It came as no surprise to learn that behind the scenes of Apple TV+ hit CODA, the powers that be initially wanted to cast a hearing man in the role of Frank Rossi, a deaf character. Hollywood has a fraught history when it comes to disability representation: Though about 1 in 4 adults nationwide are disabled in some capacity, onscreen portrayals lag far behind, and most disabled characters are still played by nondisabled actors, a practice known as “cripping up.” Fortunately for CODA, Marlee Matlin refused to be involved in the project if a hearing person were cast as her character’s husband and recommended Troy Kotsur instead. Thank goodness she did. His nuanced portrayal of a rough-around-the-edges fisherman, husband, and father earned Kotsur a Golden Globe nomination and now has the Oscar predictors buzzing about a Best Supporting Actor nod.
That buzz is warranted. CODA centers on Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the hearing daughter in a working-class Deaf family who wants to leave her small coastal Massachusetts town to attend Berklee College of Music. Kotsur, playing Ruby’s father, is a supporting actor in a traditional sense, his performance all about creating opportunities for his fellow actors to shine. No category fraud here, either—in a runtime of an hour and 51 minutes, he’s onscreen for just 25. Still, Kotsur’s scenes are some of the most memorable of the movie, and at times, he shoulders the emotional heft of the film entirely.
Kotsur’s portrayal of Frank is my favorite kind of performance: a total transformation. As a Deaf person with an interest in theater and film, I’m familiar with the work of most of today’s professional deaf and hard-of-hearing performers. I’ve seen Kotsur’s work on TV and in person on Broadway. But in CODA, his scraggly look and unrefined demeanor had me totally fooled—no ping of recognition, nothing. I had a facepalm moment when I checked IMDb post-film and saw his name. To my mind this is one of the measurements of a great character actor: the ability to disappear completely. At the same time, Kotsur holds his own alongside Marlee Matlin, herself an Academy Award winner, and still manages to steal scenes. (Matlin remains the only deaf awardee in any Oscar category, a record I imagine she’d be happy for Kotsur to break.)
Because he’s not speaking English in the film, I do worry that some of the brilliance of Kotsur’s performance will be lost on viewers who don’t know American Sign Language (ASL). The global success of shows like Netflix’s smash hit Squid Game demonstrates that streaming viewers are more willing than ever to take on subtitled material—but, as that show also brought to the fore, a lot can slip through the translation cracks.
Much of what makes Frank so delightful is the utter raunchiness in Kotsur’s delivery. Often times disabled characters are written as inexperienced or asexual, a stereotype refuted by the movie’s three deaf, horny characters: Frank, his wife Jackie (Matlin), and their son Leo (Daniel Durant) Rossi. But when it comes to filth, Kotsur is a poet. When Frank explains to his daughter why he likes playing loud rap music in the car, the subtitles say, “My whole ass is vibrating.” A lesser signer (say, a hearing one), might have stuck closer to English word-order—might even have fingerspelled the word A-S-S. Kotsur gives us the cheeks, shows exactly how they jiggle. When Frank praises Jackie’s figure, the subtitles say, “Your mother’s so hot, how am I supposed to control myself?” Kotsur traces the contours of her hips and breasts in the air, mimes smacking her butt. When he’s angry at the fishmongers who take a hefty cut of the fishermen’s earnings, the subtitles say, “I’d give my left nut to tell them to go screw.” But Kotsur describes taking off his testicle and transforms it into a grenade, pulling out the pin with his teeth and throwing it over his shoulder at the warehouse.
Hopefully, viewers will be able to follow some of the comedic work Kotsur is doing even if they don’t know ASL, at least in the most concrete instances, like when Kotsur, emphasizing the importance of using a condom to Ruby’s hearing love interest, imitates a soldier putting on a helmet and uses his entire forearm as a sample penis. But Kotsur’s performance isn’t just about humor—it’s about authenticity. ASL is known for its bluntness, and Kotsur brings this element of Deaf culture in a charming manner while also lending balance to a movie that threatens to capsize into full schmaltz.
Kotsur’s penchant for no-holds-barred filth makes Frank’s moments of tenderness toward his daughter that much more powerful. When I first found out this movie was going to be about a hearing daughter of a Deaf family who liked to sing, I will admit there was much rolling of the eyes. Hearing people just can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to the Tragedy of the Music-less Deaf People (see: Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Sound of Metal). Thankfully, Kotsur injects some much-needed nuance to this tired theme. In back-to-back scenes, Frank gives us the full continuum of the Deaf experience of music. At times, it’s deeply boring—at a school concert, Kotsur looks around, realizes his shirt is buttoned crooked, and he and Jackie discuss what they should have for dinner. Then, later, alone with his daughter, there’s another side of music—a uniquely deaf experience, intimate and lovely, the feeling of a song.
In lesser hands, this interaction could have been maudlin or cliché, as it involves Frank touching his daughter’s throat to feel the vibrations of her singing, but Kotsur’s steady intensity grounds newcomer Jones and makes the moment less about tired deaf tropes and more about the intricacies of parent-child relationships. It even puts this viewer in a generous enough headspace to overlook the syrupy sweetness of the Berklee audition scene that is arguably the movie’s actual climax.
Films in which nondisabled actors play disabled characters are notoriously Oscar bait. Usually the narratives are “inspirational,” designed to tug at the heartstrings, and (nondisabled) nominators see faking a disability as taking on a “challenging role.” In the past three decades, one-third of Best Actor Oscars have gone to cripped up actors. In a film that centers the hearing perspective and consequently leans on some old-fashioned stereotypes, Kotsur provides humor, warmth, and authenticity. Because of him, the viewer can overlook CODA’s imperfections to appreciate the deep wells of talent from which the entire cast draws. It’s not Oscar bait—but it is Oscar worthy.