This story about “CODA,” director Sian Heder and actors Marlee Matlin and Emilia Jones first appeared in TheWrap’s The Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.
If you see “CODA” in a movie theater, there’s a key moment just as Emilia Jones’ protagonist, Ruby Rossi, is about to perform on stage in her choir’s school recital. The camera cuts to her deaf family in the audience and the subtitles read “[Music fades out].”
For the first time in Sian Heder’s film, we get to see the story from the perspective of “CODA’s” deaf characters rather than its hearing ones.
“It was as powerful a moment for me as for anyone who’s hearing,” Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, who plays Ruby’s deaf mother in the film, said. “I see our perspective, our world, our culture, everything right there on the screen. She included us. She made the choice to include us for all the audience to see. To experience a little bit of what we experience every day as ourselves, as deaf people.”
Heder had tinkered with a few different moments in which to put the audience in the deaf characters’ shoes. She considered it when Ruby’s brother, played by Daniel Durant, feels confused and out of place at a bar with hearing colleagues all ignoring him. She tried it when Ruby’s father, played by Troy Kotsur, gets in trouble on his fishing boat and can’t hear a siren from the Coast Guard. But the concert moment felt right.
“The audience wants to hear Ruby sing. We’ve watched her rehearse the whole movie, and we all know that movie trope of the concert,” Heder said. “You finally get to hear Ruby’s voice come out, you finally get to have the moment of hearing the finished result, and I wanted to take that away from the audience at that moment because her family doesn’t experience her performance in the way that we do.”
Heder knew it was right when her hearing crew raised concerns that the audience would feel uncomfortable if it suddenly dipped into complete silence. Instead, she asked Kotsur how he behaves when sitting in an audience watching someone sing, how he looks around “like a detective” to see as they laugh or cry or applaud.
“To watch a hearing audience be that uncomfortable with the deaf experience showed me that was an important experience for them to have,” Heder said.
“Take one of their most important senses away,” Matlin added. “Take it away and let them experience it raw and unedited. I think you all take your hearing for granted.”
“CODA” wasn’t conceived as the “important” film in the Oscars race. The story of a child of deaf adults (hence the acronym CODA) who wants to be a singer, the film works as a movie with no antagonist; it’s simply the complicated, sometimes dysfunctional dynamics of a relatable working-class family. Heder and Matlin loved that the film was funny, that it never pleaded with the audience to “eat your spinach,” that it had a familiar story and characters that felt like home.
“I think the power of telling just a very human story and characters that feel like real people seems to have created a sea change in how people view a story like this,” Heder said. “They let go of the idea that there’s any separation between those cultures. It’s a pretty sneaky way to create a shift in audience perspective.”
But the original French film on which “CODA” is based, 2014’s “La Famille Bélier,” didn’t feature actual deaf performers. In committing to working with a deaf cast and getting that world right, Heder had to shake up the way such a story was told on screen. Sign language had to be fully visible in every shot. Background music or talking didn’t always have to fill the air. Hearing actors shouldn’t constantly be talking as they signed — or “sim-com,” short for simultaneous communication, which quite often in English isn’t even the correct translation of ASL in the first place.
All of that was evident on the page when Matlin first picked up the script, to the point that she felt like the role of Jackie Rossi “belonged to me.” Suddenly those concerns she’d heard from countless hearing creators about working with a deaf actress like herself — how will they communicate, how much does it cost to hire an interpreter, how will it affect box office? — felt trivial.
“It’s not preachy at all,” Matlin said. “What Sian has done here, she made sure that she wrote a script that wasn’t hard to watch. You didn’t have to work at watching, to work at understanding. She was attempting to create a film that you could identify with. She allowed us to sign, she allowed us to be subtitled. And she created open captions for all the prints that came out subsequently. So there’s no one speaking for us. We’re allowed to speak for ourselves in this film.”
What’s abundantly clear, though, is that the deaf community is hardly a monolith. The film doesn’t hope to speak for all deaf experiences or backgrounds. And Jones, who plays the title CODA in the film but herself is not a real-life child of deaf adults, will be the first to tell you it’s not representing CODAs universally. Each of the interpreters Jones worked closely with on set were also CODAs, and from them she came to understand how each of their backgrounds were similar but also unique.
Even when Jones sim-coms, that act came from the experience of the CODA collaborators around her. The moments we see Ruby speaking and signing together are when Ruby is upset, acting out or feeling frustrated and distant from her family, and her character’s complexity grew out of honest discussions with Heder and the interpreters.
“To be deaf is so much more than sign language,” Jones said. “It’s an experience that a hearing person can never fully understand, so I felt very grateful. It’s not about the words. With ASL, you don’t need both. It’s its own language. I was very happy Sian and I could have that conversation and go back and forth.”
Jones described singing and signing during “CODA’s” climax as the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. She was up until 3 a.m. relearning the signs that had changed the day before, making them more beautiful, more meaningful, but also more natural. This was not a performance for Ruby but a spontaneous expression of love for her family. And any take where Jones got the signs wrong would be a lost one.
That attention to detail has been key to getting audiences to pay attention to deaf actors in film. Heder explains that “CODA” took years to get to the screen and never got off the ground as a studio film for all the reasons that have held deaf performers and stories back for decades. But its record-breaking sale to Apple TV+ at Sundance sent a message that deaf perspectives couldn’t be ignored any longer and that such stories could have mass appeal.
“It’s one of the movies kicking down the door,” Heder said, name-dropping other emerging deaf talent like Lauren Ridloff and Millicent Simmonds in addition to Kotsur and Durant. “Marlee Matlin is not the only deaf actor that people can think of any more.”
Matlin said that she’s elated by the idea that “CODA” is creating opportunities for deaf actors, both ones she’s known for years and one she’s never heard of before. But the 1986 Oscar for Children of a Lesser God that sits in her cabinet is still the only one ever won by a deaf actress. She has her fingers crossed that it won’t be long until there’s another.
“I’m getting sick of me,” she said. “I still want to work, though OK?”
Read more from The Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine.