Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
*The film premiered day-and-date August 13th on Apple TV+ and in theaters (limited release).
You’re watching CODA maybe 10 minutes before you start wondering about the actor playing Frank Rossi – Troy Kotsur – the tall, bearded, weather-beaten soul with a lively spirit and crass sense of humor. And it’s not because he’s deaf – because he is, in the film and real life. It’s because this expressive, charismatic, funny actor commands the screen – without saying a word.
We first meet Frank while he’s manning his Gloucester fishing boat in the opening scene with his deaf son and hearing daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones), who is a CODA or ‘child of deaf adults.”
But we first get to know Frank when he picks up Ruby from high school with her mom and his wife, Jackie (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin). Rap music is blasting from the front cabin of their pickup truck, embarrassing Ruby to no end – you know teenagers. But Frank defends his passionate display even though he can’t technically hear the music: “I love rap music. My whole ass is vibrating.” Next scene is in a doctor’s office where Frank describes a case of jock itch to his doctor in great, painful detail using American Sign Language (ASL). A hilarious scene filled with expressive and colorful gestures in describing the flare up. You can’t help but react the same way if it was being said, not signed. That’s the first time you realize Kotsur is, well, great.
Kotsur’s expressiveness, vulnerability and powerful way of communicating via sign is no doubt a sublime gift. But it’s the beauty of his performance, regardless of his mostly non-speaking role, that gets you. Every scene Kotsur stars in is a plus to the point where he has you hoping for more scenes. As with most great actors (and scripts), his greatest moments service the meat of the story as he plays a father coming to grips with his daughter’s musical ambition – and how that meshes with his desire to keep the fishing business on track. A conflict he navigates beautifully.
Given Frank and his wife are deaf, Ruby’s singing is initially a tough pill to swallow – being she’s aspiring to do something they can’t experience in the traditional sense. But without spoiling much, there’s a transformation that occurs that ultimately leads to a scene that will be playing at Kotsur’s Oscar-nomination reveal come 2022. It has to do with Frank finally hearing his daughter in more ways than one – and it’s one that will require probably a pack of tissues.
Truly, Kotsur’s uplifting performance as Frank is one of the year’s best – for the comedy; for the heart; and for the actor’s genuine connection to the material in real life. Stream it now before it gets a bunch of awards and you say to yourself, you know, I wish I had seen CODA in August.
Do it. It’s time.
Having been raised in Mesa, Arizona, the 53-year-old Kotsur has been deaf since birth. After attending Gallaudet School in Washington D.C. from 1987 to 1989 (a private university for the deaf and hard of hearing), Kotsur’s career took a turn in his 30s despite the limited roles available.
But it wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles and began starring in Deaf West Theater productions – often alongside hearing actor and fluent ASL speaker Paul Raci, who received an Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal in 2020 – when Kotsur started to command attention for his stage work. This work culminated with Kotsur’s work as the lead in the Tony-Award-winning Broadway play, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, at Mark Taper Forum.
Like other non-hearing actors who stood out in roles this year like Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place II) and Kaylee Hottle (Godzilla vs. Kong), Kotsur has been impactful in other ways, continuing to make inclusion of actors with disabilities more acceptable in mainstream Hollywood. In a positive development signaling another move in the right direction, Kotsur was recruited to establish a new level of accessibility for his character in Disney+’s The Mandalorian (2019), in which he plays a Tusken Raider. According to this article in The Hollywood Reporter, “Kotsur, a lifelong Star Wars fan, was brought in and developed a sign-based vocabulary – dubbed Tusken Sign Language – to play the character.”
Other than a supporting role in the Jim Carrey film The Number 23 (2007), Kotsur has had notable TV roles over the years doing guest stars on Criminal Minds (2012), Scrubs (2007) and CSI: NY (2006) amongst others. He also played fan favorite in PAX’s Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye (2002-2005), showing how long an actor can slog through the biz before a CODA arrives.
As for what’s next, Kotsur recently signed on to play a Coach in the sports drama, Flash Before the Bang. According to THR, the film is about an all-deaf, high-school track and field team from the Oregon School for the Deaf that battles great odds to overcome discrimination and adversity.
Looking forward to seeing Kotsur in this film – and hopefully, a lot more as his career enters its next chapter.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.