. But are you hearing people ready? That’s why it was so cool. It’s fascinating to see that in the script, first of all. Secondly, I was thrilled that CODAs, Children of Deaf Adults, have a relation to music. Really, the children of deaf adults do, but it has a double meaning. “Coda” has a meaning in music as a word, and also in deaf culture. I wasn’t aware of the music side, but I was aware of the CODA side, and was happy to portray that onscreen.
There’s been a long history, as Marlee mentioned, 35 years. Typically, though, there will just be one deaf character’s appearance in a film. In this film we have an ensemble: there’s three characters, including our son, Leo, played by Daniel Durant. So that was incredible. So thank you. I wish Daniel was here. He’s always here with us, right? History was made with this film, with three deaf actors authentically carrying the film. And I have to admit, I would not be here today without Marlee. And Sian, our director. I just give them all the credit. For Marlee’s 35 years representing the deaf community, she kept me inspired. Until now.
Troy, you mentioned Daniel. This is an amazing family. And speaking of family, you guys filmed up in Massachusetts. Obviously, the bond between the actors on a film like this must be extraordinary. What was it like filming the four of you in an actual house the production found that they converted into the house they needed for the film? What were the close quarters like in terms of bonding an ensemble as you have done here?
Marlee Matlin: Absolutely perfect. The house was ready to fall apart, actually. The furniture was here and there. It was amongst all these beautiful coastal houses, and then the Rossi family house is just sitting there in the middle of it all. Actually, only a few of the crew and actors were able to be in the house at one time because structurally, it was not able to hold [everybody]. But it really was authentic. the house itself had character, personality. It was in Gloucester. The location manager found it.
The family was one among other hard-working people who did their best to earn a living and mind their own business. They were very supportive of each other. This movie chronicles the levels of all the things that happen in their family throughout the film. The journey that they go through. There’s so much that this movie that entails changes. Like the fact that we as parents learn about our daughter and her dreams, desires and aspirations, which completely go in a different direction than we had ever anticipated for her in our world. She wants to go into music. We learn as parents to adapt to her dreams, to her desire to be in the music life. I fortunately had no involvement with any of the fishing things. But he can tell you about that.
Troy, you guys on the boat – Daniel and Emilia – in some ways could have become commercial fishermen. You loved being on that boat.
Troy Kotsur: I had never seen a whale before. Where I grew up in Arizona since birth, there are just some lakes. You have very soft, rippling waves – not like out on the ocean bumping up and down in this fishing boat. I was not used to it, so I had to get my sea legs. We got up at two o’clock in the morning because that’s one of the best times to catch fish. That’s a time of high activity where they’re feeding and is a great time to get them in your fishing net. You hold them all up when the sun is rising and then you have to divide them. You have the lobsters, the squid, the monkfish with a little light – they can really snap at you. And you have to sort them out.
It was a bit awkward for me at first, but our two weeks of training out on the fishing boat really helped me to become Frank Rossi as a character. There were a few things out on the boat where we improvised with a sign that would really fit that fishing culture or fishing sign language. We had to wear really heavy rubber boots and clothing, heavy rubber gloves, and that affected my sign language. I had to adapt to it. It was a bit more like gesturing with the gloves on and that influenced my characterization of Frank Rossi.
Daniel really struggled with tying a fishing knot. It’s like a kid who can’t tie their shoelaces. So imagine untangling this fishing net – he was really struggling. At home we were roommates and I watched him practicing these knots over and over again. The next day, he went out and he was still failing to tie these knots.
We learned so much about going through that experience being out on the fishing boat. These actual fishermen were being surrounded by Popeyes. The way that they walked and talked and behaved. So after they would finish work, they’d go to the bar in the morning – it was like 10 o’clock in the morning. That was their nighttime – their drink after work. That was their fisherman culture, and it really began to immerse me into the character of Frank. So it was extremely fun for me to go on that journey.
Marlee Matlin: The cast had to learn a whole new set of experiences that they never really had. They weren’t interested in fishing. Or Emilia, who had to sign, she had to learn how to interpret, she had to learn how to be an artist, she had to learn to fish, she had to learn to sing. Daniel had to learn how to fish. Daniel had to learn so much. This is Daniel’s first movie. There was so much learning going on in this set and we worked so hard as a cast, collaborating with everyone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any cast work as hard as this one.
Troy Kotsur: We were really passionate and motivated to tell this story. It’s not often deaf actors have the opportunity that we saw in the script, and that’s why we really wanted to grab it, especially with Marlee Matlin there. It was such a blessing. It was just a matter of time. I still have to keep the faith and keep pursuing the craft of acting on my journey.
Of course we had a great director in Sian Heder. She stood up for us, she showed her big heart. In the Rossi family house, which Marlee mentioned earlier, Sian had to set everything up. It was the way that a hearing family would set their furniture up in a house. If you’re hearing, you can just talk back and forth, without looking and making eye contact, and that’s normal for you all.
But for deaf people, we have to make eye contact to communicate. And that is a deaf person’s setup of furniture. Our director realized that, and they had to make the set more deaf-friendly – with an environment of sitting opposite each other. I don’t care about my ears. I care about my eyes. I don’t want to become too exhausted. Right now, I’m sitting opposite the interpreter and I’m comfortable watching her as she’s interpreting, rather than, “Oh, I have to turn my head," “Oh, I didn’t know there’s an interpreter here” – that type of thing. So they actually had to reframe the entire shoot with all the cameras to fit that cultural sensitivity and Sian’s respect for the culture was beautiful.
Marlee Matlin: When we walked in the house for the first time, we screamed “This isn’t right! This isn’t the way we set up the furniture.” They were like “What did we do wrong?” So we had to school them to set up the house for deaf people. They learned fast, though.
You both bring up the levels of performance seen this year. There’s the scene where you’re out in the truck with Emilia, and Frank asks Ruby to sing for him. there’s so much going on in Frank’s face in his reaction. The acting there is so subtle and beautiful. You’re acting with your hands on her throat and Frank can hear it and then with your face and all the extraordinary reactions going on.
Marlee Matlin: Tell them what happened that night.
Troy Kotsur: Once I read that scene in the script, I knew it was one of the freshest moments that we had between father and daughter. I knew that when the schedule was getting closer and closer, I had that in the back of my mind. I had to keep in mind that Ruby was singing as the family’s watching her recital. We’re seeing the emotional reactions of hearing audience members to the music. So if I saw someone as Frank Rossi looking at their phone or falling asleep during the recital, it would have meant that Ruby sucked at singing, and I’d have been embarrassed as a father.
But that was not the case. All of these hearing people were overflowing with emotion and joy which impacted Frank and led to the next scene. So as we sit next to each other – maybe just a foot apart, on the back of the flatbed pickup truck – Frank asks Ruby to sing. He gets even closer and still couldn’t hear her, even with that proximity. But he saw the emotion in her face. What Frank saw was different facial expressions than he was used to seeing when Ruby was normally speaking. He was fascinated by the expressions in her face, which led Frank to want to know what her singing feels like. In the vocal cords it was a bit softer, so Frank asks her to increase the volume. He tries to disconnect from everything else and to really understand his daughter’s passion with his eyes closed.
When the vibration stops, he recognizes that has to look at himself and know that he’s missing something. He had forgotten about this part of life. He’d taken something about his daughter for granted, wanting her to help with his business and ignoring her talent. Suddenly that really strikes Frank. He realizes he’s been a bit selfish and now struggles to let go of his daughter. it’s an extremely tough moment for him. Bit when there was eye contact – no dialogue and no signs – I let the energy of the eyes speak for themselves. I can let you as an audience make your own interpretation and feel those emotions. So of course, it was such a beautiful moment.
Marlee Matlin: That night we only had an hour left to shoot the scene and it was really hectic. The director decided to tell the DP to shoot with two cameras at once. The DP wasn’t a fan of shooting that way, at night in particular, without any lights: just to shoot two cameras at one time. They had only an hour to shoot it before needing to pull the plug on the scene. And they did it.
Troy Kotsur: When I read this script, there was a line in there that after Ruby finishes singing, Frank says “Thank you.” My gut feeling was that, deep down in deaf culture, we have emotional strength in our facial expressions. That sign “thank you” is more like spoon-feeding an audience who probably already know that sign. I wanted to throw that thank you aside and focus on feeling those emotions. Instead, I kiss her on the forehead, which is equal to “thank you” – and I hope you’re smart enough to recognize that. Less is more, is what I believe.
Marlee, the scene where Jackie goes to Ruby’s bedroom and there’s that conversation about what she was hoping for when Ruby was born, a sort of mother-and-daughter connection. Talk to us about what that scene meant to you, and about getting the scene right with Emilia.
Marlee Matlin: That’s probably the scene that, when I first read the script, I had no idea what it was like as Marlee to be able to talk to my daughter about that. For me, it meant that I had to imagine and delve into Jackie’s frame of mind. What was it that she felt? What was it that she was afraid of? What was it in her background that colored who she was and made her so terrified?
You have to understand, all four of my kids are hearing. None of my kids, to my knowledge, have ever asked me if I had wished that they were born deaf. They might have thought of it, but they never actually vocalized it to me. So I had to jump into Jackie to express what was written on the page. I had to sit and talk with Sian: what was it that Jackie wanted to do? She said, “What do you think Jackie needs to feel?” All the things that actors do when they are getting into a character.
Emilia Jones, blooming as she is as an actress, allowed me to just do it. Any fear I might feel as an actor went out the window because of her: I just went with the scene. It’s easy if you experienced it, but Jackie struggled with that. I just had to trust myself in the end.
The other scene that I should point to is where we’re at breakfast and she says, “I want to be a singer.” And I say, “Oh? A singer? Fame – for selfish reasons.” That’s very early in the script: “for selfish reasons,” She says “Well, if we were blind, would you want to be a painter?” I just cringed when I read that. No, how dare Jackie say that. At the same time, that’s Jackie Rossi’s perception. Clearly, her journey took her to that place. But you could see at the end that she had transformed. Obviously.
Troy Kotsur: I’d like to add that it was fascinating for me to watch Jackie as a mother come in with that red dress to give to her daughter. For me as a deaf person, that red is extremely strong for my eyes. It actually makes me think that Jackie cares for her daughter as a mother. That line about how would you feel if I was born deaf? Or did you want me to be born deaf? The red evaporates that.
The focus of the camera approaches the conversation closer and closer, and it builds in intensity. It’s such a beautiful moment, from my perspective, when I see the angles that the camera is moving in, without words. Actually, that’s one of my favorite scenes, too. The camera work, also the sound work, is extraordinary. It’s lots of space but the sounds that go along with ASL and how beautiful those are as well. So in that aspect, the film is just extraordinary.
Actors build up backstories for their characters. Did you work on something that Jackie and Frank had – an aspect of their relationship that we didn’t hear about? We see them fight, we see them in love with each other, in all sorts of parenting situations and all sorts of husband-and-wife situations. As you were building the characters, was there something that you found as connecting points, grace notes, that you had in the performances that maybe never shows?
Marlee Matlin: I envisioned Jackie caring for her family. We know she grew up where she was the only deaf person in her family. Mainly what I tried to do was envision what her parents did with her, and the fact that the only thing they told her was she was pretty. It was something that they attempted to do to make her feel good. You know, “you’re pretty” “you’re pretty” “you’re pretty” – and thinking that was enough, that was love.
Troy Kotsur: She’s still beautiful, by the way.
Marlee Matlin: I used that as an imprint on Jackie, knowing that there was not a lot of communication having to do with her family’s love. So maybe she went to a school for the deaf, and maybe she went home on weekends and lived at the school on weekdays. But her home was the school because that was her world. That’s where she was able to communicate with deaf friends and deaf teachers. It’s where she felt she belonged. Naturally, she finished school, and then maybe [to TK] we might have met, maybe at a bowling tournament, and fell in love….
Troy Kotsur: And when she bent over to pick up the bowling ball [laughs].
Marlee Matlin: Anyway, that’s why there’s this idea of having hearing children imprinted on Jackie. Because she didn’t want to disappoint the hearing child or the people around her who would judge her as a deaf mom. But again, as you saw in the journey, she finally got rid of that feeling.
How would you answer Troy?
Troy Kotsur: After our director offered me the role, she said, “Don’t shave or cut your hair for five months.” She sent me photos of fishing boats. There was a fishing captain named Paul Lee. I saw how they would chop up the fish and so on. That led to the future. Sian told me that the character Frank was a dropout who never finished high school. The reason why was because he was running his father’s fishing business, and his father passed away. Frank had to keep it going for quite a while. That’s how he and the business survived, even when they were struggling.
I looked up to Frank. I thought Frank was a hero. He was a hard-working man who wanted to protect his family and was frustrated with those ignorant hearing people out there. He had to live with that. So I’m tired of being patient with hearing people. I want to turn the tables. Can you be patient with us?
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