Q·Transcript

CODA star Troy Kotsur on his historic Oscar nomination

In an interview with Q's Tom Power, the actor shared how he drew on his personal experience to play a Deaf father of a hearing child.

In a Q interview, the actor shared how he drew on his own experience to play a Deaf father of a hearing child

Troy Kotsur, nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the film CODA, poses for a photo at Red Rock Park in Mesa, Ariz., on Jan. 28, 2022. (AP/Matt York)

ASL Interpretation provided by Justin Maurer.

Tom Power 

Troy, welcome to the show and congratulations.

Troy Kotsur 

Thank you so much Tom, and thank you for having me. It's been an extremely exciting year, to say the least.

Tom Power 

What went through your mind when you found out about the nominations?

Troy Kotsur 

It felt like I've worked so hard for such a long time. It's been such a struggle. I feel like I've received an honorary PhD, if you know what I mean... That's what the Oscar nomination means to me. I feel truly blessed.

Tom Power 

Your character in CODA is Frank Rossi, a fisherman, a husband, and a father. He's a tough guy just trying to provide for his family. What drew you to this role?

Troy Kotsur 

When I first read the script and I saw the vulgarities in ASL, I was extremely thrilled to showcase what that looks like on the big screen. Because us Deaf people have seen your hearing swear words over subtitles throughout the years, and finally, I had an opportunity to showcase that side of Deaf culture. Also, it's so important to recognize the CODAs (Child of Deaf Adults) out there. There are so many CODAs out there, including my interpreter, who's also a real life CODA. And Frank (Rossi) is a working class tough guy who is not a victim. He's a hero. So it's a really beautiful story that's inspiring.

Tom Power 

You are not wrong about the vulgarities! They show up in the first, like, five minutes and I have to say I was caught a bit off guard. (laughs)

Troy Kotsur 

See what I mean? That's exactly what I mean. It's fresh for you hearing people to experience what the vulgarities in ASL may look like.

WATCH | Official trailer for CODA:

Tom Power 

So, the famous Marlee Matlin, the first Deaf actor to win an Oscar, plays your wife in the film. I got to talk to Marlene on this show and it's always such a joy. How did you two build the chemistry to become the married couple that you are in the film?

Troy Kotsur 

Marlee has known me for a pretty long time. She would come and see my performances at Deaf West Theatre on stage and we would chat a bit afterwards. So we came to know each other a bit... and so when CODA came up, Marlee thought of me. I was thrilled because we both knew our responsibilities and what would be best for the production. We really had fun, we had the trust, and we had the same language of ASL. It was a blessing. It's not quite often you see more than one Deaf character portrayed in a film. It's typically just been one. We had an ensemble of three, including Daniel Durant, who plays my son Leo in the film. It was a thrilling experience.

Tom Power 

What conversations did you and Marlee have in order to build that relationship on screen?

Troy Kotsur 

That's a really interesting question. I would improv sometimes without warning, and she would know how to react in real time in that situation. We had that trust. We were so passionate to give our all to this film as much as possible. And we got together several times before the first day of shooting early on, and we were in touch over the phone, and we discussed our characters, and what type of sign language they would use in that regional area near Boston and that fishing community. She was extremely experienced working on many film projects, and she knew what to expect before we got on set and I feel like we really developed that relationship early on. In the Deaf community, it's so easy to bump into each other because it's a small world. But it was so touching that she told me that I was on her bucket list of actors to work with. She got what she wanted, and it was so touching to hear her say that. It really meant a lot to me.

Tom Power 

I bet it did. That's so beautiful. And it's not just you and Marlee, the whole family in the film CODA feels very realistic. I understand you're a father yourself. As a parent, how did you relate to the father in CODA?

Troy Kotsur 

Yes, I I have a daughter who happens to be a real life CODA. She's a teenager, and she's almost the same age as the character Ruby in our film. Seeing what Ruby went through, I could kind of instantly relate that to my daughter's real-life experience. And so Emilia Jones as Ruby, she really reminded me in many ways of my daughter. She missed her dad when we were shooting, and I missed my daughter. I was able to have that connection with Emilia because we were together 24/7 And we went through it. 

Troy Kotsur 

You know, with my daughter, she will interpret for me at the drive-through. But of course, in a more serious situation, I wouldn't rely on my daughter to interpret unless she really wanted to. It would be up to her... in the doctor's office, or courthouse or something like that, it's good to keep my real-life daughter out of it, and use a professional interpreter. Now friends are coming up to my daughter at school and saying "Is your dad in this movie? Is he an Oscar nominee?" My daughter's a little bit embarrassed, but a little bit proud. It's amazing how this movie has influenced the Deaf community out there, including in Canada who also use ASL. 

Tom Power 

Did you talk to your daughter when you took on this role? I mean, it must have been exciting for her on on a number of levels. 

Troy Kotsur 

She seemed to not understand how the film process worked. Then after the film came out, my daughter was sitting with me and her jaw was dropped. She felt proud. She can be proud of her identity as a CODA. Just like my interpreter today, who's a real life CODA and her friends out there. Real-life CODAs are grateful that we're sharing this story. There was this one scene between Jackie and Frank, a love scene, where my daughter covered her eyes. She was very embarrassed. But hey, sex education is important! (laughs) 

Tom Power 

Yeah, this is a public service that you're doing. (laughs)

Troy Kotsur 

Exactly. Let the movie speak for itself.

Tom Power 

There's a moment in the film that I found really, really powerful. The daughter in CODA (Ruby, played by Emilia Jones) wants to be a singer, and there's a really beautiful scene where your character (Frank) puts his hands on her neck, and asks her to sing. Can you tell me about the significance of that moment?

Troy Kotsur 

Absolutely, that's one of my favourite scenes. We're sitting on the back of that pickup truck. We had gone earlier to see Ruby's recital, and Frank was impressed at the audience's reaction to his daughter singing. If folks would have fallen asleep or looked at their phone, it would have meant she was a lousy singer. But Frank was able to read the hearing audience's reaction. Of course, he couldn't hear his daughter singing, but he saw it. So Frank wanted to understand Ruby's passion for music and the power of it. So we sat very close, about a foot apart on the back of this pickup truck. As she was singing, I couldn't "hear" her still because it wasn't loud enough. I wanted to feel her vocal cords, so I asked her to turn the volume up. Then I saw her facial expression as she was singing. It looked so different than everyday life... And then as Frank Rossi, I close my eyes and really delve into this moment. At that moment of connection between father and daughter, that eye contact even without dialogue, without words, without sign language, there was just a powerful energy there, that was palpable, and I'm so happy that the camera was there to capture it.

Tom Power 

The parents in this film rely on their daughter to interpret for them and keep them connected to their community. Earlier you told me about your daughter and how she will interpret for you at the drive-through. As an actor, and as you do media for this film, how much trust needs to exist between you and your interpreter?

Troy Kotsur 

It's extremely important to have that trust for several reasons. After interviews, I'll read the transcript. And I'll see if it's exactly what I said. That means the interpretation was good. It's important to have a relationship with your interpreter, so that the interpreter knows me well, knows my sense of humour, jokes, and knows what I'm thinking. If I meet a new interpreter, the interpreter wouldn't be used to me or my personality. It's important to have that trust and that background in that relationship. And it's important for them to know what the interpreter role is ethically, and know their boundaries.  I want the crew to be able to have fun and when I'm not on set, of course, the interpreter can have their own conversations. But when I show up, the interpreter, of course, has to sign because I'm in the room. Some interpreters will still use their voice, and they'll forget that their role is there as an interpreter. So there's a lot of concerns, and I've done a lot of screenings of interpreters.

Tom Power 

I wanted to talk to you a bit about acting. You spent most of your career on stage as an actor. How different is it signing and acting on camera than it is on stage?

Troy Kotsur 

Oh, that's a great question that I haven't heard for a long time. When you're signing on stage, you have to sign a bit bigger. But you don't want to become monotone. You have to experiment with the size of your signing on stage... There's a difference between stage and TV or film. The way I sign on stage, it might be too much for the camera, too expressive, too exaggerated. The camera is extremely sensitive. You can have close ups and mid shots. It's important to know the difference. Also on film or TV, you can have several takes, but you only have one take on stage because of course it's live. And so that's the big difference. But it's important to have that experience and know the difference between traversing those worlds.

Tom Power 

You also have TV experience. You have a long and storied IMDb page, and what stuck out to me was The Mandalorian. I know you're a Star Wars fan. What is it like to walk on to the set of something like that?

Troy Kotsur 

I felt like I was actually physically walking through the screen into Star Wars being on set.  I was a fan since the age of eight, and I was fascinated in how they set everything up. They had these blue walls as a giant green screen that they used for the special effects and computer animation. It was so fun to see the process, as well as to wear the Tusken Raider costume and to see those land cruisers. I watched the show back afterwards, and wow, it was truly magic. And it was so fun for me to be able to create Tusken Sign Language!  It was so amazing to see that sign language finally in the Star Wars franchise since the '70s. Right?

Tom Power 

Yeah! What a trip for you too. 

Yeah, I really miss being a part of it. It's the third season that I've worked with The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett as well. That's the new one. There's also Tusken Sign Language in the book of Boba Fett, which is thrilling.

Tom Power 

I want to go back to CODA. CODA is being released with the subtitles "burned in", so everyone in the audience can watch it together without an extra captioning device. What's the response to the movie been like?

Before our movie was released, Apple TV asked us whether it was important to have the rear-window captioning devices that are in theatres. I told them from my experience that a lot of times the battery is dead, the theatre is not prepared, or they forget to charge them. Sometimes I miss the first fifteen minutes of a movie because the theatre isn't prepared for Deaf moviegoers, or they just don't even consider us. Instead they give us free movie vouchers to go to the next movie. And so I would go 30 minutes early to the next movie to problem solve and deal with technical issues before the movie even starts. So to put that burned-in captioning in our film has just been a game-changer. When I've been sitting in the audience watching our film -- hearing and deaf, and hard-of-hearing people, and older folks with hearing loss -- everyone is able to react together simultaneously, and laugh together and cry together. Open  captioning really benefits everyone. And it's friendly access for everyone. So it's been amazing and quite impactful. Now I don't have to use that cup-holder thing. I can show up late for a movie and it automatically has captioning. And I don't have to worry about tech support. I'm safe. I can just put my arm around my wife rather than fiddle with a captioning device in my cupholder. 

Tom Power 

Yeah, I am embarrassed to say I didn't know that much about it until I spoke to the producer of this interview. Her sister is Deaf, nd she told me that those machines are almost always in short supply or broken when you go into a theater.

Troy Kotsur 

Yeah. Recently, about a month ago, my wife and I went to the movies and the theatre only had two captioning devices. One of them died, so we set it aside, and I had to share my wife's device. And we were both craning our necks to see the words. 

Tom Power 

That's not the kind of cuddling you want to do at the movie theater.

Troy Kotsur 

Exactly. (laughs) If my daughter's next to me, people will think like, "What is this guy doing with such a young girlfriend?" There's a reason I've got to lean in. I have to see the captioning device to understand what's going on in the film!

Tom Power 

Okay, two questions left. What's a piece of feedback you've received from someone who has seen this movie that has been particularly meaningful to you?

Troy Kotsur 

For a lot of hearing people, it's a new experience and to see the perspective of what it CODA's life must be like, there's been a lot of positive feedback. A lot of CODAs have reached out to me and said thank you. They're feeling more confidence in their self-identity and self-worth as CODAs. Some of their feedback has been: "When's the sequel going to come out?" I always say we'll let the producers decide. We'll wait and see. 

Tom Power 

Final question. What are you going to wear to the Oscars?

Troy Kotsur 

You know, I really don't know yet. There are so many people who have been sending me different brands and recommending them to me. I only know Walmart and Kmart. (laughs) But I do ask Marlee Matlin for her advice, because she's quite experienced on the red carpet. But this is all new to me.

Tom Power 

A pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much and congratulations on the film. 

Troy Kotsur 

Thank you so much, Tom. Thank you for having me here today, and thanks to our interpreter (Justin Maurer).


Produced by Vanessa Greco.

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