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On Friday night, Bradley Whitford moderated a post-screening panel for his West Wing co-star Marlee Matlin’s latest project, Coda, alongside director Sian Heder and stars Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez and Troy Kotsur.
“I love this movie so much,” Whitford gushed. “I love how it turns the whole idea of inclusion, which Hollywood can do a real disservice to as some sort of obligation or burden, and just turned it into this beautiful celebration. I saw every actor with their blood flowing.”
The conversation, held at Los Angeles’ DGA Theater, explored the groundbreaking experience for all involved, as Matlin recounted how in 35 years in the industry she had never seen three deaf actors leading a film, as is the case with Matlin, Kotsur and Daniel Durant. Coda follows Ruby (Jones) as the only hearing member of a Deaf family as she helps keep the family’s fishing business afloat while dreaming of a future in music.
“It was like gold; it felt like we’re finally home, we finally come home with this film,” Matlin said. “I hope that after people, writers, directors have an opportunity to see this, they’ll be more open-minded for us as actors who happen to be deaf.”
Matlin noted how on most projects, she typically goes to her trailer at lunch “with my interpreter who can sign and we would have a conversation, but it wouldn’t be typically with the cast or the crew because the communication is different,” versus on Coda, with so many people who used American Sign Language, “we’re all able to communicate, we talked at length.” Kotsur added the valuable ability to improvise when working opposite Deaf actors who actually understood him, which he took full advantage of.
“I had been studying sign and I could sign a bit, but I was not fluent in sign. I don’t know when my actors flub their lines. I don’t know when Troy’s thrown in a secret ‘fuck’ in a movie that’s supposed to be like PG-13 — it happened a lot,” joked Heder, who is a hearing person and relied on two ASL masters on set. “It was so important that I had Deaf collaborators behind the camera with me, not just for me to be my deaf eyes on set, but for my actors…. it allowed me to watch the performance and [ASL master] Anne [Tomasetti], to watch the signing, then it really was about just me working with my actors.”
That directing collaboration was also something Matlin found rare. In previous projects, those on set may not have understood ASL and not known how to give her notes.
“I want directors to be able to work with me, not necessarily ‘Yes, OK, you’re signing, you’re good enough.’ No, no, I need somebody to work with. We’re not those kind of actors. We really, really delve into our characters, into our roles, and thinking just because we sign we’re doing it fine?” Matlin said. “The same way if you have an actor working with an accent, you have a dialect coach. We work with sign language coaches the same way.”
Jones, a hearing person who learned to fluently sign for the film, added that from her perspective, “normally when I act, I think less is more. If you’re feeling it, it comes out without you doing anything. Whereas sign language is so physical, it’s so emotional.” And for Heder, showcasing a culture that she is not a part of and “has been not only underrepresented but misrepresented for a long time, I didn’t want to do the movie unless I felt like I could do it right.”
“The only way to do it right was to make sure that I had collaborators around me from the moment that I started writing the script, who were going to call me on my hearing perspective, who were going to put me in check in a way that I was not able to do always because I think we don’t realize our own gaze a lot of the time,” she said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Coda is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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Venice Film Festival