Troy Kotsur loved the script for “CODA” but knew that in one crucial scene he didn’t want to say the words, “thank you.” To be more precise, Kotsur knew he didn’t want to sign the phrase. Deaf actor Kotsur plays Rossi family patriarch Frank in Siân Heder’s film about Ruby (Emilia Jones), the Rossis’ hearing teen daughter who takes steps toward independence from her deaf parents and brother.
Frank and his wife, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), have just attended the school concert where Ruby emerges as a star; they’ve never understood her passion for singing but now have seen others responding to her performance. Sitting on the family truck outside their home, Frank asks Ruby to sing for him, touching her neck to feel the vibrations. At the end of the song, the script called for that “thank you.”
Kotsur could relate to the scene. He and his wife, Deanne Bray (also deaf and an actor), have a hearing daughter who sang for all the parents when she was in kindergarten. “To me she was just moving her mouth, but I saw several people crying,” Kotsur says via an ASL interpreter in a video interview. He too felt the vibrations on his daughter’s neck afterward.
More recently he bought his now-teenage daughter the guitar she wanted for Christmas and put his hand on the acoustic’s body to feel the vibrations. “I wondered if she was good or bad at it and if she felt safe because she was playing with only her deaf parents around,” Kotsur says with a smile. “It’s a challenge for me as a father to let her do her things but it was fun to watch her play, I can’t take those experiences away.”
Kotsur has spent most of his career on stage (largely with the Deaf West Theatre Company in Los Angeles), where Matlin says he proved himself a “compelling” actor with “beautiful signing skills and great acting ability.”
Matlin made sure to see all his shows through the decades. “Backstage I would run out of adjectives for his performances,” she says through an ASL interpreter, “so working with him in a film was always on my bucket list.”
Kotsur cites Matlin’s Oscar-winning performance in “Children of a Lesser God” as an inspiration, so working with her was a thrill and an honor. Both actors credit their longstanding relationship with the easy chemistry that infuses Frank and Jackie’s dynamic. (Matlin points to the concert scene, in which the other cast members and extras are listening to the performance. “Because we couldn’t hear it I thought I’d improvise and asked what we were going to do for dinner and Troy knew exactly where I was going and picked up and played along,” Matlin says. “That scene is gold.”)
So while he was at ease with Matlin on screen he did have to adjust to another crucial scene partner: the camera. In theater, he says, “you exaggerate a bit with signs for deaf people all the way in the back, similar to the way hearing actors speak on stage.”
Movies require more nuance. “On camera your emotions are more easily captured, so I wanted to use my eyes more, because the eyes can say so much,” says Kotsur, who adds that he learned a lot about acting on camera by visiting Bray on set when she starred in the series “Sue Thomas F.B. Eye.”
So, when it came to the scene on the flatbed truck, he told Heder that in this “extremely tender moment” after the song he wanted to convey the connection to his daughter without words.
“’Thank you’ is a very common sign and many hearing people know it — you say ‘thank you’ for a cup of coffee or if someone opens the door,” Kotsur says, positing to Heder that it was too mundane for the moment. “I just wanted to express my feelings with my eyes. I felt we could let the audience to make their own interpretation of my character’s emotions in that moment.”