When deaf Mesa actor Troy Kotsur received the script for Apple Original Film’s “CODA,” he immediately saw himself in the role.
“I thought this is most definitely a role for me,” Kotsur says. “Thinking about all of the experiences that I have had in the theater and the opportunities I’ve had and the challenges that I’ve had, for this thing to come was fantastic and a great opportunity.”
In “CODA,” which stands for child of deaf adults, 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) spends her time as an interpreter for her parents, who are played by Kotsur and Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin. While working early mornings on the family’s struggling fishing boat, Ruby joins her school choir and finds her voice and a potential new life.
“CODA” will open the Phoenix Film Festival on Thursday, August 12, followed by its theatrical and Apple TV+ release on August 13.
Kotsur was thrilled to work with Matlin, saying it is a “tiny, tiny, tiny world where I finally get to work with her, but it was a blessing.
“I remember when I was in high school, I saw her win an Academy Award, which was incredibly inspiring seeing a deaf person win an Academy Award,” he says. “It gave me motivations in thinking maybe this is something that I can do at least something that I can pursue.”
Still, parts of the movie were challenging. For example, the family’s fishing business is central to the film. He has no experience with that.
“I like water sports. I like waterskiing but fishing? No, and I don’t eat fish either,” he says. “So, I figured if I am not going to eat them, why am I going to catch them? I rather leave that for other people.”
Kotsur, Jones and Daniel Durant, the latter of whom plays the older brother, had to learn to chop the heads off fish, sort them and other fishing boat tasks.
“We had to get up at 2 a.m. to do this,” Kotsur says. “We went out with real fishermen on their boat and watched how they did what they did. It is a filthy, filthy place.”
Also troubling were the birds who swarmed overhead.
“You have to hose the place down when you are done and when you get out (the smell) never quite gets off of you,” Kotsur says. “It’s amazing and you know you are covered in bird droppings from them flying overhead so that was a new experience for me.”
Despite the setbacks, Kotsur says the boat was one of his favorite parts of filming “CODA,” but he gives credit to the “great director, great writer and amazing story.”
“We saw whales,” Kotsur says. “I had never seen whales out in the ocean and certainly not in Arizona. (Another favorite) is the moment where I am watching my daughter sing and really trying to understand what this means for her. He’s really trying to connect with his daughter in a really important way.”
On the flip side, the most difficult scene was easy for Kotsur to answer.
“I would say the love scene with Marlee Matlin,” Kotsur says. “I mean no, seriously, it is challenging.
“You know you do what is best for the movie I guess, though. We just have to be professional, but it’s not like on stage. When you have a love scene on stage it’s very small and it’s very quick. In film, it has to look like you know what you’re doing.”
During the filming, the cast ensured the sign language was in context.
“We were there with our sign masters, Ann Tomasetti and Alexandria Wailes, who were helping us develop the sign language as we were training to go out on the boat, watching us making sure that we were doing what we were supposed to do,” Kotsur says.
“We had all of these tools that we had to learn how to use this hammer with almost like a nail coming off of its head. We had to kind of develop signs for those tools and ask what would be sort of a natural sign language gesture so that they would see that and go OK that is the sign we are going to use for that. We were literally developing a language along the way.”
Kotsur sees it as a “blessing” to have his film opening the Phoenix Film Festival and hopes people within his hometown and old friends come out to see it.
“It’s just great to have this here, my little piece show up in this festival,” Kotsur says. “It’s wonderful and it’s an honor.”