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Born and raised in Mesa, this Oscar-winning actor is making history

Troy Kotsur has been busy the last month making history. The actor, who was born and raised in Mesa, stars in the hit film "CODA." And he has been raking in the awards for it — often becoming the first deaf actor to win them.

Last month, Kostur won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actor. The audience watched Kotsur on stage signing his acceptance speech, but the voice they heard was that of his interpreter. 

It was just one of so many groundbreaking moments Kotsur has been a part of as a result of this film. "CODA" stands for child of deaf adults and tells the story of a teenager who is the only hearing person in her deaf family. She largely serves as their interpreter and feels torn when she wants to leave for music school. Kotsur plays her sometimes-salty fisherman father.

With Kotsur's win for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, he became the first deaf male actor to win that award. "CODA" also took home the award for best picture.

This might be his “big break” in Hollywood, but Kostur has been an actor for more than three decades, working mostly on the stage and finding the few and far between deaf roles on screen.

Last week, The Show spoke with him and his interpreter, Justin Maurer, to learn about his experiences. And he told The Show, this all feels like a long time coming.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Troy Kotsur communicated through American Sign Language interpreter Justin Maurer.

LAUREN GILGER: I want to begin — we're gonna back up hopefully and talk about your Mesa roots in a moment, but let's begin with where you are now. This is such amazing success you are experiencing with this film but you've been an actor for a long time, I understand, does this feel like kind of a long time coming?

TROY KOTSUR: Absolutely, definitely, really, it's been a long and sometimes hellish journey. And so, you know, being a deaf actor, there wasn't so many opportunities out there. And so I was looking for a place to have friendly access and for me that was on the theater stage. So it was the National Theatre of the Deaf, Deaf West Theatre, and the Gallaudet University Theatre Department. And all of the above is why I received so much training. But my real question was, how could a deaf actor break into Hollywood? I didn't know. And the best way for me was to remain persistent, and build my career on stage in the theater. And we were able to perform for a different audience every night. And they began to recognize my work. I didn't know if a producer, director, writer, casting director might happen to be in the audience. And then a few years later, some of them would get in touch and say, "Hey, Troy, I saw you act on stage and I'm considering a role for you." So that's what led me to where I was now. So with CODA, our director Sian Heder saw me perform on stage two years before she cast me. And so it was really worth it for me and whatever I did would just remain persistent on the theater stage and, when I could, act in TV and film and so really being a deaf actor was not easy. And hearing actors have many opportunities to audition. And deaf roles were just this small, so few and far between. So I am so glad that Hollywood is finally recognizing my work. And this is where I am today. And so I'm so proud that I'm from the Phoenix area where I was born and raised and I feel like I really have that connection and we can now celebrate together.

GILGER: Yeah, we definitely are celebrating you here. I want to talk about some of what you said there about being a deaf actor in Hollywood and the challenges that you faced. Do you feel like things are changing or maybe will change as a result of this film – as a result of the recognition you're getting right now which has, as you say, been a challenge for a long time.

KOTSUR: Yeah, so far, I'm seeing quite a bit of improvements. I'm seeing that Hollywood's beginning to open their hearts and minds to us. Ever since - several films, before CODA existed - we had A Quiet Place one and two, we had the Eternals. And there was deaf roles coming up from time to time, but CODA really is extremely special because all of these films in the past just had one deaf role. And so it didn't really showcase us as a culture, but CODA finally dove in and really unveiled deaf culture. And it really showed what a coda - a child of a deaf adult, and their experiences like growing up with a deaf family. And so I felt like so many of those in Hollywood, where just now there's these potholes beginning to be filled in. And so you have history in the United States. And so you had Latino history, you had African American History. And finally, with CODA, we're able to fill the gaps with Deaf history, which is so rich and we have so many wonderful stories to tell.

GILGER: Watching the film, I was really struck as a hearing person by some of the silences which feel long to somebody who's used to hearing sound all the time. I'm used to hearing people talking but I imagine those silences that was important to you, right? Tell us your thoughts on how the film approaches portraying people who are deaf and how important this approach is.

KOTSUR: It was extremely important that moment where there's 30 seconds of silence in our film, because as deaf people, we've had our opportunities to learn from your musicals and your hearing films and all of that we have tried to understand your perspective and your culture as deaf people, but have hearing people really considered what it was like to be deaf. And so it was time to just turn the tables just for 30 seconds, just have 30 seconds of silence. And I'll repeat that 30 seconds, can you handle 30 seconds of silence? And then you can begin to realize what it's like to be deaf. And finally, we're able to pull hearing audience members into our Deaf shoes and begin to shift their perspectives. And so, when you're watching music without sound, you just notice the facial expressions of the singers and that's what it's like. You know, I've been deaf my whole life. And to let you know, I always sleep well at night. So remember that, but it's really interesting that folks are able to experience and realize a Deaf perspective and really they begin to - they possibly have taken for granted their hearing privilege. And so, us deaf folks have been patient with you and can you be patient with us now? Do you think that it's finally the time for patience?

GILGER: It feels really important to that moment um I've also read quite a bit about your use of what's I've heard called vulgar ASL in this movie and in general like watching you in the film and the way that you communicating in ASL is so it's so dynamic it's so a part of the way that you act can you talk about that and how you use your signing as any act any other actor would use their voice right?

KOTSUR: Oh, definitely. Exactly what you said. A lot of hearing people never really consider that sign language has plenty of rich graphic vulgarities. And many of you have never considered that. So when I read our script, of course I was thrilled that finally had the opportunity to show that part of Deaf culture, I could drop some F bombs and sign language and it was such a thrill. And I've already experienced watching your hearing films with subtitles with all of your swear words, and you know, those facial expressions when you're swearing, but where is our opportunity as deaf folks to show what that part of our culture looks like, right? And so we were able to show showcase that so when I read the script, I understood these jokes from a hearing perspective, but I was coming from the Deaf Cultural perspective, and I really wanted to fit deaf culture and, and sometimes ASL can go even further than the written word in English, which is truly amazing. So we have such a rich story and we're great storytellers and there's plenty more to tell where that came from. This is just the start. You know, the MPAA at first gave us an R rating because they weren't used to seeing those vulgarities in sign language on screen. So we had to write a letter and explain ourselves. And finally, they reduced the rating to PG 13, which was such a relief. So I feel like where the hell have you all been? 

GILGER: That's awesome. I want to talk a little bit about your connection to this character. I mean, you obviously got very deep into this character as you filmed this, but the film focuses a lot on his relationship with his daughter who is hearing and then wants to be a singer of course, I understand you have a daughter yourself. How were you able to sort of allow that to inform the role in any way or were you?

KOTSUR: So when I saw Ruby who was played by Emilia Jones, who is just a truly amazing actor, she really reminded me so much of my daughter in real life. They were close in age, and the expression she made the way she signed and so when they cast Emilia, and when she began to sing, she reminded me of my daughter, because when my daughter was five, I'll never forget this story. You know, in kindergarten, of course, you have these one minute recitals for each student. So my brothers are sitting next to me and I'm in the audience watching my daughter at her elementary school recital just mouthing the words right for me. Then I see my brother and sister in law begin to cry. I'm like, "why are you crying?" They go. "It's the first time I heard your daughter's voice." Because ASL was her first language. They had never heard her sing. And so that was an interesting experience for me. And that moment really reminded me of the recital scene in CODA. And so I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

GILGER: Yeah, I do. Were there moments in the last you know, a couple of months during these award show extravaganzas – everything that you've been doing that you will never forget that you appreciate or stand out in your memory already?

KOTSUR: Really, one of my favorite moments of this award season journey was meeting Steven Spielberg because he is from Arizona himself, as well. And so, meeting Steven, I told him I appreciated his visual storytelling ever since his first film, Dual and of course, JAWS and ET and all of the above. I was such a fan of his work, because he was a visual storyteller. He was a visual communicator. Even without hearing the dialogue. I enjoyed his film so much and I told him how much I enjoyed his work. And it's funny he said, "I know some ASL my former wife named Amy" and I interrupted him. And I said, "Yes." And I knew his wife and that she had known some sign. And he said that CODA was kind of like a garden beginning to bloom. And I said, Hey, we're from the desert. You can't have a garden bloom where we're from. I said, I'm from Arizona, Steven, he goes, really? I'm from Arizona. And I said, Yeah, I know. Because I grew up watching his films, I read everything written about him and his work. And I've been following his career my whole life. So I always wanted to meet him in person. And finally receiving these nominations. It was a good reason for me, I've proven myself. Now I can finally shake his hand and that was one of the best memories of my lifetime was finally meeting Spielberg.

GILGER: That's awesome and an Arizona connection nonetheless. Tell us a little bit about your Mesa roots and have you gotten any sort of hometown feedback as now you're sort of a hometown hero for us?

KOTSUR: Well, I would really love to set up a community theater in Mesa. You know, I would really like to support, of course, the Phoenix Suns and the Cards in football. And you know, being from Mesa, we have big hearts. And we'd love you know, I've seen Mesa really transform and grow as a city over the years. And, you know, they added a trolley recently. And so when I was growing up, of course, there was no trolley or streetcar. And so I've really seen Mesa begin to expand. Now we have three freeways and a loop, we have the 101, the 202, the 303. And back then we didn't, right, it was just the 17 freeway. And so it's been amazing to see Mesa grow as a city. And I've been there and so I'm proud to be a part of Mesa in the Phoenix area, you know, I have so many friends and relatives, and my father and my brothers all worked under the police department, and another brother was a local fireman, and so all of that we're just a part of the community.

GILGER: Last question for you then Troy. I want to talk a little bit about what's next for you like I imagine this opens up significant doors for you and your career going forward you can do probably anything you want next but do you think it also opens up doors for other deaf actors as well?

KOTSUR: My goal is really, there's always room for improvement for deaf actors. I'd love to establish a workshop and a training program. I'd love to find the funding to maybe have six serious deaf actors you could have, you know, a few deaf male females, maybe some CODAs too, and really begin to prepare them to work in Hollywood on set, and stage acting and understand the difference between theater and TV and film. I would love that that's one of my goals, and really me being from the Mesa area where I went to school was Westwood High School. And Steven Spielberg went to Arcadia High School. And so we had a really nice chat, as I mentioned, and it's nice to have that connection to the community. And Emma Stone is also from the Arizona area too. So really we have three prominent Arizonans right. And so that's fantastic, but I'm really looking forward to my next project and there being even more prominent folks coming out of Arizona.

GILGER: Troy Kotsur, thank you so much for coming on The Show. We really appreciate you taking the time and congratulations!

KOTSUR: Thank you so much for having me. Lauren. Really enjoyed this chat. And I hope you can loan me one of your hats because they look great.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.