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“I’m the first deaf male actor who has been nominated for a SAG Award,” says CODA star Troy Kotsur. “That is quite a blessing.”
After being sold for a record-breaking sum at Sundance last year, the Apple TV+ film has been earning historic awards recognition. Kotsur won a Gotham Award and now finds himself nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and SAG Award.
In CODA (an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults), Kotsur plays Frank Rossi, a deaf man who is navigating challenges to his Massachusetts fishing business as his hearing daughter, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who acts as the family’s interpreter, mulls a move to college.
The actor talked to THR about Hollywood’s response to the movie and CODA‘s historic nominations.
How has the audience response been to CODA?
There were many folks that had similar struggles in their lives. So many of my friends who had teenagers who went to public school or private school — they were never really understood, these CODAs. There was no one that understood what their experience at home was like. CODA was an opportunity to portray to the general public what a CODA could go through. We’ve had all these positive comments, and there’s always a few negative. There are some deaf people that say, “No, there’s not enough good CODAs out there.” And I’d say, “Hey, listen, you don’t know until you have CODAs yourself. Then you’ll have a different perspective.” All CODAs have a different life journey. Some are completely involved in the deaf community, and some don’t want to be involved in the deaf community. It really depends on the individual. But our film is an example of that story: bridging the hearing and deaf worlds.
Have you had a favorite CODA screening moment?
One of my most memorable moments was at the Phoenix Film Festival. That’s my hometown, and CODA was being premiered at that festival. I was in the audience the entire time. I saw several deaf people in the audience, and I saw hearing people in the audience — it was a very mixed crowd. I saw everyone, at the same time, have a reaction, whether they were laughing or whether they were having an emotional moment. It’s not often I’ve seen that. When I grew up with my hearing family members watching a film in the theater, the hearing people would react and laugh first, but as a deaf audience member, I would miss what was said, and [my family] would then have to explain it to me. So I would laugh later, and the hearing audience members would look at me. With CODA, I’ve finally seen a simultaneous reaction from hearing and deaf audience members.
[Theaters often] use this captioning device that goes in the cupholder, and when people walk by [in the aisle], you’d have to pull this captioning device down. Or sometimes it would run out of batteries and I have to run out of the theater to get a charger or a new device. CODA‘s the first time there’s been complete access by having burned-in subtitles. And no one has complained. Everyone has been able to enjoy the film. It’s so rare that this is an American-made film with subtitles.
Was Phoenix the first time you saw the movie with an audience?
Phoenix was really the first time. Before that, I would see it online or on a laptop. And so at the Phoenix Film Festival, [I thought,] I am going to go in and sit in the audience and watch everyone’s reaction. There was an interpreter who was sitting next to me, and the interpreter would tell me what the audience’s reactions were. He’d go, “They’re all laughing.” Or, “I’m hearing this person cry. And that person’s crying a lot.” I was getting that real-time feedback from my interpreter.
What has Hollywood’s response been to CODA?
I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from people that know me in the industry. [People] seem to be very curious. It’s becoming a hot [topic] or trendy issue of having deaf folks or sign language in a production. I think that it’s great for both the hearing and deaf communities to understand each other and be able to share these stories and collaborate. For CODA, we were hearing and deaf people in a collaboration.
I think that Hollywood is starting to look for something new. A good example is The Blair Witch Project. It was made on a microbudget. Hollywood thinks in terms of big budgets, and they were humbled by The Blair Witch Project. They shouldn’t be afraid to do something new — that’s my point.
What does awards recognition mean for a movie like CODA and for you personally?
Being nominated and receiving awards, it becomes historical. Many generations can look back and see this as a standout moment with CODA receiving nominations and awards. Children of a Lesser God [the 1986 drama that earned Marlee Matlin an Oscar for best actress] was first, and we’re hoping that CODA will be the second. And after I’m dead and gone, I would like to have that legacy.
Do you see my beard here? I have many pieces of hair making up my beard. Can you count them? No, you don’t have the time for that. That is like so many of the hearing actors out there with many opportunities. But a deaf actor is just like one small hair. Now that I feel like I’ve broken in and received these nominations, I’m so glad that they recognized me — not because I’m deaf but because I’m a talented actor. I’ve already recognized all their work and their talent as artists, but now it’s their opportunity to see my skill as an artist. I don’t care if I win or not.
What does it mean to be recognized by fellow actors, specifically?
I feel like being recognized by SAG is like getting a Ph.D. I actually never finished college or university — I took that risk. And now, with these nominations, I consider it like graduating.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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