Rerun: ‘CODA’ star on Deaf representation: ‘We just have to continue to make noise’

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Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur appear in “CODA.” Photo by AppleTV+.

The film “CODA” tells the story of the Rossi family. Their daughter Ruby is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). A high school senior who loves to sing, Ruby is also a crucial part of her family’s fishing business. Her parents and brother rely on her to interpret in a variety of settings. 

Ruby reaches a crossroads when she discovers that her talent for singing might open a path to new opportunities that would lead her away from her small town and family. 

Marlee Matlin plays Ruby’s mother Jackie, while Troy Kotsur, a veteran stage actor, plays Ruby's father. He has a SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and the whole cast is nominated for Best Ensemble. 

Matlin won Best Actress at the 1987 Academy Awards for her performance in “Children of a Lesser God.” Thirty-five years later, Matlin remains the only deaf actor to be nominated for an Oscar. 

“CODA” is a remake of a European film. But both writer-director Siân Heder and Matlin knew from the beginning that their version would be quite different.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Kim Masters: It was [originally] a French film with hearing actors in the Deaf roles. I know Marlee was having no part of that. We'll get to that in one second. But Siân, were you having no part of that?

Siân Heder: I was having no part of it either. I [tried] to go through film history and figure out what movies had ever portrayed Deaf characters or a Deaf family on screen. I was going back 35 years to “Children of a Lesser God,” which was Marlee when she was 19. And there weren't examples out there of Deaf characters, and particularly not three at the center of a film. And that was my interest in making the film at all. And so I dove into Deaf culture as I was writing. I did a ton of research. I felt so invested in the community and in doing this right. 

And then it was a bit shocking to me when I met with resistance when I wanted to cast Deaf actors. … At the time, it was a studio movie, and there was a certain financing model that they were used to. And they presented it as this is this puzzle that's unsolvable, and we don't know how to do this. And I met with Marlee the first time and expressed to her that I was in this fight and felt alone and felt like I was standing up by myself about the way that I wanted to make this film. 

And Marlee was like, “Well, I'm only making this film if it's three Deaf actors in the lead. And I'll walk away, and we don't have to make it that way.” And so I felt that way, too. I felt like I would walk away. So I think we both got to go back to the studio and say, “This is the only way to make the movie, and if you guys don't want to make it this way, then maybe it dies here, maybe we find another way to make it.” But I wasn't interested in the other version of this film. 

Marlee Matlin: I remember when we met with Siân, we were enthusiastic. I mean, I was really so in love with the script and with the story and with the idea and the fact that there were three Deaf characters carrying a film for the first time ever. So I really believed that it should have been done the way that Siân wanted to do it. And we went back and forth and were so excited to talk about different ways to tackle the script and different points in the story. 

And then I heard Siân saying, with hesitation, about the part being played by a hearing person. I thought, “Wait a minute, why? Why are we going backwards?” Today, they should know that there are Deaf actors out there that could make the movie work. And it felt a little bit discriminatory. … Studios don't necessarily have to understand because they have their own models. All they have to understand is that we should collaborate, that we should work together and have a conversation. And so hopefully, and I trust that “CODA,” now that it's out, studios will look at this and see a successful model and receive us more openly than ever.

Siân Heder: And to be clear, I don't think this was like, “We don't want to cast Deaf actors in the movie.” I think this was an unusual movie to be getting made at a studio anyway. I think it wasn't a genre movie. It wasn't based on any IP [intellectual property].

In today's world, that's a very hard movie to get made. I think Lionsgate couldn't figure it out. It wasn't their thing, let's put it that way.

Siân Heder: I think it wasn't their thing. I think it was an unusual movie to be happening there anyway. Patrick Wachsberger, it was his baby, and he loved it, but I think it wasn't maybe the best fit for the studio. So Marlee, yes, was the first person attached I think right after I finished the script. I went out to her, I had her in mind when I was writing, and she was the first person to come on board the project. And I think as Marlee was saying, there were a wealth of Deaf actors out there, largely in the theater world. I mean, the National Theatre for the Deaf and then Deaf West has been an incredible place where Deaf actors have been able to work and there's a ton of talent!

And so I think once we saw that, then it seemed like I could present, “Hey, guys, go watch Troy Kotsur and then argue with me that that is not the right person for this role.” So I think it became a lot easier once we were auditioning and able to put it out there. And yet, the film eventually was made independently for a lot less money outside of the studio system, and we had to have a complicated process to get it out, but we did it and it was made the right way at the end of the day, I think.

Troy Kotsur is such an amazing performance from a person that hasn't been seen before in the hearing world. And I have to think, Marlee from your standpoint, there's maybe bittersweetness at this moment. He's not a kid, and he's so talented and finally gets a showcase — but finally, right? It took so long.

Marlee Matlin: Yeah, I mean, he's been around … for a long time, 30-plus years in the theater world. He's an accomplished stage actor. … And every show that he's been in, I've always made it a point of … being there in attendance going to see him. And his wife, Deanne Bray, she is an actress as well, and she's just as brilliant. And we've been friends for a long time. And I kept telling her, ‘He needs to be seen. He needs to be seen in the movie world. He needs to be seen in the industry.’ 

And she said, “Well, what can we do? I don't know where to start.” And I knew he really had so much talent with him beyond what he did on stage, that when I first read the script for “CODA,” Troy’s name screamed at me off the page. I told Siân immediately, “You have to go hire Troy.” And she said, “I'm already on it!” And I'm glad that Siân recognized his work and I can't even imagine anybody else playing Frank Rossi in “CODA.” I really can't. And I trust that, because of this film, it's the beginning of a very, very promising career — bigger than ever, hopefully.

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur are two of the stars of “CODA.” Photo by Apple TV+. 

ASL is a very rich language, and the translation of lines from the written word on a page to ASL, a wealth of choices can be made. So I  wonder how you approach that script with the options available, and how much of it is not just hands? It's body, face, everything. 

Marlee Matlin: We did what was called Total Communication, which was signing and speaking. And that's called Signing Exact English. Signing what's written in English on the page. That is not American Sign Language. 

So to do Jackie's role, I have never played a character that was speaking pure ASL without hearing aids. I always wear my hearing aids when I'm working, and whatever character that I'm playing over all these years. This time, it was different. I took off my hearing aids and that was a big challenge for me and as an actor, learning the lines in ASL. So it was an opportunity to sign American Sign Language, pure ASL. 

Jackie was completely immersed in the world of Deaf culture. And, again, it depends on the context of the conversation, what's going on around you, where you can choose the particular ASL vocabulary for whatever word that you're trying to express or thought you're trying to express. And yes, it also includes … your face, your body. It's just about what the culture is, it's American Sign Language. It's not just hand movements. It's all of that. So the opportunity to do this role as an actor was a privilege. 

Talk about the adjustments [on set] that I think a lot of people are probably scared of in Hollywood, where they know how to do things a certain way and don't want to necessarily think about doing them a different way.

Marlee Matlin: The only difference is that there were more people other than myself and my own interpreter who signed on a set. On other sets, it's just my interpreter and myself. On this set, everyone signs. … When it came to lunch, I wasn't the only one. I'm the one typically going to my trailer by myself. And it's just me and my interpreter, and we're having a conversation. But in all honesty, I never thought of it until I got into the set of “CODA” and I realized, ‘Oh, wait a minute, there's a whole different world out there I've been missing all this time.’ 

And I'm not angry about it. I'm not upset about it. It's just a fact. It’s just a fact realizing that here I am on the set of “CODA” in my element, at lunchtime, because everybody is signing. The hearing crew, they're signing, there's Deaf cast members, and most importantly, our director learned sign language. And sometimes she would say, “You know what, I don't need the interpreter.” Or I would push aside the interpreter and Siân and I would work together one on one, and it worked for us. 

So Siân really immersed herself into our community, into our culture, which is extremely helpful, because a lot of times when I work with different directors — no offense to these directors, but my experience has always been, “Okay, can I get something from you as an actor?” One take, two take, and they'll say, “Oh, no, that's fine Marlee, you did fine.” But they really don't have a chance to analyze my work because they don't have the knowledge. And I'm not talking about all of them. I'm just saying that's what it was. And yeah, the set — it was family-friendly. Deaf-friendly. And I'm curious to see what's going to be like for the next film that I've worked on.

I read that there were things like their arrangement of the furniture  — that a Deaf family would not have a couch facing away from the door because they need to see who's coming in and out. 

Siân Heder: There were these two women on the film who were my ASL masters … Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti. And Alexandria did the original translation of the script with me into ASL. And then Anne was on set with us every step of the way. And it was so important for exactly what you're talking about. 

I mean, Anne looked onto the set, and along with Marlee, was like, “No Deaf family is setting up their living room furniture like this!” And as Marlee was saying, I think a lot of the reason that directors don't give notes to Deaf actors is this feeling of like, “Oh, well, you're doing your ASL thing and I don't really know what that is, so if you're doing it, it must be correct.” Well, I don't necessarily know if my actors flub their lines. I don't know if Troy is throwing in secret swear words that I can't notice, which he was doing right and left.  

Marlee Matlin: And the script supervisor wouldn't know either. … Whenever you're working with Deaf actors, you have to collaborate. And studios need to understand the importance of maybe putting in an extra crew member when it comes to a Deaf actor, like a director of ASL, because the tools that we need on a set are important, and this is just one part of it. It's just critical. So we're lucky that Siân really took the reins, and took the time to understand and collaborate with us and let us communicate together.

Siân Heder directs Emilia Jones and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in “CODA.” Photo by Apple TV+.

The film went to Sundance and won all kinds of accolades. But there has been some critique from the Deaf community that the family is so dependent on the daughter. Marlee, is that a valid critique?

Marlee Matlin: What do they know? I mean, every family is different. If they've not experienced it, how can they say that that family isn't authentic? … The bottom line is that each Deaf household is different. We come in all sorts of sizes and colors. I have four kids, and my family might be different than another family. Sometimes I rely on my kids to interpret. A lot of times, they have this instinct to help me and interpret if they know that I didn't hear something, or if there was something that was important for me to see or hear.

Siân Heder: When you are representing a community that never gets represented and has been misrepresented for so long, there is an expectation on one story to make up for that lack of representation. 

It carries the load of all the untold stories.  

Siân Heder: Yes, carry the load of all the untold stories and to message exactly what needs to be messaged. So I think what needs to be messaged in the world … is that there should be access everywhere. There should be an interpreter at the doctor's office. There should be an interpreter if you go to City Hall and you're having a meeting. All of these places. It's illegal to not have interpreters in those situations. 

The fact is that if you're not in a big city, if you're poor and you cannot pay someone in these situations — which interpreters are expensive and cost money — there is a reliance sometimes on family members in those situations to take that load. So I completely hear that critique because I do understand that it's like, well, I don't want people to think that this is okay that this 17-year-old girl is relied on to do these things. And the fact is, it's not okay. There should be a professional interpreter in all these situations.

Marlee Matlin: The reality is … some Deaf people choose not to use interpreters, they'd rather not have an interpreter in sensitive situations.  

Marlee, you've done years of advocacy. You said that because Deaf actors don't get as many opportunities to work, they lose their insurance. “The unions need to step up.” That's me quoting you to you. We've seen a lot of talk about representation and inclusion. How are we feeling about where we are?

Marlee Matlin: It's completely crazy. For example, during the pandemic, with COVID, most people weren't working. … So fine, we're all in this together. But while everyone started to go back to work, for example, able-bodied actors [were able] to get work whenever they were able to audition to get a part. We weren't able to as Deaf and disabled actors. 

And we had to really work to get work in order to qualify for our benefits. It's a matter of accessibility. People think to hire a Deaf actor, it's going to be a lot of work, but not really. And, I mean, it was highlighted when lots of us lost our insurance. And I think it's a struggle, it still is, and we just have to continue to make noise. 

Siân Heder: I think there's something interesting about Hollywood messaging inclusion and all of these things, until they're asked to change or adjust. We're so lucky to be in the awards conversation at all, and it's been amazing, but it's also highlighted for me all of these little moments. 

We'll do a day of panels, and it's a bunch of movies, right? It's all the movies that are in the conversation and an interpreter gets trotted out for “CODA,” and does the 10-minute panel with us, and then that interpreter gets trotted off the stage with us. And I'm like, “Well, do you not think that Deaf people don't care about ‘Belfast?’ Or they don't want to hear about ‘King Richard?’’ 

It's like the idea that you would only caption content that is about Deaf characters and not just caption everything, or put an interpreter there for the entire day so that the entire program is accessible. So I think these things are tricky, because then you feel like, “Well, I'm grateful to be here, I'm so lucky that we've ended up here.” 

At the same time, I often feel like I need to stand up and go like, “Hey, guys, like, what if it wasn't just the ‘CODA’ clip that was captioned in these ceremonies, what if all of the clips were captioned so that my actors and the Deaf people watching at home could participate in this?” So it's tricky. It's hard to be invited to the party and feel like you don't want to ruffle feathers or raise your voice too loud. But it's something that I'm witnessing, and I feel really sensitive to and it feels like something people need to look at.

Marlee Matlin: I mean, this thing about captioning that Siân brings up — recently there was an announcement for the nominations for the SAG Awards. The live announcement wasn't captioned. Captioning is everywhere. And it's not just for Deaf people. You're looking at [captioning in] a bar, you're looking at the airport, the television set, whatever it may be.  So to take that away or to say, ‘Oh, the technology's not there’ — things like that just don't make sense to me. 

And you know what? It may sound weird, but my latest beef has been watching television, especially on an airplane where there's captions and they don't fully caption swear words. They'll say F-X-X-X, but I can see what they're saying, so I'm still reading and understanding the word. Why do they deprive us of seeing swear words, for example? There's so many things that I have to focus on. 

And it's just all about collaborating with each other and educating each other and taking people with us. Just ask us questions, we can give you good answers. But we still have a lot of work to do. 

Marlee Matlin is one of the stars of “CODA.” Jack Jason interpreted. Siân Heder is the writer and director of “CODA.” Thank you all very much for joining us.




Kim Masters