1st-time Oscar nominee Paul Raci discovered acting by interpreting films for his deaf parents
In the critically acclaimed film Sound of Metal, Raci plays the head of a shelter for deaf people
Paul Raci has been kicking around Hollywood for more than 30 years, playing bit parts on everything from L.A. Law to Parks and Recreation.
Now, for his first major role in a film, the 73-year-old actor has earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
In Sound of Metal, Raci plays Joe, the head of a sober shelter for people who are deaf. The film's protagonist is a young heavy metal drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) who reluctantly seeks help at Joe's organization after he begins to lose his hearing.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect role for the veteran actor, who was born to two deaf parents and is also a professional American Sign Language interpreter.
"I knew what to do," said Raci in an interview with Tom Power on CBC Radio's Q.
WATCH | Paul Raci's full interview with Q's Tom Power:
Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, Raci was his parents' interpreter to the hearing world.
There wasn't much support for the deaf community at that point — television wasn't closed captioned, there were no devices for texting and jobs for sign language interpretation didn't exist.
"I was the go-between when my father needed to negotiate a contract whether it be our mortgage or my mother dealing with the gas company," said Raci. "I'm a little kid, less than seven years old, negotiating between the hearing man and my deaf parents."
Raci remembers the cruelty of children at that time, as kids would publicly mock his parents on the bus. He also recalls getting involved in some scary situations as his parents' interpreter.
"My mother and father put down some earnest money on a house on the north side of Chicago. I don't remember the details, but it got all messed up and we had to go back to that house and get that money back," he said.
"I had to do that negotiation.... It's not a situation that children should be put into."
I'm a little kid, less than seven years old, negotiating between the hearing man and my deaf parents.- Paul Raci
Through his parents, Raci also discovered his love of acting. Around the age of eight, he and his mother watched Love Me Tender in theatres. Realizing that there was no way for his mother to understand the dialogue, Raci acted out all the roles in sign language.
"I had to crane my neck and interpret every character — Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley, the whole Civil War story," explained Raci.
"She's just loving it…. I thought to myself on the way home, I just did every part in this movie. I was acting."
Raci's life took many turns before becoming an actor. He was drafted in the army in 1969 and enlisted in the Navy for four years to avoid the jungles of Vietnam. When he returned in 1973, he learned that sign language interpretation had become a profession. Raci resisted at first and worked as a whiskey truck driver before becoming a professional interpreter.
For the past 35 years, he's been working as a court interpreter in Illinois and California. In between murder cases, divorce trials and traffic tickets, Raci would run out for auditions, and to perform in television and theatre. Sound of Metal is his first major part in a film.
"It's unbelievable. It's emotional. It's gratifying after the years and years and years I've put into this profession," said Raci.
"I feel like the Academy's added 20 years to my life."
WATCH | Official trailer for Sound of Metal:
Raci is now using his platform to bring greater awareness to how the deaf community is treated in Hollywood.
"All throughout the years, there have been times when hearing actors are cast as deaf people. Now, that's a major sin right there," said Raci.
"We all know in the deaf community, there are deaf actors, men and women who are highly, highly skilled, highly intuitive, highly intelligent, that are not given a chance for many reasons. But they're tired of it. They're sick of it.
"What I'm going to make sure happens, if I have anything to say about it, now that people are listening — we need to see more protagonists that just happen to be deaf. There are great actors out there. If you're going to have a deaf character, then it should be authentically portrayed with a deaf actor."
The 93rd Academy Awards take place on Sunday, April 25.
Written by Jane van Koeverden. Interview produced by Stuart Berman.