Troy Kotsur made history with his Oscar nomination for “CODA,” becoming the first male deaf actor to earn recognition for acting. In the Apple TV+ crowdpleaser, the actor plays Frank, a foul-mouthed but loving patriarch of a mostly deaf family.
Kotsur spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen in December about earning awards recognition for his performance, working alongside costars Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant and Emilia Jones and why he’s excited about the future. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: I want to start by asking about all of this awards attention that you’ve received recently. You won the Gotham Award. You have other big nominations like Critics Choice, Independent Spirit. I’m curious what you’ve thought of all this attention and actually, also how your character of Frank would feel about getting this kind of attention.
Troy Kotsur: Well, when I first got the role. I thought, “I’m just going to give it my best,” and I’ve been doing this for about 28 years now. I’ve had that training, but bringing my best to the screen, I was surprised that it wasn’t just about my voice or lack of it or my appearance, it was my emotions and how I could convey them on the screen to be equivalent to spoken language and the emotions that those evoke. And I’m glad that people are starting to recognize, sometimes, silence is powerful, if you know what I mean, and everything is visual for deaf people and without signing, without even spoken language, the eyes can tell you so much, and it’s amazing how I’ve gotten here. It’s such a blessing. There are so many talented people out there and to be a part of working with this class of elite actors, I mean, I never thought that would happen to me. I was excited to be a part of it, and my hope would be that maybe I could share the deaf experience and present that so that people would have a little bit more of an open mind and that opportunities would start to happen. But this is the new beginning for me, and I’m excited to see where this journey takes me.
GD: And what do you think that Frank would actually have to say about getting all of this attention?
TK: I think, that’s funny you ask. I’m from Arizona. There’s no ocean to speak of and I had never seen a whale before and it was so transformational to transition to Frank being in another state where there is an ocean, and I was able to see a whale and various fish and be part of the fisherman industry, and we trained for two weeks before we even started shooting. That helped me to grow into character and the costume, these heavy clothes, these big boots, the heavy gloves, it’s not easy to sign in that kind of a costume, so we had to figure that out and how to use the equipment. “Oh yeah, we need this one, the stick with the spike on it, the hammer,” and all of that became fluid and trying to use FSL, Fishing Sign Language, to use their lingo and develop that and grow into character to develop Frank, and then also, we socialized with real fishermen on a daily basis, and their schedule was so odd. They get up two, three o’clock in the morning and start working through the night because that’s the best time to catch the fish. That’s where you’ll get the best returns, and then when you’re done at nine or 10 o’clock, that’s bar time. Even though it’s in the morning, I was not used to that. Most people go to the bar in the evening, but not in the morning. So that was a little bit unsettling, but that influenced me so that for 30 days, that’s who Frank was. And then after I left, I did struggle to disconnect from the character and the schedule. It took me about six months until I finally shaved my beard. I wasn’t even ready to let go of that. I do miss Frank as a character.
GD: Yeah, I can see why, and I also want to talk about some of your cast members here, starting with Marlee Matlin, who plays Frank’s wife, Jackie. What did the two of you agree on as the right approach for how to play the scenes between the two of you where you just can’t get enough of each other?
TK: Well, what I liked is that as another deaf actor, we weren’t dependent on sound. There was this physical contact, this skin-to-skin touch, but in general, with spoken scenes, it’s there, but the energy, you want that affection and there was Jackie and we were always horny for each other and it didn’t matter if we were making a lot of noise. We forgot that Ruby, a damn hearing kid, can hear what’s going on in the next room, if you know what I mean.
GD: Oh, yeah (laughs). Well, there’s also Daniel Durant, who plays your son and the two of you spend so much time together as a pair, also. Did you find in any way that you were inhabiting a kind of fatherly role for him on set?
TK: That’s an interesting question. Daniel grew up with two mothers and he never had the opportunity to have a father in his life. But Daniel and I connected and it felt like I was his real father and that he was my son, because I think he needed somebody that had been through experiences like marriage, and I would consult him on things like that, and we lived together at an Airbnb for two months and our relationship grew, we were always talking. So we connected both on and off set and we had that bond, and then all of that was expressed on the big screen, and it’s authentic, that chemistry. It’s there, and I can’t really imagine if I had never met him, another famous actor, would we feel comfortable working together? But he wasn’t like that. As the deaf cast, we just had a great bond that continued to grow and it’s very evident and authentic. How often do you see a family like this? And if so, I’d like to hear about it.
GD: Yeah, it is extremely authentic and actually, one of the more authentic scenes that I have to mention is one that you share with Emilia Jones on the bed of the truck where she’s singing for you and you’re feeling the vibrations and it’s such a tender moment. Can you describe working on that scene with Emilia and also whether you’ve had a moment like that before with another person where you bonded on that level?
TK: I can remember it distinctly with my real-life daughter, and then with Emilia. It was the same dynamic. They’re about the same age and I can remember when my daughter was six, and it was the first time she sang for me and I just sat there. But I’d seen some hearing people crying, and I thought, “What’s the big deal? Oh, good, I’m happy for you, but doesn’t do anything for me.” But then 20 years down the road, now I’m in “CODA” and we have this scene where Ruby, the CODA, is singing and I’m there and it gave me a flashback to that prior experience. It was amazing. I think it had been something missing in terms of access to sound for singing, and every time I have hearing friends and we get together, they talk about how wonderful music is, and I said, it doesn’t really matter to me. Like, so what? Whatever. I liked Kiss because they’re very visual, they’re pretty crazy in their presentation. I remember that, but then with my daughter singing and learning piano and learning guitar, I just had to try to be patient with it and I said, “I can’t be selfish and take her passion and say, ‘Oh, you have to follow things in a deaf culture kind of way,’” in my real life. And for me, I’m happy for my daughter that she can have these opportunities and I don’t have full access to that, I’m just trying to be supportive. And sure enough, Ruby gets a scholarship to Berkeley, and Frank thinks, “Oh, that saves me some money. That’s a nice turn of events.”
That scene on the back of a truck that you mentioned, I looked over at her and everything Frank saw, Ruby’s face as she was singing, her expressions, how she articulated the song, Frank still can’t hear it, but he’s fascinated. And then Frank wonders what her voice is like. So that’s why he touches her neck to feel those vibrations and she was singing softly and Frank said, “Sing more loudly so I can really feel it.” And he does, and then after that happens, Frank has a hard decision. It’s kind of a half smile, half pride, and he doesn’t know how to respond. He’s wondering how Jackie feels, and it’s a hard decision. And then, I want to let the audience at that point make their own interpretation of things. You have this eye contact without saying anything, without using your voice, without signing. The audience can see that tender moment between the father and the daughter as they lock eyes and to take that in, that’s what we wanted to present, and let the audience come to their own conclusions. If you read a poem, there are so many different interpretations, if you know what I mean.
GD: Yeah, that’s right, and every time I’ve watched this film, which is a few times now, I cry every time. So, job well done between the two of you on that scene.
TK: Thank you.
GD I’ve also heard that there’s a lot of improv on the set, especially from you, and you have so many great little moments. I love that Frank just doesn’t really care what other people think. Did you have a favorite Frank moment or something he says or does that you came up with personally that you’re proud of?
TK: I love Frank using the dirty sign language. So my question is then, is the hearing audience ready to see our graphic language? Look, my whole life, I’m 53.5 at this point, and I’ve seen so many movies with graphic language and cursing, whether it’s gangster rap, Japanese culture, but what about ASL? Where’s our use of dirty language? And I said to myself, “Finally, it’s about time that I can show some dirty sign language on the big screen!” But, are you ready for it, is the question.
GD: Well, I was very ready for it, I’ll say that.
TK: Well, there you go! That’s good. And there’s just so much to draw from and so much about the story just comes together, but we’ll start with “CODA” from now and we’ll see where this goes.
GD: Oh, yeah. Well, I know just from looking at your theater work that you’ve done things like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and I saw you did a live reading of “Sunset Boulevard” with Marlee recently. And it actually got me wondering what other stories, what classic films would you even want to do in the future if you had the opportunity?
TK: It’s interesting you ask, because growing up, I had all these dreams, and then I realized after years that I had all these roadblocks because everybody was so focused on sound and music and background noise and things like that, and I didn’t have access to that. I’m visual, and for years, since the 1930s, back then they did silent films, Charlie Chaplin, and they had subtitles, and the hearing and deaf audience members had equal access to everything that was happening, and then after they added sound to movies, at that point, that’s where the deaf and hearing audience became divided for years, decades. And then finally, there were subtitles or captions and all that B.S., pardon my language, and then here we have “CODA.” And finally, we get the chance to have the hearing and deaf worlds come together in what had been missing for all those years and to have that shared experience. And I feel like with “CODA,” it’s bringing people together again with a common experience, if you know what I’m talking about.
GD: Absolutely. Well, I’m curious now, having had the success of “CODA,” what kind of opportunities are you looking for, moving forward? Do you want to do more film and TV? Do you want to go back to theater? What is the future for Troy Kotsur?
TK: I’m just so excited that there’s an opportunity for more representation, to be recognized, and for people to be part of the deaf and hard of hearing experience and to celebrate that. I think this lends to that and then to increase the knowledge and understanding of sign language that has been overlooked for so long. Really, everyone, including you, is very reliant on the acoustics, but you forget about the visual aspects, and sign language has been around for over 200 years now, American Sign Language. This is what we’ve been waiting for, and now with “CODA,” this is a wonderful opportunity to try to enhance the awareness of diverse communities, and if you have a family member, a cousin or an uncle or an aunt that happens to be born deaf, and you’ve seen “CODA,” then you know how to best communicate with them.
To watch this same interview with closed captions, click the CC button on the video below:
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