“We’re Not Deaf Actors — We’re Actors, Period” – The Hollywood Reporter

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After theaters had reopened following a year-and-a-half blackout, Marlee Matlin returned to the multiplex to watch Disney’s Cruella with her family. Shortly after the film started, she could tell something was wrong.

Matlin knew music was a big part of the movie — an ’80s-inspired punk take on the classic Disney villain — and she could tell that there were songs playing under star Emma Stone’s onscreen kidnapping of dalmatians, but the songs’ lyrics were not showing up in her caption glasses: wearable tech that theaters provide to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers that overlay subtitles on a movie. Matlin turned to her husband, Kevin Grandalski, who is hearing, asking, ” ‘Honey, are there lyrics that you hear? And he goes, ‘Yeah.’ ” She continues, “I found out after the fact that studios stopped subtitling lyrics.”

In 2016, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony beat a class-action lawsuit in California brought against them by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which alleged various laws were violated in the studios’ refusal to provide captioning or subtitling of song lyrics in feature films. Now, Matlin was missing out on Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” playing over a car chase with Cruella’s Panther De Ville. “It deprives us of being able to access the story just like anybody else,” she says. Put another way: “I only saw half of the movie. It was a half-ass movie, basically.”

More than 30 years after Children of a Lesser God (the movie that won Matlin an Oscar, making her the first, and still only, deaf actor to do so), the entertainment industry is placing a major emphasis on inclusion, with deaf and disabled talent pushing — alongside activist groups meeting with studios, streamers and networks — to ensure that they do not get lost in larger diversity conversations.

This month will see the release of CODA, which is fronted by three deaf actors: Matlin, Troy Kotsur and newcomer Daniel Durant. Buoyed by its $25 million record-breaking Sundance sale, CODA, out Aug. 13, is primed to become a new cornerstone in what is shaping up to be a watershed moment in disability representation in Hollywood. “To have a hearing actor put on a deaf character as if it was a costume, I think we’ve moved beyond that point now,” says Matlin. “We’re talking about a new generation of viewers.”

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“I can’t really be as choosy as other actors who can hear. And I sound like I’m complaining, but that’s why I’ve always been interested in collaborating, creating and coming up with ideas,” says Matlin, about her career.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Jai Lennard

CODA, which stands for Children of Deaf Adults, follows the Rossis, a blue-collar fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, as their hearing daughter (played by Emilia Jones), who also acts as the family interpreter, is considering college. Based on the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, the project originally was set up at Lionsgate, where writer-director Sian Heder — fresh off her 2016 Sundance feature Tallulah — pitched for it, beating out two other finalists upon being hired to adapt it.

“At the time, I said to myself there is the potential to do a smart remake,” says Patrick Wachsberger, then Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group co-chairman. But “it was never going to happen [at Lionsgate], it was not really a part of the mandate. “(Lionsgate’s biggest hits at the time were franchise films like the dystopic YA installment Allegiant, John Wick 2 and Now You See Me 2.) He took the project with him as a part of his 2018 departure, setting up CODA as the first film under his newly formed Perfect Picture Federation banner. The movie would go on to be made outside the studio system; even so, financing a midbudget independent feature with three-quarters of its lead cast played by deaf actors was unprecedented. “Inauthentic casting happens at the financing and packaging stage,” says Delbert Whetter, a deaf producer and consultant who sits on the board of disability nonprofit RespectAbility. “The thought process is often that they want people who are known quantities. In their minds, they are managing risk.”

Says Matlin, “I had heard at one point that they were thinking about the Frank role [Matlin’s onscreen husband] being played by a hearing actor. I said, ‘Thank you, but I’m out.’ ” Heder was aligned: “I truly felt like I would rather see the movie not get made than to see the movie get made with hearing actors.” (In the original French film, the roles of the parents were played by hearing actors.)

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Sian Heder directing Emilia Jones in CODA.
Courtesy of Mark Hill/Apple TV+.

Matlin saw CODA as an all-too-rare opportunity for deaf actors in Hollywood who most often are seen as one-off, guest-starring performers in network acronymic procedurals (e.g., SVU and CSI) or singular side characters in blockbusters like A Quiet Place or Godzilla vs. Kong. Even with Sound of Metal — the Oscar-nominated movie that stars Riz Ahmed, also nominated, as a heavy metal drummer losing his hearing — Matlin “didn’t feel like we were in the forefront.” She adds, “They had a lot of deaf background actors, which is great to see, but only one or two deaf [actors] had more than a few lines.” CODA would allow deaf talent to be front and center, together. “Here we are with three characters carrying the film,” says Matlin, 55. “And we’re carrying it 100 percent authentically.”

CODA marks the feature film debut of Durant, playing the calf sock- and Nike slide-wearing Leo, the endlessly charming if not occasionally overbearing onscreen son of Matlin’s Jackie and Kotsur’s Frank. The Minnesota native, 31, was first discovered by a manager through his YouTube page, where he would upload “deaf jokes, vlogs, that kind of thing,” he says. Having not quite found his place, nor declared a major at Gallaudet University — the Washington, D.C. college for the deaf and hard of hearing — Durant flew out to audition for Deaf West, an L.A.-based nonprofit that produces theater inspired by deaf culture, landing a role in a 2012 production of Cyrano.

On the first day of rehearsals, he walked in to find Kotsur, the play’s lead, onstage performing a poem and was thunderstruck. “It was like he was just dancing with poetry,” remembers Durant. “This is the first time I’ve seen a deaf guy who is just nailing this acting thing.”

For his part, the 53-year-old Kotsur — an Arizona-born veteran performer known for his stage work in productions like the Tony-winning Big River — saw himself in the newbie. “I was just there telling him, you know, ‘Keep going. You’re going to find the right people to surround yourself with at the right time.’ ” Since then, Durant, Kotsur and Matlin have crisscrossed paths on multiple projects, finally landing together in Deaf West’s revival of the musical Spring Awakening, which made its way to Broadway in 2015.

“I just really look up to them so much,” offers Durant, earnestly eying his castmates.

Matlin lets the kind sentiment warm the air, before batting, “I paid him to say that.”

“Ten percent, right?”

“Yes, I’m extremely generous.”

Kotsur mugs, “Not me.”

Chemistry, notes Heder, is “the unknown factor that you really hope that your actors will have with each other.” Sharing a community and culture allowed for onscreen relationships that did not require rehearsals. Sitting down to dinner the night before the 30-day Massachusetts shoot, the cast was shocked by how much they already looked and acted like a family.

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Durant was discovered on YouTube by his manager while attending Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University for deaf
and hard-of-hearing students.
Durant in Hermès sweater, Buck Mason pants.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY Jai Lennard

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When stepping onto a new film set for the first time, both Matlin and Kotsur say that they find themselves gauging whether their hearing filmmakers will be amenable to suggestions. With Heder’s self-proclaimed modus operandi — “You don’t know what you don’t know” — the CODA set was one that…

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