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'CODA' star explains how a real-life moment led to an emotional scene on screen

The movie is nominated for three Academy Awards, and the cast hopes it will change how deaf actors are perceived.
/ Source: TODAY

The hit movie “CODA” is not just entertaining audiences. It’s also sending a powerful message.

The film follows a CODA, which stands for “child of deaf adults,” whose dream of following her passion for singing comes into conflict with her family’s struggling fishing business. The movie is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture and best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur. It also stars Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, who says the film is important.

“When I saw the script, it was gold,” she said while appearing Friday on TODAY with co-stars Kotsur, Emilia Jones and Daniel Durant. “I saw gold in it and it’s something I’ve been waiting for for 35 years for something like this.

"And I was truly excited that it was really happening and I thank Sian Heder, who wrote the script and directed the movie, and for so many years I’ve been saying to people there are deaf actors out there. I’m not the only one. So, now I can say I’m not alone anymore.”

Emilia Jones, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur have helped make "CODA" a hit.
Emilia Jones, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur have helped make "CODA" a hit.Alamy

Matlin, who won an Academy Award for “Children of a Lesser God,” says she hopes having real deaf actors headline a movie signals a shift in cinema.

“I call the deaf people in the background tokenism, not to put down anybody in the past who might’ve created roles and played deaf actors,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever seen three authentic deaf actors carrying a film like we do in this movie. And it should’ve been this way for the longest time. And, hopefully, it’ll be this way forever.”

Kotsur, who became the first deaf actor to win an individual SAG Award for his role in the movie and is the first deaf male actor to receive an Oscar nomination, also believes “CODA” lets people understand what it’s like being deaf and that the project had all the elements to resonate with audiences.

The "CODA" cast in West Hollywood, California, on July 30, 2021.Getty Images

“Historically, you tended to just have one deaf role from time to time, but with our film, ‘CODA,’ we have an ensemble cast of three and it shows what conversational ASL is really like and gives a birds-eye view into our culture, which is extremely rare,” he said. “It was a rare opportunity to show that and that’s why we’re making such (an) impact. We had the right script, the right director and the right team that had faith in casting authentic actors.”

Durant also says there’s a simple reason why “CODA” has struck a chord with so many people.

“The thing I love about this movie is that it’s about family. Everyone can connect with that,” he said.

28th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Show
Troy Kotsur accepts the award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role for "CODA" at the SAG Awards on Feb. 27, 2022 in Santa Monica, California. Rich Fury / Getty Images

“This movie shows us that we’re strong, the chemistry is real,” he added. “We feel like a family and we still feel like a family, so we’re so lucky this is a perfect cast.”

“The family that you see on-screen is the family that we are in real life,” Jones said.

“CODA” also features a moving scene in which Kotsur’s character puts his hand on the neck of his daughter, played by Jones, so he can feel what it’s like for her to sing.

Kotsur and Matlin in a scene from "CODA."
Kotsur and Matlin in a scene from "CODA."Apple

“Because we were close, we got emotional,” Jones said. “We were trying to figure out a way that Troy could feel the vibrations. I was trying to sing louder and Troy kind of pulled away from me and said, ‘I’d give anything to hear you sing right now’ because we were so close. I started crying. Troy kind of folded me into one of his hugs and we just sat there for a second and Sian saw it and called ‘action’ and that’s the scene.

Kotsur said that moment had an immediate impact.

“All of our interpreters were in tears because all of our interpreters were CODAs and they missed their deaf parents right at that moment, so we had to really take a breath,” he said.