The director of a multi award-winning film about a Coda—the acronym used to describe children of deaf adults—justified her decision to cast deaf actors in her film by stating, “Deafness is not a costume you can put on.”
The story of 17-year-old Ruby, the only hearing person in her family, Coda is directed by Siân Heder, who made the 2016 film Tallulah, starring Elliot Page, and was also a writer-director on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.
Used to her responsibilities of acting as an interpreter, Ruby finds it hard to choose between her loving family’s fishing business and fulfilling her own dream of going to music school.
Ruby is played by Emilia Jones, the British star of Netflix’s Locke & Key, but unlike the original French film Coda is based on, La Famille Bélier, the actors who play the other Rossi family members are all deaf.
They include Marlee Matlin, who won a best actress Oscar in 1987 for the film Children of a Lesser God—the only deaf actor in history to do so—and Troy Kotsur, who starred in 2019’s The Mandalorian, where he choreographed an adapted form of sign language for the Disney+ series.
Although deafness and hearing loss has been portrayed on the big screen before—examples being Sound of Metal, A Star is Born, A Quiet Place and Wonderstruck—Heder has said that on-screen representation has been lacking.
“I do think my actors have missed out,” she told the BBC in a recent interview. “Troy Kotsur has been working on stage for many years, he’s an absolutely brilliant unexplored actor, he’s been a total chameleon in everything I’ve seen him in.
“The opportunities are so rare as there has been so little representation. The more we get writers together in writers’ rooms to start to think, ‘What if this character was deaf?’ Or, ‘What if this character had a disability or was in a wheelchair’?’ That’s when representation starts to become more mainstream—as it needs to be.”
Nearly half of Coda’s script is American Sign Language and both Heder and Jones started learning it as soon as they became involved with the film. Heder told the BBC she needed to be proficient, because she felt using an interpreter on set was too much of a communication barrier between her and her cast.
Coda made film history by winning four prizes, including the Audience Award, when it competed in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—and was also showcased this month at the Sundance London event.
Apple TV+ bought the film for $25 million and the movie is now being tipped for Oscar nominations.
Coda was released in cinemas in January and will be available on Apple TV+ from August 13.