Troy Kotsur’s Historic Oscar Win for ‘CODA’ Is Only the Beginning: ‘It’s Saved My Life, My Career’
Troy Kotsur is operating on one hour of sleep, but he’s still smiling ear to ear. It’s Monday, the morning after he became the second deaf performer in Academy history to win an acting award at the Oscars (after his “CODA” co-star Marlee Matlin, who took home best actress in 1987 for “Children of a Lesser God”). His turn as the lusty fisherman Frank Rossi in “CODA” became a favorite of this awards season, and so did appearances from the affable 53-year-old performer, a working Los Angeles stage actor who until recently was not a known entity in Hollywood.
As Kotsur thinks about what his Oscar win will mean to him, he starts to cry. “I was so tired of financially struggling for so many years,” he says through interpreter Justin Maurer. “Now, receiving these awards — it’s saved my life, my career, my family. I’ve taken so many risks, and without these nominations and awards, I don’t know what would have happened.” He ponders a different life, one where he hadn’t been cast in “CODA.” “I’d be working at a fast-food restaurant or as a grocery bagger.”
Going into the 94th Academy Awards, the big question of the night was which movie would become the first streaming release to win best picture: “CODA,” from Apple Original Films, or “The Power of the Dog,” from Netflix, which led all movies, with 12 nominations. “It has been so rewarding to share this life-affirming, vibrant story, which reminds us of the power of film to bring the world together,” says Zack Van Amburg, Apple’s head of worldwide video. Despite the historic win, most of the talk of the Oscars has centered on Will Smith’s slapping presenter Chris Rock in the middle of the ceremony following a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Kotsur wasn’t seated inside the Dolby Theatre during the infamous “slap seen round the world.” He was still backstage doing press after picking up his trophy earlier in the evening. In fact, Kotsur watches the video clip for the first time while talking with Variety. Like many in the room, his jaw drops. He shakes his head before simply signing, “Wow.”
Kotsur was the presumptive front-runner for the Oscar after winning the BAFTA, Critics Choice and SAG prizes. His performance as a deaf father, whose daughter Ruby — a CODA (child of deaf adults), played by Emilia Jones — struggles with deciding whether to follow her love for music or to stay home and help with the family’s fishing business, is central to the film.
The journey for “CODA” began at Sundance in January 2021, where Apple acquired it for $25 million, the biggest sale in the festival’s history. But Kotsur didn’t see any of that eye-popping money in the back end, jokingly saying, “I’m still waiting for my check.”
Still, starring in “CODA” has enriched his life in other ways. The cast and director Siân Heder recently visited the White House, where they met with Dr. Jill Biden. The first lady was so charmed, she asked if they wanted to say hello to “Joe,” and before they knew it, they were in the Oval Office with the president of the United States. “I’ll never forget him grabbing my arm, and he put me into his office chair,” Kotsur recalls. “He stood behind me and started massaging my shoulders. I felt like he was the VP, and I was the first deaf president.”
In fact, Biden told the “CODA” team he watched the movie twice. It was a surreal moment for any person, let alone a character actor who hails from Mesa, Ariz., the son of a police chief who became paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a drunk driver. Kotsur referenced his late father in his emotional Oscar speech — and he’s still teary-eyed talking about him.
“He had the same sense of humor, the same way of talking, but the one barrier was he couldn’t sign anymore,” says Kotsur, known as the Morgan Freeman of the Deaf community for his expressive signing. “We lost communication completely.”
Still, he didn’t see that as an obstacle to continuing to have a relationship with the man he calls “his hero.”
“I’m Deaf … big deal. What can I do? I could play golf, go fishing, go camping, have sex, but my dad could not. He couldn’t even feed himself. My dad taught me sacrifice and courage.”
He says his mother was “a pure soul” before joking that his two older brothers are “assholes.” As for what’s next for Kotsur, there’s not a clear answer yet. Some are worried that the “CODA” Oscar win may not change things that much. Will Hollywood start employing deaf actors to tell their own stories, or has all this been for nothing?
“I have that fear,” says Heder. “Which is why I’m creating for him because I want to make sure that he continues to work and has other characters to play. It’s not a matter of an agent signing Troy. What it’s going to take is creative people, showrunners, writers, directors, being inspired by him and creating roles for him.”
Adds Matlin: “It’s up to Troy to go out there and see what is available to him. He needs to keep his eyes open and survey the landscape to find out who’s interested in him.”
Over a lengthy interview, Kotsur discusses his Oscar journey, how “Tom and Jerry” made him want to be an actor and if there could be a sequel to “CODA.”
What has this experience surrounding “CODA” meant to you?
It’s been amazing to reach this point. Our film has reached so many people and touched so many. I’m very proud of that. It’s been such a rich experience for me.
Do you remember your first day on the set of “CODA”?
On the first day of shooting, I remember seeing all of the crew members being very nervous and not knowing how to interact or work with deaf actors. I remember that tension, and it was a bit awkward. Then, we got out on the boat, out on the open sea, and they thought they might need stunt doubles because it was too dangerous for deaf actors to be out on a fishing boat. Then they found out that we picked it up quickly and were fine. So we dismissed the stunt doubles.
When did your family learn you were deaf?
I was around 10 months old. My mother was cleaning the house, and she dropped some pots and pans, making this loud clattering sound. I was on the floor, and I didn’t react at all. I just carried on playing. My mom suspected something. She made more noise. She went behind me and slammed these pots and pans into each other and noticed that I didn’t look at her. I was just laughing and being a baby. They brought me to the doctor and found out I was deaf. My family freaked out. “How are we going to deal with a deaf kid?” They were so scared. Remember, this is back in the 1960s. They didn’t know what to do with a deaf child. My family learned so much. My dad said, “Troy, sign language is truly a beautiful language. It’s a gift to the world that everyone needs to see.”
It was so touching to hear my father say and recognize the beauty of ASL. Today, I feel like it’s a blessing to have been a part of a hearing family because they taught me how to interact in the hearing world, and I taught them what Deaf culture was like. We were able to have this cultural exchange and two languages.
One of the most moving parts of your Oscar speech was when you talked about your father and how he was paralyzed. Can you tell us about him?
My dad was my hero. He learned sign language while I was growing up. He took me to play golf, go water-skiing. He took me camping and all of the above. Then he was in this car accident. I was 17, and it was a few months before I graduated high school, and a drunk driver hit him. His car flipped a few times, and his body came out of the windshield completely. He was the chief of police, and when the police arrived on the scene, they brought him to the hospital and he was this close to death. He was paralyzed from the accident from the neck down, but his mind was still strong. He had the same sense of humor, the same way of talking, but the one barrier was he couldn’t sign anymore. I saw my dad suddenly have to be in a wheelchair. We had to make these big changes as a family.
I’d have to ask my mom or brothers to interpret for me. Sometimes he’d try to use a pencil or type keys on a computer. I had to wait a few minutes and wait to see what my dad was saying. It was a challenge to communicate with him, but he was patient.
A controversial topic in the Deaf community is cochlear implants. Have you or your family ever considered that for you?
That’s a real sensitive question. I can share my personal opinion here. The most important thing for deaf children is that parents are involved in their lives and pay attention to their specific needs. Sometimes parents don’t want to learn sign. They want to fix their deaf child to make them hearing and say, “Hey, speak my language.” But where’s their identity?
My father asked me every year when I was younger, around 12 or 13, and I always said no. I appreciate that my father let me choose my own identity because I’m so happy with who I am. Why should I change to fit the outside world and suffer? This is who I am. I’m a deaf man, and you learn to interact with people, and they learn to interact with you. I’ve been patient with the outside world. Now it’s time for the outside world to be patient with me. I think sign language is beautiful. We have all these languages on planet Earth. We can chat, sign language underwater and completely communicate if I dive into a swimming pool or scuba dive. You could sign through a glass window and go into a restaurant even with background noise. There are so many benefits to sign language.
Do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to be an actor?
When I was younger, I would watch cartoons and mainly “Tom and Jerry,” because there was no dialogue. It was just cat and mouse chasing each other. The next day, I’d go on the school bus, which was about an hour-and-a-half commute to the school for the Deaf. All the deaf kids were together on the bus, and I’d tell them about the episode from the day before. Some of these kids didn’t even have a TV at that time. I would share the story about “Tom and Jerry,” and I’ll never forget seeing their eyes light up and their reactions and laughter. It made me feel so good. It was there something clicked. I wanted to continue that feeling. That led me to stage acting, TV and film. It always felt great to see an audience react to a performance, which was most impactful for me. I didn’t care about anything else. I just wanted to make the audience feel good.
“CODA” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was sold for a record $25 million, the largest sale in the fest’s history. Have you seen any of that money?
I hope I can buy a new car or something. I’m so thrilled that they invested $25 million in our film. It means they saw the value of our work, story and positive message about loving and cherishing your family that we’ve been missing. I can see why they made this investment. They felt like our movie was worth it, and look where we are today. I’m extremely proud.
Are you open to “CODA” and its characters being explored in a television series or a movie sequel?
If we have the same cast, sure. I’d be up for that. We have such a unique story, and we could tell so many more. We’re a dysfunctional family, right? So out of that dysfunction, you have so many beautiful stories to tell. I’d be up for that.
The Oscars are only one night. Some, including your director Siân Heder, fear that there won’t be real change in Hollywood after “CODA’s” win. Do you have that fear too?
No, I don’t have any fear or regret. I think people in Hollywood have fear. I’ve been so patient with Hollywood. We need to keep pushing the boundaries of storytelling. I remember that Siân was scared the first day of shooting, hoping that we’d have some success. And as we were working, I told her this movie was going to be successful. Look what happened. I met Siân [after we won], and we had these Oscars in our hands. And I told her, “Siân, you did great. You’re a wonderful director. You know how to reach people.” I’m just waiting for her next script.
What’s been offered to you for your next gig in Hollywood?
Well, there are several action-adventure-type scripts, several historical figures. We’ve had such a rich history in the Deaf community. We’ve had tragedy, we’ve had success, but no one knows about these stories. They’ve been ignored for so long. I want to bring forth this treasure trove of storytelling.