How Troy Kotsur of 'CODA' broke barriers as a deaf actor, on stage and on screen

Aug 8, 2021
Originally published on October 19, 2021 2:29 pm
NPR / YouTube

The new film CODA premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and a record-breaking distribution deal with Apple. One aspect of the film that awed both audiences and critics was the supporting performance by actor Troy Kotsur. He plays a father and fisherman in the story, struggling to understand his hearing daughter's dreams to sing.

Prior to the film's acclaimed Sundance debut, Kotsur has already been a pioneering star of stage and screen, honing his craft despite the structural limitations of an industry that hasn't always recognized his gifts. "If Troy were a person who could speak and hear, if he were a hearing person, his star would have risen many, many years ago," signs fellow actor David Kurs, who is also artistic director of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. "There is a deep respect for him and his work. And so to finally see him in a place where his work can be witnessed by a larger audience has been an inspiration."

Kostur's vulnerability, expressiveness and humor make him a wonderful actor, says CODA director Sian Heder. "Troy's an incredible improvisor and he's really funny," she says. "He's just a handsome, big guy who's got a great face on screen and I think he's got incredible charisma and presence. His ASL (American Sign Language) is really creative and really beautiful."

Troy Kotsur attends the CODA Los Angeles photo call on July 30, 2021 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images

Fisherman, father and acting force of nature

CODA centers on Ruby Rossi, a high school student who wants to be a singer. She's a 'Child of Deaf Adults,' the only hearing person in her family. Ruby's family rely on her to voice what they sign, code switching for the hearing world. She works on the family's boat with her brother, who's also deaf, and her father, played by Kotsur.

"He's kinda like a papa bear," Kotsur signs in ASL, American Sign Language. "There's humor, and that bond is very tight." As the film proceeds, Frank tries to understand and relate to why singing is so important to his daughter. In one poignant scene, he asks her to sing for him as he tenderly holds her neck to feel the reverberations.

Kotsur says the scene echoes an experience he once had with his own daughter. "A long time ago when she was in kindergarten, she sang for a class performance" he recalls. "I asked, 'can I just kind of feel your neck?' And it was very cute. And then all those years later, the movie CODA was a real flashback where I did the same thing. And now my daughter is learning how to play guitar. So sometimes I'll just touch her guitar so that I can feel her strumming."

Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in CODA.
Apple TV+

In CODA, Kotsur also voices a single word — Go. "It took me a long time to practice vocalizing that," he signs. "Sometimes I wasn't able to articulate it, because I can't hear the sound of my own voice. But I just followed my instinct and tried to tell it from my heart. It was really an honest deaf voice that was depicted."

A long road to stardom and on-screen inclusion

Troy Kotsur was born deaf in 1968. He grew up playing basketball in Mesa, Ariz., where his father was the police chief. He studied acting at Gallaudet University, then began touring internationally with The National Theatre of the Deaf. He eventually graduated to Broadway in the Tony Award-winning play Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

At the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, Kotsur was the lead in Cyrano and other productions. He often performed opposite Paul Raci, a hearing actor who recently starred in the Oscar-nominated film Sound of Metal. In those stage productions, Kotsur's lines were voiced offstage by a speaking actor. David Kurs the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, specifically remembers Kotsur playing a deaf Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

"When I saw him in that role, I was floored. I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor," Kurs signs in ASL. "There's the famous scene where Stanley screams 'Stella!' and Troy chose in that role to use his voice for that line. It seemed to me like he was making a choice to double the amount of pain or help that the character was calling for."

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in CODA
Apple TV+

Before his starring role in CODA, Kotsur has mostly played secondary, albeit diverse, parts on screen. "I like to play villains, then have police officers chase after me, which I did in Criminal Minds," he signs. "It's nice to see just kind of the range of the characters I portray and the diversity — romantic, mean, heroes — you name it." But he says he's struggled to make sure interpreters were on set.

When Kotsur begins reminiscing about his earliest memories of watching stories on screen, he lights up. "What changed my life so much is when I saw Star Wars, the original one, when I was 8 years old. I saw it 28 times," Kotsur recalls. "It was so visual, the costumes, it just blew me away. I watched it again and again. And it got me hoping that someday I could make a movie."

So he says it was a dream come true to be cast in the Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian. In the Emmy-nominated series, Kotsur plays one of the Tusken raiders from a tribe of nomads on the planet Tatooine. The actor also developed a fictional sign language for the Tuskens in the series. "We kept it really simple in terms of the hand shapes that were used. When the Tusken sees the Mandalorian, this is the sign: using this flat hand shape, it outlines the gaps in the Mandalorian's helmet." (For the creature that fans affectionately call Baby Yoda, Kotsur holds his hands on each side of his head to outline his big ears.)

Deaf artists deserve stories and opportunities

CODA filmmaker Sian Heder first saw Kotsur onstage at Deaf West Theatre in a staging of Our Town and Edward Albee play At Home at the Zoo. Now he's a key part of the on-screen ensemble that helped her film win the audience award at Sundance ahead of its streaming and theatrical debut as one of the most anticipated new releases of the year.

Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in CODA
Apple TV+

The filmmaker says she hopes Kotsur continues to get authentic – and expansive — roles that match his gifts. "There's incredible talent out there like Troy that writers should be writing for. Show runners should be pitching him as a character in their writer's room. Heder says. "So often, whether filmmakers or producers or studios are intimidated by having deaf cast or they don't know how to make their sets accessible, they're missing out on this brilliant performer."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Hollywood is not an easy industry to navigate for deaf actors. The new film "CODA" was one of the breakout hits of this year's Sundance Film Festival. And it tells the story of deafness and hearing through one family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CODA")

TROY KOTSUR: (As Frank Rossi, signing).

EMILIA JONES: (As Ruby Rossi) So was everywhere.

KOTSUR: (As Frank Rossi, signing).

JONES: (As Ruby Rossi) Yeah, I can't stay with you for the rest of my life.

MCCAMMON: One of the film's stars is the actor Troy Kotsur, who has had an extraordinary career onstage and screen and was born deaf. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this profile.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In "CODA" Troy Kotsur's tall, lanky, salty character Frank runs a fishing business in Gloucester, Mass. He works on his boat with his son, who's also deaf, and a daughter named Ruby, who is not. She has to code switch for her family, voicing what they sign with their hands. She wants to be a singer. And her father, Frank, tries to understand why singing is so important to her. In one scene, he asks her to show him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CODA")

JONES: (As Ruby Rossi, singing) You're all, all that I need...

DEL BARCO: Frank tenderly holds her neck to feel the reverberations as she sings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CODA")

JONES: (As Ruby Rossi, singing) ...To get by.

DEL BARCO: Kotsur says the scene in the movie echoes his life. He spoke to me through an interpreter using American Sign Language, ASL. The actor explains he had a similar experience with his own daughter.

KOTSUR: (Through interpreter) A long time ago, when she was in kindergarten, she sang for a class performance. I asked, you know, can I just kind of feel your neck? And it was very cute. And then all those years later, the movie "CODA" was a real flashback, where I did the same thing.

SIAN HEDER: Troy is a wonderful actor.

DEL BARCO: Sian Heder directed "CODA," which was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

HEDER: He's just a handsome, big guy. He's got a great face on screen. And I think he's got incredible charisma and presence. And his ASL is really beautiful.

DEL BARCO: Heder says she first saw Kotsur on stage at Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. He wowed her at his audition for "CODA," when he came in wearing a fisherman's cap.

HEDER: He just looked like a Gloucester fisherman who had been out on a boat his whole life smoking cigarettes and gutting cod.

DEL BARCO: Heder says on weekends during the production, Kotsur hung out with fishermen at the local dive bar, Pratty's.

HEDER: Troy would be surrounded by a group of hearing guys who didn't sign at all. And he'd be telling a story in ASL. And these guys would just be cracking up and loving the story and totally following it because he's so expressive and lively and imaginative in his storytelling that it's - you can follow it, even as a hearing person who doesn't sign.

DEL BARCO: Kotsur was born deaf in 1968. He grew up playing basketball in Mesa, Ariz., where his father was the police chief. He studied acting at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a premiere university for the deaf and hard of hearing. After graduation, Kotsur began touring internationally with the National Theatre for the Deaf. Then he made it to Broadway in the Tony Award-winning play "Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn." In Los Angeles, at Deaf West Theatre, he starred in "Cyrano," where his lines were voiced on stage by a speaking actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What do you mean?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Take my signs and speak them to her.

DEL BARCO: Kotsur also played a deaf Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

DAVID KURS: (Through interpreter) When I saw him in that role, I was floored. I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor.

DEL BARCO: David Kurs is the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre. He's also deaf and spoke to me through an interpreter.

KURS: (Through interpreter) The famous scene where Stanley screams, Stella, Troy chose in that role to use his voice for that line. It seemed to me like he was making a choice to double the amount of pain or help that the character was calling for.

DEL BARCO: In the new movie "CODA," Kotsur are also voices a single word.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CODA")

KOTSUR: (As Frank Rossi) Go.

(Through interpreter) It took me a long time to practice vocalizing that. Sometimes I wasn't able to articulate it as clear because I can't hear the sound of my own voice. But I just followed my instinct.

DEL BARCO: Again, that's Troy Kotsur speaking through an interpreter.

KOTSUR: (Through interpreter) It was really an honest deaf voice that was depicted.

DEL BARCO: Kurs says his friend Troy Kotsur has been a star in the deaf theater community for many years.

KURS: (Through interpreter) If Troy were a person who could speak and hear, if he were a hearing person, his star would have risen many, many years ago. There is a deep respect for him and his work. And so to finally see, in this film, him in a place where his work can be witnessed by a larger audience, it has been an inspiration.

DEL BARCO: Until now, Kotsur has played secondary parts on screen. He says he's struggled to make sure interpreters were on the set. And he's asked to play diverse roles.

KOTSUR: (Through interpreter) I like to play villains and then have police officers chase after me, which I did in "Criminal Minds." It's nice to see just kind of the range of the characters I've portrayed and the diversity - romantic, mean, heroes, you name it.

DEL BARCO: Kotsur lights up and signs enthusiastically when reminiscing about how he became fascinated by the cartoons and films he watched as a boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF WILLIAMS' "STAR WARS MAIN THEME")

KOTSUR: (Through interpreter) What changed my life so much is when I saw "Star Wars," the original one, when I was 8 years old. I saw it 28 times. It was so visual - the costumes. It just blew me away. And I watched it again and again. And it got me hoping that someday I could make a movie.

DEL BARCO: So it was a dream come true when he was cast in the "Star Wars" series, "The Mandalorian."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: Not only does Kotsur play one of the Tusken Raiders on the planet Tatooine, he also developed a fictional sign language for the tribe of nomads.

KOTSUR: (Through interpreter) We kept it really simple in terms of the hand shapes that were used. When the Tuskens seized the Mandalorian, this is the sign. Using this flat hand shape, it outlines the gaps in the Mandalorian's helmet. And then for baby Yoda...

DEL BARCO: He holds his hands to each side of his head and outlines the creature's big ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: In his latest movie "CODA," Kotsur's character, Frank, drives a pickup truck, listening to loud gangster rap to feel the beat's bumping his seat. Frank and his wife, played by Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, are very much in lust. They embarrass their daughter with their loud lovemaking. Then Frank sits down with their daughter and her friend for a graphic sex talk about using a condom.

HEDER: Troy just completely started riffing. And every time we did a take, he would sign something more outrageous. And it's crazier and crazier and funnier and funnier.

DEL BARCO: Director Sian Heder says Kotsur was a key part of the ensemble that won the audience award and three other accolades at Sundance. She says she hopes he continues to get authentic roles.

HEDER: So often, whether filmmakers or producers or studios are intimidated by having deaf cast or they don't know how to make their sets accessible, they're missing out on this brilliant performer. There's incredible talent out there like Troy that - you know, writers should be writing for him. Showrunners should be pitching him as a character in their writers room.

DEL BARCO: In "CODA," Troy Kotsur is finally getting a chance to shine on the big screen.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MCCAMMON: You can see actor Troy Kotsur in conversation with Mandalit through an interpreter and scenes from the film "CODA" at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.