Why Troy Kotsur’s Vulgar Sign Language in ‘CODA’ Is All His Own

TheWrap magazine: “ASL often tops English in many ways because it’s more detailed, it’s more visual than you can even imagine, especially with vulgarity,” deaf star says

This story about Troy Kotsur first appeared in the Down to the Wire of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Troy Kotsur’s wife, deaf actress Deanne Bray, “would prefer” it if Kotsur’s character from “CODA,” Frank Rossi, not be in their house. Sure, playing Frank landed Kotsur an Oscar nomination and made him the first deaf actor to win a SAG Award. But his casual vulgarity and racy sense of humor in the film — which sees him use American Sign Language to make a few obscene gestures and humiliate their teen daughter — is not necessarily how she’d like Kotsur to behave at home, even if sometimes Frank shows up anyway.

“I’m not a fisherman. I was never out at sea on a boat…I’m from Arizona,” Kotsur said. “I felt like I was around just a bunch of Popeyes in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They were physically tough, mentally tough, and people thought I was an experienced fisherman while I was playing Frank Rossi.”  

But even if Kotsur is usually more well-mannered in his own home, there’s no doubt that Frank’s vulgarity is a part of him. The script for “CODA,” naturally, was written in English by writer-director Siân Heder, and it was up to Kotsur to interpret for himself how Frank would communicate in ASL. Heder gave Kotsur the luxury to play around, experiment and improvise to find the right signs to properly convey Frank’s emotion and his distinctly ribald way of expressing himself. 

“If someone else created the signs, it would be their personality, not mine,” he said. “So it was important to have that organic choice, to have that gut feeling and essence of the character. ASL often tops English in many ways because it’s more detailed, it’s more visual than you can even imagine, especially with vulgarity.”

TheWrap Magazine

Kotsur expanded upon that and rarely gave the same variation twice. His spontaneity often surprised Emilia Jones, who played his daughter and who might see his particularly bawdy signs for the first time during a take. “She was shocked to see what I was doing, and that was raw,” he said. “We captured those raw moments, so everything that happened situationally, boom! We were able to capture it and print it. That’s why I really like to bring that real-life experience rather than be robotic and do the same take over and over.”

But Kotsur faced two major challenges on “CODA.” The first was that he was “extremely nervous” doing a love scene with Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. The second is something that hearing actors don’t face: There’s no fixing his performance in post, no overdubs to smooth things out. As a signer, Kotsur needs to get everything right in the moment. That manifested in the film’s emotional climax, in which he sits with his daughter in the back of a truck bed and feels her breathing and the vibrations in her voice as she sings. The script read quite simply, “Thank you,” but he wanted to thank Ruby “through my eyes” instead. He knew no matter how close he sat he wouldn’t hear his daughter’s song, but he could see and feel her emotion. 

“The audience is extremely intelligent,” Kotsur said. “You don’t have to spoon-feed them. Less is more, and what we captured was a truly magical moment. It was two takes — everything coalesced and we nailed it. When I’m acting, I forget about everything else. I forget about the crew, I forget who I was, I just wanted to focus on Ruby’s face. I even forgot I was sitting on the back of a truck. It was such an interesting experience being in that moment.”

Kotsur feels the film’s Best Picture nomination has helped shift the cultural perspective toward the deaf community. For him, the act of seeing an ensemble of deaf actors on screen using sign language is exactly the exposure he’s been waiting for.

“My daughter, a real life CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), has had to explain to her friends over and over what her experience is like, and now she can just say, ‘Watch the movie,’” Kotsur said. “You don’t see it very often, and it feels like everyone in the deaf community feels inspired and excited together.”

As the second deaf actor ever nominated for an Oscar — Matlin, who won for “Children of a Lesser God,” was the first — Kotsur now dreams of starring in a Western, as a historical figure or in a science fiction film in which he can play with language. He recently got a taste when he played a Tusken Raider in “The Mandalorian,” and his rising star has led him to conversations with producers now considering hiring deaf actors for roles that were written as hearing characters. He’d also love to direct. Next up, though, he’ll play a coach of a deaf track team in the film “Flash Before the Bang,” and Kotsur hopes it’s a chance for him to play a deaf person who may struggle, but isn’t just the victim. 

“Imagine a deaf person is running Hollywood (and you) can’t find an authentic hearing character,” he said.

“Turn the tables. Imagine that,” he said. “I’m not here to criticize Hollywood, and I understand this is a new experience and there’s a long history. Deaf people, our due is long overdue, so this is just the beginning.”

Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.