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

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in <em>CODA</em>
Apple TV+
Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in CODA

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

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

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."

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 developeda fictional sign languagefor 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 <em>CODA</em>
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in CODA

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.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.