When high schooler Ruby Rossi’s parents sit her down to give her the sex talk, they do it in American Sign Language (ASL). Ruby, whose first language is ASL, is mortified because her crush, who had come over to rehearse their duet for an upcoming recital, is seated next to her on the couch. Although he doesn’t understand ASL, there are some signs so explicit they’re universal.
It’s a small, sparkling moment like this that attracted Marlee Matlin to CODA. For Matlin, who portrays Ruby’s mum, getting the script from writer-director Sian Heder was a revelation. “You always hope to read something great. I remember not wanting it to end and not being able to put it down,” Matlin tells me over Zoom. “And I knew that this was something priceless, something that I had to be in. I didn’t have a single moment of doubt. It couldn’t have been more authentic as a script.”
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family—a CODA, or child of deaf adults. After she discovers a gift for singing, she is drawn towards pursuing it at Berklee College of Music. But she’s torn between two worlds; the Rossis run an expanding fishing business out of their Massachusetts town and depend on Ruby as their bridge to the hearing world.
Ruby, her father Frank (Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) share a life coloured by casual, warm-hearted chaos. Their home life is scored by clattering pots and pans, flashing light alarms, and the rapid crossfire of signing—whether it’s name-calling (ever thought you’d learn the sign for ‘twat waffle’?) or advising Leo on potential love matches (because Tinder is an activity they can do “as a family”, as Jackie puts it to Ruby).
CODA will be released in August on Apple TV+ after a record-obliterating bidding war at January’s Sundance Film Festival. It may not be the only movie to feature deaf actors playing deaf characters, but it’s the first to do so—Matlin, Kotsur and Durant are deaf—and sell for US$25 million.
It very nearly wasn’t. Matlin was the first actor Heder hired for CODA and the project’s financiers were determined to stop at one deaf performer. Matlin dug her heels in and threatened to walk unless they agreed to cast deaf actors in the other deaf roles. “So you see what happens when you make noise? You make great things happen,” Matlin says. “It won four awards at Sundance; the recognition has never been afforded like before. And it got an overwhelming response.”
Like Matlin, who has four hearing children of her own, Jackie is a mum who works hard to connect with her hearing kid. And like Matlin, she has a megawatt smile and a ribald sense of humour, but that’s where the similarities end. Jackie is terrified to lose her baby to the world and goes so far as to snipe at Ruby, “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” after the teenager confesses her dreams of singing.
“It’s time for Hollywood to tell more stories that include deaf actors”
Matlin cringed every time she had to repeat that line for a take. “Where did she come up with that attitude?” she asks. “What mother would say that?” But she made the role her own, creating an accent for Jackie that saw her signing more forcefully than she would in real life. The result is a portrait of a mother-daughter relationship that had me and my own mother, watching CODA over the course of an afternoon together, in teary puddles by the end. (When I tell Matlin this, she asks to say hi. Over protestations that she’s still in her pyjamas, I pull my startled mother into the room to greet an Academy Award winner.)
In 1987, Matlin clinched a Best Actress Oscar for her stunning debut in the previous year’s Children of a Lesser God. She remains the youngest actress ever awarded and the only deaf performer ever even nominated. That night, she thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences through her interpreter, Jack Jason, who remains her confidante, producing partner and translator (including for our interview).
Matlin hoped that her victory would be a broadside against offensive and inadequate disability representation onscreen, and bring about real change. But she’s been exceedingly open about the dearth of complex roles for deaf actors that she’s come across between her first film and CODA.
Still, Matlin persists. She works with non- profit organisations, educational companies and the Academy. Every project she takes on is another chance to explain, advocate and educate. She breaks the ice by surprising the cast and crew with pizza and chicken wings. Many of them are willing to listen, and learn to sign at least the most important words: ‘rolling’, ‘quiet’, ‘take’, ‘wrap’ and ‘lunch’. Farther and fewer between are instances like the time she was starring on Reasonable Doubts (an early ’90s police drama where Matlin picked up two Golden Globe nominations) and a Warner Bros suit showed up on set during filming, nudged the executive producer, and said, “You know, Marlee Matlin is great. Is she going to be deaf for the entire series?”
CODA, in particular, felt different. Writer-director Heder, who is hearing, went the extra mile in creating a safe, inclusive set for everyone involved with the production. She asked questions and listened to the answers. Even with two directors of sign language and a team of interpreters on set, the entire crew learnt to sign. “I never had so much fun working on a film as I did this one,” Matlin says. What’s more, the ASL in the movie will be subtitled, rather than translated, which was “so crucial”, as she explains. “It allowed us accessibility as actors, and for audiences to watch us as actors. It’s a no-brainer.”
Still, as she puts it now: “There’s still a lot of work to do. It takes a village.” She has been asking filmmakers and executives to cast disabled actors in disabled roles for the better part of 35 years. In the meantime, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Redmayne, Holly Hunter and more than 20 other non-disabled actors have won Oscars for portraying disabled characters. Last year, a study found that only 2.3 percent of all speaking characters across the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 were depicted with a disability.
“So you see what happens when you make noise? You make great things happen”
Another found that 80 percent of all disabled characters on television are portrayed by non-disabled actors. This is to say nothing of how these characters were portrayed; the report notes that more often than not, even when authentically cast, disability is still shown to be “undesired, depressing and limiting”.
“The bottom line is, I think it’s time for Hollywood to tell more stories that include deaf actors. And not just actors—writers, producers, make-up artists, costumers, whatever it may be. We need to give them a chance,” Matlin says. “It’s long overdue, very long overdue. I’m not complaining. It’s just the fact.”
In addition to CODA, there are other indications that 2021 is a watershed year for disability representation in entertainment. Stories about disabled characters were given Oscar nods (Sound of Metal, Feeling Through and Crip Camp), and audiences were introduced to real deaf college students (Deaf U ), a tale of a girl in a wheelchair exploring her sexuality (4 Feet High) and the first movie musical to star disabled actors (Best Summer Ever). Come November, we’ll get Marvel’s first deaf superhero, played by a deaf actress, in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals.
“I’m excited,” Matlin says. She wants more: universal captioning, more funding for schools for the deaf, aid to deaf people struggling in rehabilitation and the justice system. And she wants more stories about deaf characters. “I don’t want this to be, for lack of a better description, the flavour of the year, the flavour of the month, the flavour of the day. I don’t want that. I don’t think we’re supposed to stop here. We need to continue.”
Marlee Matlin stars in CODA, which will be released on Apple TV+ on 13 August.