When Marlee Matlin won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in 1987 children of a lesser god, it was a milestone for deaf people. But it would be another 35 years before Troy Kotsur became just the second deaf person to be nominated for the honor, for his groundbreaking performance coda.
And on Sunday he hopes to become the first deaf actor to win a Bafta in one of the major categories.
“You hadn’t seen the pigeons [Oscar] Nominated before Marlee, so I was thrilled when she won — I thought we had a breakthrough as deaf actors,” said Kotsur, 53.
coda (an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults) is about a deaf fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and their hearing teenage daughter’s passion for singing. With key deaf actors – including Matlin, who plays Kotsur’s character’s wife – and much of the dialogue in American Sign Language (ASL), the film is seen as a seminal moment for Hollywood and screen representation.
The film, which won last year’s top prize at Sundance, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and is nominated for three Baftas and three Academy Awards, was adapted from the French film by writer-director Sian Heder La Famille Belier.
But unlike this 2014 film, which was criticized for using hearing actors to play deaf people, coda casts deaf actors in deaf roles. It was reportedly bought by Apple at Sundance for a record $25 million.
For Kotsur, after more than 20 years in the industry appearing in films, on television and on Broadway, this moment has been a long one. Sometimes he worked multiple jobs and sometimes slept in his car or in theaters. “My question was: How soon will Hollywood accept me and how can I keep my hope alive?” he said. Part of what kept him going was the success of Matlin, who he calls his hero.
“I call it a really, really hell of a long, hard journey, and it was, but here I am,” said Kotsur, from Arizona. Now he hopes that together he and Matlin can “help Hollywood have some empathy” by changing the way deaf people are seen and portrayed on screen.
The film has had an incredible impact on deaf, hard of hearing and disabled people, they said: “Now they can really see their identity, their experiences are shown on screen.”
Part of what drew him to the film was that it contained multiple deaf characters as opposed to one, which is often the case, and his character’s colorful use of language. “Frank Rossi was able to drop a lot of F-bombs in ASL. So it was a thrill for me to show that part of deaf culture on the big screen,” they said. “We’re so used to seeing all your audio movies with your swearing and subtitles, but where was our chance to show that part of our language and culture?”
There has been a cultural shift, they said, and in Hollywood producers and celebrities are now reaching out to him “instead of me begging them for work.” Actor Javier Bardem told him that while watching the film he “cried like a baby,” he said, and the stars spoke to him in sign language.
“I see Hollywood starting to get motivated to look for something new, something inspirational and avoid the same old tropes that aren’t just ‘Oh, feel sorry for a deaf character,’ but have them as heroes,” he said . In the future they would like to develop a story about deaf historical figures.
He is currently reading several scripts and speaking to producers about converting hearing characters into deaf roles. “So we set up meetings on how this character can communicate. How would a deaf character function in these particular situations? And they really show me that a lot of these producers are starting to open their minds.”
In addition to Kotsur’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor, coda is also nominated in two other Bafta categories: Adapted Screenplay for Heder and Lead Actress for Emilia Jones, who plays Kotsur’s daughter and will sing at Sunday’s ceremony in London at the Royal Albert Hall.
Kotsur said during filming that the British actress reminded him of his own daughter, who is a coda and of a similar age. “She’s been through a lot and sometimes she has a hard time connecting with her hearing friends who don’t really understand what it’s like to be raised by deaf parents,” he said. “But our film explains so much and my daughter feels seen and validated.”
Heder, 44, whose first feature film tallulah, starred Elliot Page and Allison Janney and wrote and produced for the Netflix series orange is the new blackcalled coda almost didn’t get done. She originally suggested the adaptation of Lionsgate and was commissioned by the studio to do it.
But through her research, she made firm decisions about how she wanted to tell the story. In addition to hiring deaf actors, she wanted to have half of the dialogue in ASL and use silence and not fill scenes with music. But it wasn’t a match in the studio and the project died. “It was heartbreaking on the one hand and felt like this other version of the film shouldn’t exist on the other,” she said.
But when Lionsgate boss Patrick Wachsberger left the studio, he took the film with him and bought it back, making it independent with Heder – it was shot in 30 days – and no distribution.
“There was so much anxiety among the hearing people in Hollywood about the process,” said Heder, who is from Massachusetts and lives in Los Angeles. Early on, when she was told she wanted to hire deaf actors, she was repeatedly asked how that would work—a question not asked with many seemingly impossible feats in the filmmaking process.
“If you say, ‘I want to drive this car off the bridge into the river, and then I want that building in the background to explode,’ no one says, ‘Well, you can’t — how would that work?’ “
Once everything was in place, the filmmaking process was “relatively easy,” she said, “so that’s an argument that no longer holds.”
Deaf charities said the film and the recognition Kotsur has received underscores the importance of portraying deaf people on screen and that Kotsur could inspire a generation.
Like that of deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis Be sure to come dance Victory, coda can help change public understanding of the experiences of deaf people, said Annie Harris, advocacy officer for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.
“coda is a wonderful film and Troy was so obviously nominated for a Bafta for the merits of his performance,” Harris said. “His nomination shows deaf people like me that some barriers are being broken down and that deaf people are getting the recognition they deserve in their chosen field.” Martin McLean, senior policy adviser at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said this is true for many young deaf people applies to people coda could be the first time they see “their reality in the face of the true Hollywood experience.”
He added, “We’re finally starting to see these increasingly deaf characters and it’s important that we build on that momentum.”