Deaf Culture, Sign Language & History Made with Troy Kotsur

An Interview with Troy Kotsur

By Weezie Melançon

Troy Kotsur made history this year as the first Deaf male actor to win an Academy Award, a British Academy award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Critics’ Choice Movie Award.

Image Source: Variety

Needless to say—though we'll say it anyway—his performance as Deaf father and fisherman, Frank Rossi in the film CODA is inimitable. His authentic nature on-screen and genuine disposition off-screen has captured the attention of Hollywood, fellow Deaf artists and audiences around the world.

Breaking barriers in media and industries beyond, Deaf culture and the Deaf community continue raising awareness for inclusivity, accessibility, sign language and communication at-large.

Troy is wearing a black suit and top hat, signing family. Behind him is Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain, smiling against a blue background. Oscar is wearing a brown blazer and mauve turtleneck. Jessica is wearing a silver blazer and matching silver trousers.
Image Source: NY Daily News

Troy spoke with Ava about his experiences as a Deaf actor in Hollywood and a Deaf person in this ever-changing society. He shares his views on the impact technology has made on increasing access and opportunities for the Deaf community — and the importance of American Sign Language (ASL) as a universal language for everyone. His passion for raising Deaf awareness and stance that every Deaf child can benefit from learning sign language sheds light on how hearing and Deaf individuals can make profound impact with education.

The following is the transcript of a recent interview with Troy Kotsur, Award-winning Deaf actor and director.

Weezie Melançon (in sign language):

Congratulations. Applause.

Congratulations on your Oscar and your brilliant performance in CODA.

Troy Kotsur: Thank you. I’m glad you learned the sign. That’s Deaf culture. We’re very visual. We do the hand waves instead of clapping. It was so inspiring to see the whole audience at the Oscars doing the Deaf clap. It was amazing and so touching. And they gave me a standing ovation! I was trying so hard not to show my emotions in that moment, and it was really tough.

I can imagine. All the recognition and praise well-deserved. Best, most heartfelt movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Troy Kotsur: Thank you! Thank you for watching our film.

Image Source: Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Deaf Acting in Hollywood

How would you describe your experience as a Deaf Actor in Hollywood leading up to your role in CODA?

Troy Kotsur: For many years, I was hoping Hollywood would present a Deaf role, but it rarely happened. There might be one quick scene in something, but it wasn’t really a complete role. Hollywood tended to pick the Deaf character as the victim or someone to have sympathy for, and I didn’t really feel any connection to that.

I was involved in a theater stage as an Actor for many years and it was a good opportunity for me to show my work on stage, and perform to an audience that was 80% hearing and 20% Deaf, on average. It was great to see sign language with voice-over talent, and to be able to work with both Deaf and hearing actors.

I was hoping that method of performing would influence Hollywood, and they would bring that kind of set-up to film and TV sets. Alas, there was so much fear as they would think about budget and finance, and selling their film and needing to attach A-list names. I was a complete outsider, no one knew who I was, so I was trying to figure out how I could break into Hollywood.

Image Source: Twitter

CODA: Deaf Representation from Script to Screen

Tell us about your character Frank Rossi in CODA, and what you found special about the role.

Troy Kotsur: When I read the script for CODA, I thought, “Yes! Finally! This is a perfect role.” Frank Rossi is great. He’s not a victim. He’s a hard-working guy, who loves his family. He has frustrations and struggles in the outside world just like an everyday person and parent experiences. The only difference was sign language. Communication was the only difference.

Hollywood tends to rely so much on sound, on dialogue, on voice, on special effects, on music, ambient noise to sell to a wider audience, so they never really considered having a Deaf audience. Why bother? So there was an opportunity here. CODA was perfect because we had more than one Deaf character. We had a family of three as an ensemble cast. Those moments of silence in the film allowed a hearing audience to peer in and have 30 seconds of the Deaf experience.

Image Source: Apple

I’m really happy and relieved that we’re changing perspectives, and finally Hollywood seems open — open-minded and open-hearted. You don’t often see a male Deaf role, so receiving this award was so touching. I feel like it’s not only inspiring the Deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community, but everyone who has felt neglected.

Hollywood is one of the best ways to get people’s attention, and not only in Hollywood, but to influence and educate people all over the world is amazing. I’m extremely proud of it all. I’m proud of our cast, I’m proud of our entire team and everyone who believed in us, and of Apple for supporting us. I’m seeing that everyone has an open heart, they’ve been there for us, so hopefully this momentum can continue.

“Everything is accessible with technology. We have increased access to communication. We have more jobs for Deaf people.”

–Troy Kotsur

A Spotlight on Deaf Culture

The film and spotlight on the Deaf community that CODA has ignited has been called “a watershed moment in representation”. Do you see this as a pivotal marker in Hollywood, and in other industries for Deaf culture?

Troy Kotsur: Yes, I do. Exactly. I feel this is a cultural transformation and this is a hot topic that Hollywood is curious about. They’ve never really considered Deaf people or Deaf actors, and I’ve received several scripts now where they are considering changing a hearing role into a Deaf role. I feel really good that producers are inspired and motivated to look for something new, and to begin to think outside the box. Finally, let’s get rid of the box, collapse the box, open it up.

Let’s get diverse stories in because all of these marginalized communities have so many stories to tell that no one knows. We need to share our creativity and our stories. We have such a rich storytelling tradition in the Deaf community, so I can’t wait to tell those stories.

Image Source: Forbes

A Treasure Trove of Deaf Stories

Speaking of Deaf storytelling, do you have a background in or aspirations for writing and/or directing in addition to your acting?

Troy Kotsur: I’m glad you asked that question. When I was growing up, my goal was to be a director, but I realized that Hollywood wasn’t ready for a Deaf director.

Again, Hollywood is very reliant on sound, so ‘a Deaf person could never do that’ [was the thinking]. Also, technology was quite limited back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s before smartphones and computers, but now everything is accessible with technology. We have increased access to communication. We have more jobs for Deaf people. We’re able to keep in touch through smartphones.

I’m at the crossroads with Generation X, where we’ve had a life without technology and then a life with technology, so I feel like now opportunities are opening up for Deaf talent. I see that folks are seeing the possibilities to make movies themselves — even with smartphones, it’s like Hollywood in your pocket. Many Deaf people rely on technology, so I’d like to encourage them to make short films with this blessing of technology.

Source: YouTube

Assistive Technology for the Deaf Community

Regarding technological advancements for the Deaf, we understand Ava live captions technology was used on the set of CODA by Anne Tomasetti, director of Artistic Sign Language (ASL). How was it helpful?

Troy Kotsur: Yes! She used Ava to communicate with our team of producers. During post-production, she was able to keep in touch with the editors and the producers.

To be able to go back and forth with a team of both hearing and Deaf, you can really see the impact of technology. Anne is Deaf and she has a job, thanks in-part to technology.

What would you say is one of the biggest misunderstandings, or hurdles, for Deaf people?

Troy Kotsur: Sometimes, when I’m signing, people think that I have mental issues. Sometimes, people look at me and think that I’m faking being Deaf because I seem normal otherwise. There are other disabilities that are easily recognizable, like being in a wheelchair, but being Deaf isn’t recognizable until you meet the person and find out about the communication barrier that this person cannot verbally communicate.

Hearing people don’t expect to run into a Deaf person. Some might say, “Oh, I know a little sign language”, and others are like a deer in headlights. You just have to keep going and adapt. I’ve been through that my whole life.

“There’s a lot of great benefits to learning sign language… It’s a visual way of communication. As Deaf people, we communicate visually just like you communicate with spoken language, so I hope that we can start to bridge the gap and collaborate and work together.”

–Troy Kotsur

Sometimes, police officers don’t believe I’m Deaf. I was arrested one time because they thought that I was faking being Deaf to get out of a ticket. The officers had experiences where hearing people were playing Deaf so the cops would let them off, then found out they had been tricked. These cops thought they had learned their lesson, and so now I’m an actual Deaf person they pull over, throw in handcuffs and in the back of the cop car. I told them I was Deaf and they didn’t believe me.

An hour later, another police officer showed up, who knew sign language. So they took the handcuffs off and after I signed to that cop, he informed the others that I was truly Deaf. Thanks a lot, hearing people, for fooling the cops! We have little screwups like that throughout our lives as Deaf people.

What would you say is an advantage of being Deaf?

Troy Kotsur: Well, if you’re at the airport and there’s a long line, I can go to the front of the line and say, “Hey, I’m Deaf. I can’t hear the announcements” and they let me cut in line. When hearing friends ask why I cut the line, I say, “I’m a VIP. Being Deaf is my advantage. Deaf VIP.” (laughs)

Seriously, knowing sign language is a great advantage. Imagine if we’re underwater with scuba gear, we could have a complete conversation that you couldn’t do verbally underwater.

We can chat in sign language through a window, and at a restaurant where there’s a lot of background noise. Hearing people have to say, “What?” and yell, and we can just sign, even with music and background noise. There’s a lot of great benefits to learning sign language.

Source: YouTube

The Beauty of Sign Language & Visual Language

Is there a message you would like to send out to both the Deaf and hearing communities?

Troy Kotsur: I really encourage everyone to learn a new language. I believe that sign language is a gift. Some think sign language is a language for people who are disabled and limited because people are so reliant on their hearing. It’s a visual way of communication. As Deaf people, we communicate visually just like you communicate with spoken language, so I hope that we can start to bridge the gap and collaborate and work together.

Sign language is so beautiful. Many people don’t think about the benefits and advantages of ASL (American Sign Language) — for young children, especially. One of the most important things for parents who have Deaf children is that they lose their fear and forget about the barriers. Sign language is priceless. It’s such a rich experience and a rich language.

Image Source: Apple

There is a support system for whatever Deaf kids need access to, whether it be hearing aids or cochlear implants, as long as sign language is not ignored as it is the natural language of Deaf people. We have to let Deaf kids grow up and find themselves and find their own identities. They can make the decision later if they want to use hearing aids, or if they want to communicate verbally, but it’s really important that these kids have that choice and the opportunity to learn sign language. Hopefully, the parents are involved and supportive in their life, and learn sign language, as well.

Bridging Communication with the Deaf World

Sign language is a form of visual communication conveyed through hand movements and facial expressions. The language offers those who do not engage in verbal communication an alternate tool for self-expression, social engagement and human connection — substantial benefits for all ages, Deaf children in particular.

While sign language is the native language of the Deaf community, only 1% of the 48 million people in the United States who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing use ASL (American Sign Language). While educational institutions such as Gallaudet University are recognized as leaders in Deaf education, most schools lack Deaf awareness in regards to accommodating Deaf students. Deaf education is a specialized field that ensures every Deaf child is give equal opportunity in life.

Technology continues to expand accessibility and inclusivity for Deaf and hard-of-hearing children and adults. Communication tools such as speech-to-text transcription applications can be used by both Deaf individuals and hearing individuals in social, academic or professional settings. Understanding Deaf culture and the importance of visual language either with sign language or live caption is an essential component of bridging communication between the Deaf world and the hearing world.