As conversations about diversity and inclusivity in entertainment continue, CODA (available on Apple TV+ on Friday, Aug. 13), which features Oscar winning actor Marlee Matlin, expertly shows what real, authentic, accessible and captivating storytelling looks like.
“We're talking about authenticity and accessibility, and talking about inclusivity and how important it is, but I think I wouldn't be wrong in saying that Deaf and disability have not been recognized in this discussion, as much as it should be, particularly in Hollywood,” Matlin told Yahoo Canada.
“At the same time, I'm seeing there are changes being made here and there, specifically within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who have been very supportive of the community. They want to make sure that we are able to be included, that we are recognized equally, the same goes for [Apple TV+]. So I think that people are beginning to pick up on the fact that we are part of the diversity discussion, and that we do exist, and that they realize that there are so many stories to tell within our culture.”
CODA, the title of the film but also an acronym for children of Deaf adults, tells the story of the Rossi family, who live in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family and at the age of 17, she wakes up at three in the morning to help her father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) as a deckhand on the family fishing boat.
Having spent most of her life as an interpreter for her family, Ruby starts to explore her love of singing, which her family, particularly her mother Jackie (Matlin), isn’t necessarily supportive of at the outset. When Ruby makes the spontaneous decision to join the school choir, music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) see’s Ruby potential and encourages her to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. While her college dream could be on the horizon, the teen struggles to balance pursuing her passion with the responsibilities she has to her family and her family’s business.
“There are so many cultures around the world, and also here in America there are so many distinct cultures, but Deaf culture has been overlooked,” Kotsur stressed. “This film finally brings that to the forefront and I'm hoping people really enjoy that experience.”
The actors all praised the real, honest commitment to authenticity that was put at the forefront of this project by writer, director Siân Heder. As an audience member, the time and care that went into developing these characters is clearly evident.
“You'll have a better understanding of our language, of the way that we live,“ Matlin explained.
“But at the same time it's a universal story, a universal love story, a universal coming-of-age story, a story about a hard-working family, a fishing family, and this is just one of many millions of stories that we should be able to portray.”
'You have to actually live that experience'
When Heder was writing the script she started learning American Sign Language (ASL) because she knew she wanted a good portion of the film to be in ASL. As she worked through writing the script in her own voice, she knew that it was going to evolve as the script was translated visually and the words signed.
“I would say the biggest change was when I worked with Alexandria Wailes, who was one of my ASL masters," Heder explained. “A lot of it was us sitting across the table from each other and discussing my intention, discussing the character emotion and then making sign choices based on the intention behind the English line.”
“Then I had my actors who came in with their own opinions and sign choices, and we all kind of worked together and collaborated, and we would find the joke in a scene and find the emotion of a scene together."
Durant, who plays Ruby's older brother Leo, stressed that it was also a great experience to be able to directly communicate with Heder with sign language.
“Sometimes on set she wouldn't even use the interpreters that were there, she would just talk with us directly and just really get into a clear direct idea of what she wanted,” he explained. “She just really got into it with us and communicating directly like that really helped the process quite a bit.”
Kotsur stressed that CODA had the right team in place to be able to succeed in creating this authentic story, including the importance of casting Deaf actors in their respective roles.
“Even if you had Daniel Day-Lewis, would he be able to meet that challenge and embody that character? I don't know,” he said. “It's nice to have authentic casting and you see the difference in our chemistry and our eye contact.”
“We know what's best, even though we can't hear what's going on behind us, our body movement, how we situate ourselves, we need to have eye contact to talk so we can't be right next to each other, we have to be sitting opposite so we can have those conversations, and that really informed the story to make it better.”
Durant echoed Kotsur’s comments, specifically related to the importance of casting for CODA.
“It's impossible for somebody to just step into the role and have that same level of authenticity, you have to actually live that experience, be in our shoes,” he stressed.
'Our darkest moments are oftentimes our funniest as well'
Another phenomenal aspect to the film that really makes CODA stand out from other coming-of-age stories broadly is just how hysterical it is. While there are certainly moving, emotional and loving moments that will bring a tear to your eye, you’ll be laughing out loud just as frequently, with a lot comedy led by Matlin and Kotsur’s passionate marriage (possibly too passionate at times for Ruby's liking).
“It was a dream come true for me to work with Troy Kotsur,” Matlin revealed. “He's one of the most talented actors that I know on Earth, regardless of whether he's Deaf or not.”
“We just connected, we knew what was funny, we worked off of one another and we wanted to share that with the audience,” Kotsur described.
“We're always kidding around, using our language, playing with it and having that opportunity to share that, we knew that people were going to want to see this. It's something that they had never seen before and I'm glad that we found so many ways to make things hilarious.”
These perfectly timed comedic moments come from Heder’s belief that “our darkest moments are oftentimes our funniest as well.”
“There is not comedy or drama, life is a mixture of both, always,” she said. “Mixing tones for me is something that I have always loved...so finding those hysterically funny moments are really important to me, especially in a movie that is so emotional.”
“I think laughter opens people up, and it makes them let their guard down and invest in a character, and that leaves you more open to tears, if they want to come.”
The 'challenging' role of Ruby
For Jones, playing Ruby was no small feat. The British actor had to master a very specific American accent, she had never learned ASL before, she had to sing and be incredibly confident on a fishing boat.
“I guess that's exactly what drew me to this project,” Jones told Yahoo Canada. “When I read the script I thought, whoever gets to play Ruby is an incredibly lucky actress because it's not everyday that you get to learn three skills.”
“I was always fascinated with sign language and I always wanted to learn, so I think that excited me, the fact that I knew nothing and I was kind of entering this world with open arms.”
Durant revealed that the actors who make up the Rossi family were quickly able to establish that close bond and praised Jones for her portrayal of his character’s younger sister Ruby.
“Emilia [Jones] is so open minded and so skilled, and eager to learn about Deaf culture,” Durant revealed. “We'd share some Deaf jokes and expose her to Deaf culture, and she just got into it and really enjoyed the whole process.”
Now that Jones has taken on this challenging role, with a captivating performance that pulls you into this family’s dynamic, the actor hopes that more filmmakers, producers and directors will want to integrate Deaf culture into their storytelling.
“I hope that people watch the film and want to know more about the culture and the language,” Jones said.
“A friend of mine watched CODA and...there's this Deaf woman that works in her local shop and she texts me and she says, ‘oh, how do I say this? I want to be able to tell her I have my own bags, I want to ask her how her day has been’... I'm hoping that, that means times are changing and people are going to want to be more inclusive and open.”