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CODA star Emilia Jones: ‘Only deaf actors could have done these roles justice’

Despite never having had an acting lesson, the London teen leads the cast of the award-winning film about the child of deaf parents. She talks to Ellie Harrison about learning sign language, the importance of proper representation and unleashing her inner Etta James

Thursday 12 August 2021 11:04 BST
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<p>‘CODA is a strong example of representation done right’</p>

‘CODA is a strong example of representation done right’

Emilia Jones had her work cut out for her when she was cast in Sundance’s latest darling. In the film CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults), she plays Ruby, a Massachusetts teenager who has a passion for singing soul songs and whose parents will never be able to hear her perform. Suffice to say, Jones – a Brit with no sign language skills and a delicate voice – was not the obvious choice.

But she put in the hours and spent nine months learning to sign, honing her New England accent and strengthening her voice. “I had auditioned with ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac, a very gentle cover that I did on my guitar,” she says. “Then, in my first singing lesson for the film, it was like, ‘Here’s Etta James and Aretha Franklin.’ They’re grown-ups – their voices are insane. And these are big songs. It was daunting to me because I was only 17 when I shot this movie and my voice was still maturing.”

Her efforts paid off. CODA was acquired by Apple for $25m (£18m – a Sundance record) and is the first film in history to win all of the Sundance Festival’s top prizes in the US dramatic category. It’s already predicted to be a 2022 Oscars contender. Gushing critics have called it “this summer’s most heartwarming film” and an “instant classic”.

Jones, now 19 years old, gives a deeply heartfelt, plucky performance as Ruby Rossi, a teenager who juggles being the family liaison to the hearing world and toiling away on her father’s fishing boat with completing her senior year in high school. When her singing teacher encourages her to apply to music college, Ruby is faced with the decision of whether to leave her family when their business needs her the most or follow her dreams. Her mother balks at the path she’s chosen. “If I was blind, would you like to paint?” she asks her daughter.

Jones – with her American accent and teenage eye-rolling nailed – holds her own next to astonishing performances from deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, who play Ruby’s deaf mother, father and older brother, respectively. Matlin was the first person to be cast in the film (she won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God). But when she heard that CODA’s financiers wanted well-known hearing actors to play the other deaf roles – as they did, controversially, in the French film that CODA is based on – she threatened to walk unless they cast deaf stars.

“It shouldn’t be any other way,” says Jones over Zoom from LA, where she is promoting the film, dressed in a black, studded leather jacket, her eyes lined with kohl. “CODA is a strong example of representation done right. These characters are not solely defined by being deaf, this film is about family dynamics, and I love that Sian [Heder, the director] has opened that door and crossed that barrier. Only deaf actors could have done these roles justice.”

At times, CODA is almost unforgivably saccharine – from the longing looks between Ruby and her duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to the musical montages – but it’s saved by its humour. A sublime early scene sees a mortified Ruby accompany her parents to the doctor’s where she translates their symptoms. Kotsur, as Ruby’s father Frank, signs that his “nuts are on fire” and they feel like “angry little hard beets covered in barnacles”. He scrunches his hands into fists and gesticulates, with his fingers, the crustaceans burying themselves into his skin. The diagnosis? He just has jock itch. It’s terrific physical comedy that comes alive through sign language, whether you understand it or not.

“That was so much fun to film,” says Jones, looking scandalised at the memory. “Troy is the funniest person I’ve ever met and a big fan of improvisation. We had a tough time keeping a straight face, whether he was humping the air or doing little gestures during the ‘sex talk’ Frank has with Ruby. We didn’t know what he was going to say. He changed it [with] every single take, and it got more graphic each time.”

Emilia Jones gives a heartfelt, plucky performance as Ruby Rossi in ‘CODA'

There are also moments of exquisite poignancy. At one point, Frank gently presses his hands to Ruby’s neck while she sings, trying to feel the vibrations of her voice and appreciate the depth of his daughter’s talent. “Troy was missing his daughter and I was missing my dad,” says Jones, “so we fell into this relationship and had this bond. He was like a father figure to me on set and would often fold me into a hug. In this scene, the team all worked together to ensure that Troy could feel a maximum vibration. It was really powerful trying to find this connection. Troy looked at me and said, ‘I would give anything to be able to hear you sing right now.’ I got very emotional and so did he.”

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CODA is full of fascinating insights into the deaf experience. Instead of sonic alarms to wake the Rossi family up in the mornings, they have vibrations beneath their beds and flashing lights. And Frank loves hip-hop music, despite not being able to hear the lyrics, because of the way he can feel the beat pulse through him. “I learned so much working on CODA,” says Jones. “The first time we had a rehearsal in the Rossi family home, Marlee walked in and said, ‘This is not how a deaf person would have arranged their house.’ So we had to take away the furniture and rearrange it.” The sofa in the living room had been placed against the window, meaning whoever was sitting on it would be backlit and the deaf actors wouldn’t be able to see their facial expressions clearly, which is essential to signing and lip reading.

Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin play Ruby’s embarrassing, loved-up parents in ‘CODA’

Jones picked up habits from the set. “My mum stayed with me during the shoot and I stopped talking to her between walls,” she says. “It would drive her mad because I’d get out of the shower and walk, dripping with water, all the way through the house just to ask what was for dinner. And sometimes I’d wave to her instead of saying, ‘Hey mum.’”

Jones’s family were supportive of her acting career, her father being “Walking in the Air” singer Aled Jones. “They’re also very laid-back,” she adds. “My mum was the type to be in the corner on a film set somewhere reading a book, not interested in what was happening. But I think it did help that I came from a creative family, it allowed me to feel I didn’t have to do anything else – if it made me happy, I could act.”

While Jones hasn’t had formal training – “I’ve never had an acting lesson,” she states – she constantly role-played at home as a child. She attended an improv games class in Barnes, south-west London, and it wasn’t long before the agent running it put her forward for the film One Day. And just like that, her acting career began aged eight, with a starring role in the 2011 romcom alongside Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.

Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones and Sherri Saum in Netflix fantasy drama ‘Locke & Key’

Since then, Jones has appeared in Dennis Kelly’s Utopia, the indie film Two for Joy (where, as in CODA, she played a child who takes on enormous responsibilities for her parents) and Netflix’s fantasy drama Locke and Key, which is currently filming its third series.

Next, she’s in Cat Person, the film adaptation of the most-discussed short story since the dawn of the internet. Kristen Roupenian’s tale of a toxic relationship, published in The New Yorker in the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the birth of the #MeToo movement, went viral in 2017, sparking huge debates about gender, consent and modern dating.

Jones is thrilled to be starring in the film opposite Nicholas Braun, the fan-favourite behind Cousin Greg in the acerbic dynasty drama Succession. “I know I’m late to the party but I’ve just started watching Succession,” she says. “He is so funny. All the quirks make his character perfect. And Cat Person is a great story, I loved it before I was signed to the project and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everybody has a cat person story. And it’s so different from everything else I’ve done, so it will be a challenge.” A challenge? That’s never stopped Jones before.

‘CODA’ will be released in cinemas and premiere globally on Apple TV+ on 13 August 2021

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