Apple TV+/AP
The film “CODA” stars Emilia Jones (left) as a hearing teen, with Troy Kotsur (right) and Marlee Matlin (not pictured) as her deaf parents.

How a director patiently fought for deaf actors in ‘CODA’ – and won

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Siân Heder, the writer and director of the new movie “CODA,” felt a strong need to cast deaf actors in a story about a teen who is the only hearing member in her family. But film financiers balked at the idea.

“‘CODA’ started out as a studio movie and it became very clear that the studio wasn’t going to make that movie,” says Ms. Heder in a video call. 

Why We Wrote This

Filmmakers don’t always have the luxury of patience when it comes to getting movies made. But the writer-director in this story stood up for the idea of deaf actors playing deaf roles, and her perseverance paid off.

The backstory about the making of “CODA” is how Ms. Heder and her cast persisted through challenges – much like the characters in the story. The crowd-pleaser, now showing in cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+, was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is generating Oscar buzz.

“CODA” (an acronym for “child of deaf adult”) is representative of deaf people in more ways than just its casting, which includes actor Marlee Matlin. Rather than offer up “a precious story about disability,” Ms. Heder says she wanted to normalize the deaf characters in a story that’s about familial bonds.

“That’s, to me, what the film is about: the resilience of family,” she says.

When Siân Heder first pitched “CODA,” a movie featuring several deaf characters, she struggled to be truly heard. 

Her movie is about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a teenager who is the only hearing member in a deaf household. (CODA is an acronym for “child of deaf adult.”) Ruby’s torn between her desire to pursue a singing career and her guilt about leaving her family, who make a living fishing in a Massachusetts coastal town. They’ve come to depend on her as their translator.

Ms. Heder, the writer and director, felt a strong need to cast deaf actors to play the Rossis. But film financiers balked at the idea.

Why We Wrote This

Filmmakers don’t always have the luxury of patience when it comes to getting movies made. But the writer-director in this story stood up for the idea of deaf actors playing deaf roles, and her perseverance paid off.

“‘CODA’ started out as a studio movie, and it became very clear that the studio wasn’t going to make that movie,” says Ms. Heder in a video call. “I felt clear that if they didn’t want to make it in the way I knew it should be made, then the movie shouldn’t exist.”

The backstory about the making of “CODA” is how Ms. Heder and her cast persisted through challenges – much like the characters in the story. The crowd-pleaser, now showing in cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+, was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is generating Oscar buzz. “CODA” is representative of deaf people in more ways than just its casting, which includes actor Marlee Matlin. Rather than offer up “a precious story about disability,” Ms. Heder says she wanted to normalize the deaf characters in a story that’s about resilience. It’s portrayed by actors Hollywood often neglects. 

“I’m glad the director stood firm on having deaf actors,” Rikki Poynter, a public speaker whose YouTube channel chronicles her experiences as a deaf person, writes in an email. “I love Marlee Matlin, she was someone I looked up to growing up because she was the only famous deaf person I knew at the time when I was a kid. But knowing all the deaf people and actors I do now, I do hope we get more of a chance to see them too!”

A re-imagined remake

“CODA” is a remake of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier.” Ms. Heder envisioned a fresh approach for her English-language adaptation. The Massachusetts-born writer and director took classes in American Sign Language. With the assistance of ASL masters, she translated approximately 40% of her script into sign language so that viewers can see her “words literally come to life.” (The film includes subtitles during scenes with signing.) Then she recruited Ms. Matlin to play Ruby’s mother in a role that’s both comedic and acerbic. Jackie Rossi doesn’t understand her daughter’s desire to use her singing talent to win a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. Her indignant response: “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” Speaking in an interview through an interpreter, Ms. Matlin says the storyline reminded her of her own experience as a precocious teen.

Apple TV+
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (left) and Emilia Jones play love interests in “CODA.”

“When Henry Winkler came to visit us at the Center on Deafness, I said, ‘Hi, I’m Marlee, I want to be an actor just like you in Hollywood,’” recalls Ms. Matlin, who won the Oscar for best actress for her debut movie, “Children of a Lesser God.” “My mom, being a mom who wanted to protect me, said to Henry, ‘Don’t encourage her too much because the scenario of a deaf actor in Hollywood won’t happen. People will dismiss Marlee.’ And Henry looked at her, turned around, and said to me, ‘Marlee, you can be whatever you want to be as long as you believe in yourself and follow your heart.’”

Unlike the original French movie, which featured a hearing cast, Ms. Heder and Ms. Matlin took a stand for hiring deaf actors. Opportunities for such actors remain scarce in Hollywood. Consequently, they lost backing for the movie. But Ms. Heder had learned a thing or two about perseverance. Her first short film, “Mother,” was rejected from 11 film festivals before it was accepted into competition at Cannes. Her next movie, “Tallulah,” a 2016 feature starring Elliot Page and Allison Janney, took nine years to make.

“There were so many instances where I would run into people and they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re still trying to get that [Tallulah] made?’ You know, with this sort of judgment,” says Ms. Heder. “I did listen to that voice inside myself that said, ‘Keep going and this will happen.’ And I think the same is true for ‘CODA.’” 

Empowering the characters

The director found new backers who believed “CODA” would find an audience. Having grown up in Massachusetts, Ms. Heder set “CODA” in the coastal town of Gloucester rather than on a dairy farm like in the original movie. Each morning before school, Ruby and her family venture out on their trawler to haul up nets clotted with fish. The Rossis receive meager pay for their catch, and they feel like outsiders in the community. Yet Ms. Heder was careful to steer clear of the Hollywood tropes of depicting people with disabilities as saints, martyrs, or characters to feel sorry for. 

“That victim mentality is antiquated. It’s an old way of thinking. We don’t need pity or help or saving,” says Troy Kotsur, who plays Ruby’s father, Frank, speaking through an interpreter. “There are so many successful deaf attorneys, teachers, doctors, dentists, you name it. They’re out there. They’re just overlooked and we’re a minority. And now with the movie ‘CODA,’ we’re heroes.”

The Rossi family members affectionately tease each other with salty language and delight in embarrassing Ruby with frankness about sex. As the daughter of Hungarian and Welsh immigrants, Ms. Heder identified with that family dynamic. The protagonist’s struggle to be individuated outside of her clan reflects her own experience. She describes “CODA” as a coming-of-age story not just for Ruby, but also her mother, father, and brother. 

“Those bonds and those ties continue and persevere, even under incredible strain and within circumstances that you think would pull them apart,” says Ms. Heder. “That’s, to me, what the film is about: the resilience of family.”

“CODA” is available in theaters and on Apple TV+. It is rated PG-13 for drug use, language, and strong sexual content.

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