Paul Raci (‘Sound of Metal’) on why Joe is the ‘most perfect role for me’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Paul Raci is the most acclaimed supporting actor of this year’s award season so far, collecting multiple wins from critics’ organizations for his performance in “Sound of Metal.” In the film, the actor plays Joe, a mentor for Riz Ahmed‘s character, Ruben, at a deaf sober house.

Raci recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about winning all those critics’ awards, working with Ahmed and why he felt such a connection to Joe. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: You’re picking up so many nominations and wins left and right from critics groups for your performance. What has your reaction been to just receiving all of this love and being in the awards conversation? 

Paul Raci: Well, it’s been amazing. I mean, I’ve been acting for 35, 40 years. I’ve done a lot of 99-seat theater in Chicago and Los Angeles, never really had an opportunity because Hollywood, it’s very competitive out here. So I’ve never had an opportunity to get into a room and even be considered for some kind of big role, so I’ve just been eking it out and just been doing the work as an actor, keeping my chops up in these 99-seat theaters here in L.A., Deaf West Theatre being one of them, where it’s run by and owned by deaf people. So after all this time, to have this kind of recognition is heartwarming, it’s gratifying on so many different levels. I mean, even the role itself of Joe, who is a spiritual guru of some sort, even that role, it seems to be something that that I’ve been looking for, and if I had to wait all this time for the most perfect role for me, it’s kind of worth it to just live my life out here in L.A., raise my daughter, do my job every day, I’m a sign language interpreter in courtrooms, that’s where I’m certified to do my work and do acting when I can, it’s gratifying as heck. It really is.

GD: Yeah, I can imagine. You do have such a close connection to your character, Joe, where you grew up with deaf parents, you’re fluent in ASL, you’re a veteran. So when you find out about “Sound of Metal,” was that the biggest appeal to you, just the opportunity to play a character like this or was it something even bigger with the story that was being told? 

PR: I think both. Reading the script, a very sensitive script, I was attracted to the role of Joe, who, by the way, just growing up as a Roman Catholic in Chicago, Illinois, and being an altar boy and being taught that God is out there, up there in heaven somewhere, and you pray to him to get something out there to manifest over here, that’s the religion, that’s what I was taught, and then moving to L.A., I started searching for a spiritual center and I ran into a place here in L.A. run by a man whose name is Michael Beckwith and they teach the science of mind, oddly enough, which is that God is within and everything you want is manifested from within, and then it comes to the without. Just the opposite of the Catholic religion. When I read that part of it, that last scene I have with Riz Ahmed where Joe tells him that, “God lives here, not out there, God lives right here and that’s where the stillness is, if you can find it,” when I read that, I knew that the role was even closer to me. Being in Vietnam and everything and living in the deaf community, that’s great. But to realize that Joe’s philosophy was even synched up with how I’ve been living my life for the last 15 or 20 years since learning that philosophy, I knew I had to audition for it. I knew I could bring something to it so I started getting ready right away. 

GD: Yeah, it’s like fate. And from what I understand, just from other interviews with you, the producers were going to go with an actor with more name recognition to play Joe. But you, of course, ended up getting the part. Can you talk about just the whole process of how it eventually landed with you? 

PR: Yeah, that’s right. Because that’s Hollywood, man. That’s how it goes. “So we’re going to get a name.” They got Riz Ahmed and they got Olivia Cooke so they’re ready to go and now they gotta fill this role and they were talking about getting a name, and also another sticky part of this, Kevin, is that Joe is deaf from a bombing incident in Vietnam. Now, there’s a thing in the deaf community. Traditionally, since 1948, when Jane Wyman won an Oscar for “Johnny Belinda,” playing a deaf woman, deaf people are offended by that. They want to see themselves depicted on the screen as accurately as possible, so when Jane Wyman gets raped and she’s not even saying anything because she can’t speak, I mean, deaf women can scream and yell. It’s just such a misrepresentation of what they’re about. Then it was remade with Mia Farrow. Again, a hearing lady.

Now, I had to be sensitive to what’s going on in my community, my deaf community that I’m that I’ve grown up with, so the director, Darius Marder, did audition many, many deaf actors for the role. But Joe is a latent deaf person. He lost his hearing in his 20s in the war. So that’s a different thing than being culturally deaf. Had this character been culturally deaf like my parents, who grew up with no hearing and all they know is the word the sign language, I could not have accepted that role. But because he’s a latent deaf person who can speak, and my mother was latent deaf who spoke and was a very good lip-reader, the character of Joe is, for me, a combination of my father, who never spoke, and my mother, who did speak. So I felt a little more comfortable in accepting the role, especially when I found out that he had auditioned so many people and he was opening it up now to CODAs, which is a child of deaf adults, people that have grown up with deaf parents. So it’s still a sensitive issue in the community. 

I have had some discussions with some deaf people who were not happy about me taking the role. But these are all artistic decisions and when you look at the screen, if I’ve done anything to offend the deaf community, I haven’t heard that yet. It’s just the principle of the thing. The principle is, “We want to see deaf characters portrayed by deaf actors.” I’ll give you a good example. “Wonderstruck” came out, I think, 2017 with Julianne Moore. Now, that movie, the beginning of the movie, Julianne Moore’s character is played by a deaf actress and she’s brilliant and she’s obviously deaf. Everything she does is brilliant in the movie. And then later on, she grows up and becomes Julianne Moore. Julianne Moore had to learn sign language for the role. Now, I’ve seen the movie. Julianne Moore is a lovely person and a great actor. However, her depiction of the production of sign language that comes out of her being is not accurate. It’s stilted, it’s stiff and not real, and the only people that know it are myself, who grew up in the deaf community or deaf people themselves. They look and they go, “What a shame. What a sham.”

And I’m sorry to say that, but this is where Hollywood needs to do better. Deaf people want to see themselves up on the silver screen, so to speak, but they’re not. Listen, there are deaf accountants. I know many deaf lawyers. There are deaf criminals. The one positive thing that I’ve heard from the deaf community about the film “Sound of Metal” is, “Thank you for showing us in this particular light. We have addicts. We have addictions. We have foibles just like hearing people.” And the one thing that I hear over and over again is, “We’re just like you. The only thing we can’t do is hear. And stop calling us hearing impaired. We’re not impaired. You don’t know sign language. Who’s impaired now?” So they try to flip it around and look at it that way. So it’s not without controversy, but the movie certainly has opened up a conversation about how we need to do better in casting deaf actors in this town, or anywhere they’re producing movies.

GD: That’s absolutely true. There’s so much potential out there. So many potential stories to be told that are just going untold. 

PR: Right. So we need deaf writers also to come forward, step forward, start telling stories, because hearing people are not going to understand what the deal is with the stories there are. But what you’re saying about there’s so much talent out there, I’ve worked at Deaf West Theatre in over 12 productions over the past 20 years out here in L.A. There are some tremendous deaf men and women that are so talented. They deserve to be seen on the screen. 

GD: Well, you’re primarily working with Riz Ahmed as his character, Ruben, comes to this sober house and Joe ends up kind of being a mentor to him. I’d love to just know what it was like working with Riz and what he gave you as an actor in the scenes that you shared together. 

PR: It was a great experience. The thing that was so cool about the way Darius Marder did with the movie is he shot it in chronological order. So we were never jumping around doing things that way. Everything happened in sequence. So when I got to the set, I was just getting to know Riz and we’d be made up in the same trailer every morning, but the first day I met him was our first scene where I’m meeting him for the first time when he comes to the deaf sober house. So our relationship grew over the three-week shooting period and by the time we got to the very last scene, which is where we have our goodbye, we had a growing relationship and it really got emotional there because that last shooting day, all the deaf cast had left the day before, so the house felt totally empty. We had like 10 deaf addicts or actors in the house and there was a lot of warmness, tenderness happening, a lot of discovery.

And then they all left and it was just Riz and I left and that day it was overcast and rainy, the only time it was ever overcast. We had sunny days all the way up until that last day of shooting. Very ominous. It was wonderful. The mood was fantastic. So our scene together was an actual goodbye. It was my last scene and Riz would be saying goodbye to me and saying goodbye to this house and moving on to Antwerp, where they had to film the rest of the movie. So the whole mood just added to this very serious scene, a very solemn goodbye. And I can say one thing, Riz Ahmed is very present with you in a scene. Even from the first day. Wow, he was so present. He was allowing me to be powerful. He was allowing me to be this mentor. He was suffering from this loss. So he was tremendous, just a tremendous actor. He deserves everything that he gets out of this movie. He’s a tremendous actor. 

GD: I agree. Well, I did want to talk more about that particular final scene between the two of you where Ruben has the cochlear implants now and he comes back to the house and Joe is just so disappointed to be having to send him away. I would love if you could just talk about in terms of that scene in particular, the mix of emotions that Joe is feeling in that moment and just how you were able to communicate that in that scene. 

PR: Well, first of all, when he first approaches, comes into the kitchen, he flicks the lights on so I can see that he’s there because I’m deaf and I’m so happy to see him because it’s been a while, not really knowing what happened. And then when I find out… when I first read the script, Kevin, the way Darius wrote the monologue about the stillness, when I gave him a homework assignment to see if he could write and write and write until he could sit in the stillness, and the part of the monologue that really got to me when I first read it was the part when Joe talks about the stillness and that where God resides, he’s right here, he’s not out there.

So that is really part of my disappointment in that scene, that he didn’t get it, that he went ahead and did this rash, crazy thing in Joe’s opinion, and didn’t sit until he got into the stillness. Meditation is a very difficult thing for many people. For me, it is. For me, it’s always been like a ping-pong game. It goes, “I got it. I’m out. I’m in, I’m out.” It goes back and forth until it slows down to the stillness. If you can do that, it only lasts for not even 30 seconds sometimes, maybe a minute. But if you can hit that, it does get better. It does improve. You do find some peace from that stillness. So, my own personal experience with it was feeding me. In that scene working with Riz, I was so disappointed. You’re right, it’s so heartbreaking.

And I have to say, I’m grateful to Riz because he breaks my heart in that scene and God, when I think about it now, it was just perfect the way we were feeding each other and Riz also, he gets so emotional in that scene because I think he senses my disappointment. So when I first read the script and got to that last scene, I thought, “Oh my God, this is so close to me, so close to what I believe right now is as a man in my life and my journey, I’ve got to do this role. I’ve got to do the best I can and get an audition piece up to send them a tape.” It was very inspiring to see the writing that Darius had done. 

GD: It’s such an incredible story. I can’t even imagine everything coming together for you in that way.

PR: When we were doing that scene, as a matter of fact, I’m just remembering now, I’m working with Riz in these close quarters and Darius Marder is standing in the corner and we did the first take and he’s weeping and I’m on the verge of tears and Riz. So we had to steal it up again. “We’re going to do it all over again.” And we only did two or three takes of every scene. There’s no more than three takes in this whole movie of every scene. But he’s standing there and I look up and tears are streaming out of his eyes. I’m thinking, “Well something must be wrong or something must be very right!” (Laughs.)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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