Synopsis : Seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the sole hearing member of a deaf family — a CODA, child of deaf adults. Her life revolves around acting as interpreter for her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and working on the family’s struggling fishing boat every day before school with her father and older brother (Daniel Durant). But when Ruby joins her high school’s choir club, she discovers a gift for singing and soon finds herself drawn to her duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Encouraged by her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) to apply to a prestigious music school, Ruby finds herself torn between the obligations she feels to her family and the pursuit of her own dreams.
Q&A with Actress Marlee Matlin and Actor Tory Kotsur
Q: Welcome, both of you, thank you so much for being here. Congratulations on the film, such a phenomenal film, so special. And it’s historical: three Academy Awards, two SAG awards, one for Troy Kotsur, one for Best Picture, and one for Best Adapted Screenplay I terms of Oscars. Let’s just jump right in. 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?
MM: First of all, thank you for coming out today. 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. Not only we’re thereon, it doesn’t mean, though, that I experienced it. My character, Jackie, and I are – one thing that perhaps we are the same is that we’re deaf, but 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 Frank, I thought of Troy immediately. We don’t have that much time, but it really was a script that I knew was one I just wanted to do. And I went after it.
Q: Troy, same questions for you: when you read the script by Sian Heder and you saw Frank on the page. What connected you to him, what keys to him did you find in the script?
TK: Well, so many reasons. I had so many connections with Frank. So first of all, I told myself that “it’s about f*cking time.” Finally you all get to see Volker ASL on the big screen.
I had been waiting for so long, you know. 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 PG13.”
And 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, as Children of Deaf Adults, have a relation to music. And really, the children of deaf adults do, but parallel – 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; I was aware of the CODA side, happy to portray that onscreen.
There’s been a long history, as Marlee mentioned, 35 years. Typically, though, there will just be one deaf role, 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 Heder, our director. I just give them all of the credit. For Marlee’s 35 years representing the deaf community, she kept me inspired. Until now.
Q: Troy, you mentioned Daniel Durant. [Applause] This 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 anyway. What was it like filming all four of you – filmed in an actual house the production found that they converted into the house that they needed for production. What was that close-quarters like in terms of bonding of an ensemble as you have here?
MM: Absolutely perfect. It was perfect. The house was ready to fall apart, actually. The furniture was sort of 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. It had character, it had personality, the house itself did. It was in Gloucester. The location manager found this house.
The family was a family of hard-working people who did their best to earn a living and minded their own business. They were very supportive of each other family, and this movie chronicles the different levels of all the things that happen in their family throughout this film. The journey that they go through.
There’s so much that this movie entails that changes and the fact that we as parents learn about our daughter and her dreams and her desires and her aspirations, which completely go in a different direction than we ever anticipated, as far as our world was. She wants to go into music. So we learn as parents to adapt to her dreams, to her desire to be in the music life.
The fishing world – I fortunately had no involvement with any of the fishing things. But he can tell you about that.
Q: So Troy, you guys on the boat – you and Daniel and Emilia, you guys in some ways could have become commercial fishermen. You loved being on that boat, from what I understand.
TK: Well, . . . I had never seen a whale before, in where I grew up in Arizona, since birth. There’s are just some lakes. You have very soft, rippling waves – not like out on the ocean just bumping up and down around this fishing boat. I was not used to it, I had to get my sea legs.
We got up at two o’clock in the morning, and the reason why is because that’s one of the best times to catch fish, at around that time. They’re at a time of high activity where they’re feeding, and that’s a great time to hold them in with your fishing net. You hold them all up when the sun is rising and then you have to divide them up. You have the lobsters, you have the squid, you have the monkfish with the little light – they can really snap at you. And you have to sort them and divide them up.
It was a bit awkward for me at first, but over two weeks while we were training out on the fishing boat, it really influenced me to become Frank Rossi as a character. There were a few things out on the boat where we improvised with a few signs 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 really affected my sign language. I had to adapt to it, and it was a bit more like gesturing, with those heavy gloves on, and really that influenced my character as Frank Rossi.
MM: Tell about the robe.
TK: Okay, sure, the robe. So Daniel really struggled with tying a fishing knot. You know, it’s like a kid can’t tie their shoelaces. So imagine untangling this fishing net– he was really struggling. So 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 at tying these knots.
It was interesting because we learned so much about going through that experience being out on the fishing boat. These actual fishermen were like 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, the morning – it was like ten o’clock in the morning. That was their nighttime – their drink after work. That was their fisherman culture that really began to immerse me into the character of Frank Rossi. So it was extremely fun for me to go on that journey.
MM: You know, the cast had their own experiences of learning a whole new set of experiences that they never really had. I mean, 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. I mean, Daniel had to learn how to fish. Daniel had to learn – I mean, this is Daniel’s first movie.
That was the choice for this movie. There was so much learning going on in this set and this film, 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.
TK: I feel like we were really passionate. I feel that we were extremely passionate and motivated to tell this story. It’s not quite often deaf actors have this opportunity that we saw in this script, and that’s why we really wanted to grab this opportunity, 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 my 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. The Rossi family house, which Marlee mentioned earlier, Sian had to set everything up, and it was the way that a hearing family would set their furniture up in a house. So imagine that us as deaf people. 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 setup of furniture. So it was weird for us to see that hearing setup, so our director, Sian, realized that and they had to make it more deaf-friendly – that environment of sitting opposite each other.
Because 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” and that type of thing.
So they actually had to reframe the entire shoot with all the cameras to fit that culture and that cultural sensitivity was so beautiful, and Sian Heder’s respect for the culture.
MM: When we walked in the house for the first time, we walked in and we screamed “This isn’t right! This isn’t the way we set up the furniture.” They were like “What? What did we do wrong?” So we had to school them, and have them set up the house for deaf people. They learned fast, though.
Q: That’s fascinating. And you both bring up the levels of performance, levels of aspects of the film that stuck out in two different scenes, both of which are some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen – this year, certainly.
One I’m trying to start off with is the scene where you’re out in the truck with Emilia, and Frank asks Ruby to sing for him. In that scene, Frank — there’s so much going on in Frank’s face in his reaction, and the acting there is so subtle and beautiful. I’d like to ask about that scene in particular, and the ways in which your performance is modulated bit by bit as she’s singing. 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.
MM: What happened that night? Tell them what happened that night.
TK: Before I read that scene in the script, once I read it I knew it was one of the freshest moments that we had between father and daughter. And 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 when the family’s watching her recital, we are watching the hearing audience members’ emotional reactions to the music. So if I saw someone as Frank Rossi looking at their phone or falling asleep during the recital, it would mean that Ruby sucks at singing, and I would have been embarrassed as a father.
But that was not the case. All of these hearing people were overflowing with emotion and joy and that impacted Frank Rossi and it really led to the next scene. So as we sat next to each other, maybe just a foot apart, on the back of the flatbed pickup truck, Frank Rossi asks Ruby to sing, and he gets even closer, and couldn’t hear her even with that proximity, but saw the emotion in her face.
What Frank saw was the different facial expressions than when Ruby was normally speaking. He noticed, he even was fascinated by the expressions in her face, and that led Frankl 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, and tries to disconnect from everything else and really understand his daughter’s passion with his eyes closed.
And when the vibration stops, he really recognizes and has to look at himself and know that he’s missing something. He forgot about this part of life. He took something about his daughter for granted and wanted her to help with his business and ignored her talent. That really strikes Frank and he realizes he’s been a bit selfish, and he’s struggling to let go of his daughter.
So it’s an extremely tough moment for Frank, but when there was eye contact, there was no dialogue, no signs, and I let the energy of the eyes speak for themselves. And I can let you as an audience make your own interpretation and feel those emotions. So of course, it was such a beautiful moment.
MM: Just a bit of information. That night we only had an hour left to shoot that scene. We only had an hour, and it was really hectic. The fact that 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 shoot two cameras at one time, and they only had an hour to shoot it before they had to pull the plug on the scene. And they did it. They did it in that amount of time.
TK: When I read this script, there was a line in there that after Ruby finishes singing, Frank says “Thank you”. My gut feeling was, deep down, in deaf culture, we have this emotional strength in our facial expressions. That sign “thank you” is more like spoon-feeding an audience, who probably already knows that sign.
I wanted to throw that thank you aside and focus feel 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.
Q: The insight into Frank in that scene – the word that comes to my mind is “transcendent”. It’s just a transcendent scene. It comes as you molded your performance.
Marlee, the scene I’d like to talk to you about had more dialogue and is the scene where Jackie goes to Ruby’s bedroom and there’s that conversation about what she was hoping for when Ruby was born, and that sort of mother-and-daughter connection. Talk to us about what that scene meant to you, and getting the scene right with Emilia.
MM: That is 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 that was in her background that colored who she was, that she was so terrified?
As a mother of a hearing baby, — 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 Jackie – what was written in the page here. I had to sit and talk with Sian: what was it that Jackie wanted to do? And she said, “What do you think Jackie needs to get? What do you think Jackie needs to feel?” All the things that actors do when they are getting into a character.
And because Emilia Jones, blooming as she is as an actress, to work with, she allowed me to just do it. The fear as an actor went out the window because of her, and I just went with the scene. It’s easy if you experienced it, but I think you have Jackie’s experience and that Jackie struggled with that. I just had to trust myself in the end.
The other scene that I think we should point to is where we’re at that breakfast scene 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?” And I just cringed when I read that. No, how dare Jackie say that. But at the same time, that’s Jackie Rossi’s perception. Clearly, her journey took her to that place. And then you could see at the end, she transformed. Obviously.
TK: And 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, and 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 – that red evaporates.
The focus of the camera approaches that conversation closer and closer, and it builds in intensity, and 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.
MM: He’s a future director, right here.
TK: The camera work, the sound work, is also 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.
Q: All actors build on backstories, of course, for their characters. I’m curious if you worked on something that Jackie and Frankl had an aspect of their relationship that we don’t hear about? We see them fight, we see them in love with each other, we see them in all sorts of parenting situations, and all sorts of husband-and-wife situations. But as you were building the characters, was there something that you found as connecting points, kindof grace notes, that you had in the performances that maybe never show?
MM: I think I envisioned Jackie caring for her family. Well, we know she grew up in a family where she was the only deaf person in her family. And her parents – 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.
TK: She’s still beautiful, by the way.
MM: But no – I used that to imprint on Jackie, knowing that there was not a lot of deaf having to do with her family’s love. So maybe she went to a school of deaf, and maybe she went home on weekends and she lived at the school on the weekdays. But her home was the school because that was her world. That was where she was able to communicate with her deaf friends and her deaf teachers. So that’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 we fell in love, . . .
TK: And when she bent over to pick up the bowling ball,
MM: Anyway, that’s why there’s this idea of having hearing children know 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.
Q: Troy, how would you answer?
TK: Sian, our director, after she offered me the role, she said “Don’t shave and don’t cut your hair for five months.” She was sending me photos of fishing boats. There was a fishing captain named Paul Lee, and I saw how they would chop up the fish and so on, and that led to the future.
Sian told me that the character Frank was a high school dropout and he never finished high school. The reason why was because he was running his father’s fishing business, and his father passed away and Frank had to keep it going for quite a while. And that’s how he survived and how that business survived, even when they were struggling.
So I looked up to Frank. I thought Frank was a hero. He was a hard-working man who wanted to protect his family, and he was frustrated with those ignorant hearing people out there. And he had to live with that. So I’m tired of being patient with you. I want to turn the tables. Can you be patient with us?
Q: So the relationship between Jackie and Frank is a beautiful one. We see there’s trust there, there’s love there, there’s comfort there. There’s a sense of belonging there. There’s a match there, a very powerful match.
TK: Do you know why the Rossi house is falling apart? Because there is so much f*cking going on there.
Q: It is a rich and beautiful film, rich and beautiful performances, the film is one of my favorites of the year.
Thank you so much, and congratulations again.
Here’s the trailer of the film.