‘CODA’ Casting Team Talk Search for Rossi Family and Deaf Representation in Film: ‘The Talent Is Just Waiting For You’

Coda. L to R: Siân Heder directs Emilia Jones and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo on the set. Credit: AppleTV+
Courtesy of Mark Hill/Apple TV+

The watchword for casting differently abled roles for film and TV has become “authenticity,” certainly that was the quality pursued by those developing “CODA.”

The Apple TV Plus feature centers on the challenges faced by a largely deaf family in a largely hearing world. To the casting team — Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood and Lisa Zagoria — there was never any question but that the Rossis of Gloucester, Mass., must be portrayed by actors who live those challenges in their everyday lives.

But was the talent out there to be found? Initially, confesses writer-director Siân Heder, “I didn’t know if we would be able to find two choices for each role.”

But the casting co-directors were confident: “We’ve been attending theatrical events for decades, literally, celebrating and experiencing the talents of these artists.”

Venerable L.A. institutions including the Fountain Theatre and Deaf/West had highlighted the work of Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, who were tapped to play father and son. And Marlee Matlin as the mother — “the anchor of the family, our north star,” as the casting team puts it — collaborated by “sending suggestions of where we might be able to broaden our reach in the deaf community.”

Particularly tricky was the role of Ruby Rossi, the daughter who navigates her place within her fishing family while finding her own voice as a singer. Emilia Jones “dove into the work from the very first audition,” the casting directors say, “learning ASL and taking voice lessons, researching and imagining this character’s life.”

SAG Awards honors for the entire ensemble, and for Kotsur in a historic win as supporting actor, attest to the seamlessness of the final mix. Now deaf actors wait to see what the future will bring. The “CODA” casting trio say, “the conversation needs to be reframed. … These are talented actors/actresses, worthy of recognition regardless of labeled categories.”

“In the disability community, there are so many skilled actors waiting for jobs,” Durant says. “That talent is just waiting for you.”