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In Amazon’s Sound of Metal, which has earned six Academy Award nominations including best picture, Riz Ahmed plays the drummer in a heavy metal duo whose world is torn apart when he begins to lose his hearing. Ahmed’s Ruben, a recovering addict, turns to a sober living facility run by a fellow deaf addict named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Raci, who was raised as a child of deaf adults (CODA) and is fluent in American Sign Language, is an actor with four decades of experience on stage and screen. For this breakthrough role, the 73-year-old Raci has earned his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He joins writer-director Darius Marder (who has been co-nominated for best screenplay) for a conversation about depicting the deaf community onscreen, and how Raci’s upbringing influenced his acting ambitions.
Darius, this script evolved over a decade. Did it always come to the intersection of three themes: music, hearing loss and addiction?
DARIUS MARDER Music and hearing loss were always there. There was this handoff with this project of Derek Cianfrance’s, and I was never going to deviate from that. Derek had kind of stumbled across this wonderful concept, which was this transformation that would occur in the realm of this couple who play metal. It took me another few years to fully understand that it was about addiction more than it was about deafness. I didn’t want to make a movie [only] about struggling with deafness, but I didn’t know how to achieve that for a long time. It wasn’t until I fully grasped the addict in Ruben. It took so much writing to get to.
Paul, what were your first impressions when you read the script?
PAUL RACI I found it interesting how sensitive it was to the deaf community. The community itself has shifted every 10 or 20 years. When I grew up in the ’50s, people were called “hearing-impaired.” And then the consciousness of the community shifted: “I’m not hearing-impaired. I’m deaf. Call me what I am.” As I read the script, things like that were just popping out to me. There was a deaf sober house, which I’ve experienced. If you have a deaf counselor, or deaf addicts all together, the success rate [is] much higher. Then when the movie came out, deaf people were commenting to me, “Thank you for showing deaf people as addicts.” As if that was a good thing! But it is because they’ve been portrayed as comic relief or as ancillary characters. Here are deaf people with the same foibles that hearing people have. As Darius has said, it’s not so much about deafness — it’s about things that we all have in common.
Darius, how much about this community were you familiar with as you wrote the script?
MARDER I feel like I am just at the beginning of understanding it. “The deaf community” is such a massive [idea]; it involves so many subsets and nuances. It’s a culture, and like any culture it would take a lifetime to fully understand it. And maybe you would never understand it if you’re not really from it. That’s a little how I feel. My grandmother was late-deafened, so I had a window into Ruben’s experience. She was a younger woman [when she lost her hearing], and she had to contend with straddling the two worlds. I found that people within the community were so generous with me. At first they were rightfully suspicious. But I wasn’t just looking to manipulate something or do something false; once we worked through that, there was such a generosity of sharing, which ended up on the screen.
Paul, I’m curious if you were apprehensive about Darius being at the helm of this project, and what your early conversations were like.
RACI I wasn’t worried about Darius at all. He came with a clear vision. He’s a real leader on set. I was coming into the situation where I’ve done lots of theater work, I’ve done plenty of television work — you know, one-liners here and there, just chipping away at this career. Darius gave me the confidence to sit there and be this person. I had already been in many situations that Joe has been in with my addiction ministries that I had run here in Los Angeles. There are so many mentors like Joe in these 12-step programs. Darius had written him so meticulously that I understood it right away.
MARDER Paul, as a CODA, you’ve been taking care of and looking after the deaf community for your whole life. Getting you to shift out of that mode was quite difficult, because you are such a caretaker. You’re always looking out. And you brought me little cultural truths that were super wonderful, and I was always happy to learn them. You were very much a part of that because you grew up in deaf culture.
RACI We had professional interpreters on the set. I’d [have to say to myself], “Wait a minute. You have to hold back.” (Laughs.)
MARDER It’s very interesting how each actor needs a different process in order to inhabit a role. For Paul, it was about trusting his own DNA, and some of that was deeply personal. What’s interesting about Joe as a character is that he’s an addict, too. There were scenes that we entered into where we both discovered things in your life, Paul, that were brutal — the kind of things that one lives with and never talks about. You had to enter your own garden of truth in order to enter into this character.
Coming back to something Darius said about Paul being a natural caretaker, is that at all related to your chosen profession as an actor, to tell other people’s stories when they can’t for themselves?
RACI Exactly. As a boy, my mother would take me to the movies. We watched Love Me Tender starring Elvis Presley in 1956. I was 8 years old, sitting in a darkened movie theater, craning my neck and interpreting the whole movie for her. I was Elvis Presley, I was Richard Egan, I was Debra Paget. I acted out that whole movie for her. My father watched Bonanza and The Fugitive, and I sat next to the television, giving him all these characters. I knew early on that acting was cathartic. It was powerful.
MARDER CODAs live between two worlds and they can very much end up being a liaison between the two. That becomes their role in life. With you, Paul, I think acting is that one place where you’re free of the confines of that responsibility. You were born into a sense of duty, which is so noble. You were that liaison you had to be, but it’s such a heavy burden. And acting is that place where you are that individual, which is why I was so dogmatic about you not being in that interpreter role when you were not acting. You needed to be there for you — which I think for a CODA is not normal. I could have changed the role to be a CODA, but in having that role be deaf, Paul was able to bring his father and his mother into that role. So when Paul’s walking up the stairs, you know, and holding on to the rail — that’s his father, right, Paul? Because your father didn’t have great balance. And when Paul’s reading lips, that’s your mother, because your mother was a lip reader. So it enabled you to, in a way, heal some of that divide, and I saw that happen in real time.
RACI It’s all true. CODAs born after 1980 are a different breed. They’re so free, because there’s an interpreting profession. There was no profession when I was a kid. It could be a harrowing situation, to put a child through that.
MARDER Not to mention movies. Paul didn’t watch the movie for himself, right?
RACI I once asked my dad, “What are you watching this TV show for? What do you think the plot’s about?” He goes, “I don’t know. I’m making it up.” I couldn’t take that. I had to do the whole show.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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