Paul Raci is the discovery hiding in plain sight. After 40 years as an actor, he’s drawing raves for his performance as a deafened alcohol counselor in “Sound of Metal.” Director Darius Marder knew he wanted someone from the Deaf community to play Joe, who serves as something of a mentor for the newly deafened Ruben (Riz Ahmed).
Marder repeatedly turned down meetings with A-list actors who wanted to audition for the role. “It wasn’t until late in the game that I came to understand what and who C.O.D.As [Children of Deaf Adults] were,” he said. “Nobody can watch this movie and not understand that Paul is Joe.”
As a hearing person who grew up with deaf parents, Raci intimately understands the specific worldview of the Deaf. It’s a society that doesn’t necessarily equate the loss of hearing with a handicap, and is every bit as vulnerable to downfalls like addiction. However, that perspective doesn’t get a lot of play in Hollywood. There are few roles for Deaf actors; a role for a complex and deeply flawed Deaf character — the kind that attracts A-list actors — is almost nonexistent.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “We’re going to go with a name,” “We want a name,” Raci said of his own career. “Then you take it to a disabled level and, in my world, deaf actors. Their struggle is tenfold.”
The need for a name is the classic excuse for a lack of representation; that need also directly ties to a filmmaker’s ability to finance a film. “We’re all hungry for real representation. There [are] millions of people waiting to see themselves on screen,” Marder said. “We pay on the backs of the actors that are in it. Going forward, we have to address how we do this, because if everything that gets made is based on a name we’re never going to transcend this issue.”
Most of Raci’s roles have been of the day-player variety; an episode of “Parks and Recreation” here, a “Baskets” there. “Never really got a chance to do a big part in the movies,” he said. “I just lived my life.”
A member of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, Raci is also the lead singer for Black Sabbath tribute band Hands of Doom ASL ROCK, a band that performs in American Sign Language. “Sound of Metal” is the biggest role of his 40-year career. “I see the script and, on paper, that thing was so beautiful and moving. I knew this character, this Joe guy,” he said. “I’ve got so much experience doing exactly what he’s done.”
IndieWire spoke with Raci about embarrassing portrayals of deafness in Hollywood and bringing his experiences to “Sound of Metal,” a film that “my wife thinks it’s autobiographical. I think it definitely is.” The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
INDIEWIRE: There have been so many cringeworthy stories about deafness. What enticed you to “Sound of Metal?”
PAUL RACI: My parents were deaf, so when you talk about cringe-worthy movies, I’ve been watching movies depicting deaf people my whole life. I love the way [“Sound of Metal”] used the deaf world, how it talked about addiction. So it was a perfect project for me, [but] it was quite a struggle trying to get them to even look at my tape. We worked up the audition, sent it in, and when my agent checked on it about a week later they said they hadn’t seen it yet. As matter of fact, they’re having such a hard time because they saw so many people, they [were] going to give up and go to a name [actor]. So she begged them to please look at it and find it. They did find it and five minutes later they called and said that they showed it to the director, Darius Marder, and he wanted to talk to me.
Watching how Hollywood portrays deafness, what is the number-one misconception you see?
I was born in 1948 [and] that was the year that “Johnny Belinda” came out, starring Jane Wyman. She won the Academy Award for playing a deaf mute who gets raped and can’t even scream, you know? ‘Cuz she’s mute. Six or seven years later, that movie came to television and my mother was very excited. She made me sit down and watch it because she was excited that a deaf person was being portrayed. I just watched it again, cringing all the way. Jane Wyman is a hearing person. When you look at her, you can tell that she’s not a native signer.
My mother was somewhat of an actress [and] I grew up in the Chicago deaf clubs. Every week, they [Raci’s parents] would go to the deaf club and perform skits. Cut to 1967, Mia Farrow does [ABC-TV movie “Johnny Belinda”]. Again, she’s a deaf mute. Very pretty lady, but that’s not what deafness is about, these strange [exaggerated] looks of bewilderment.
In 2017, there was a movie with Julianne Moore [Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck”]. Julianne Moore portrays a woman who has been deaf almost all her life. They had the younger version of her played by a real deaf actor [Millicent Simmonds]. I’m just going to be honest with you, [Moore is a] lovely woman, great actor, but that was a sham. I’m not a casting director, but there are many, many deaf women who are actors who could have played that role beautifully, [who] match what Millicent Simmons looked like, but no, they had Julianne Moore do it. I just watched that movie recently, and it was embarrassing to watch her portray somebody deaf. My point is we go from “Johnny Belinda” to the same bullshit all the way over.
How do you make a name if nobody takes a risk? It’s a self-defeating cycle.
My agent… she has a few deaf actors in her stable and there [are] no deaf roles. That’s another thing: How many roles come along? So what she does [is] she submits people for projects. She’ll say, “Hey, how about this role here? Just think about casting a deaf guy in this role.” And they go, “Huh?” Some go “That’s a great idea,” but when they find out they have to hire a sign-language interpreter, it’s a big hurdle.
In an interview where you talked about, and I’m using your term, being a conduit for your parents for the hearing world. That sounds like a large responsibility at such a young age. Did you see it that way?
My mother lost her hearing when she was five years old, so she had some speech still from when she was five. My father never had any hearing. He got spinal meningitis when he was nine months old so he was totally deaf, had no speaking ability.
It’s a lot different with kids who have deaf parents [today]. All this technology, the texting. Growing up in Chicago, in the ‘50s, we didn’t have any of that. My mom still remembered music. She took me to see “Love Me Tender.” We went into a darkened theater and we’re watching the screen. She’s sitting next to me, there’s no captioning, and I’m interpreting the whole frickin’ movie for her. It was one of the most striking things that I ever had to do. I used to interpret the television for my dad. When “The Fugitive” was on — it was my dad’s favorite show — I’m sitting next to the TV telling him what’s going on.
That stuff I wanted to do because it was a world of entertainment, but when you go to buy a car with your parents, they’re talking about the interest. I don’t know what the interest is. I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and yet I’m interpreting from this adult, to my father, and I’m doing the best I can, but I know that something’s wrong and I’m not doing it right. It is a big responsibility.
I’d be on the phone talking to the electric company, and I had to tell the guy we didn’t have any money to pay our bill. [My mom’s] begging the guy and he can hear my mother speaking in the background; she’s speaking [in] her Deaf accent. It was a very emotional thing going on in the pit of my stomach and, at the same time, I can hear my buddies out in the street yelling through my window, “Yo, Paul, time to play baseball!”
I got drafted and enlisted in the Navy. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of that house because I had enough of being the conduit. I hate to say it now, because I look back on it [and] it hurts my heart. I wanted to get the hell out of there and I did, and I landed myself in Vietnam and that [is] a whole ‘nother story. I wish I’d stayed.
Disabled characters tend to be very saintly and pristine. Why is it vital to avoid those depictions of disability?
Because deaf people will tell you themselves they’re sick of this pristine portrayal of them and that’s why this film is so cool. Deaf people have addictions. Guess what? There are deaf rapists. There are bad deaf people. That’s why my agent submits deaf actors for these roles because there can be a deaf bad guy. This one guy, I’ll never forget, in Chicago, goes, “Your parents are deaf? So, they had sex?”
Ruben believes that once he gets the implant everything will be back to normal for him. Why is it so beneficial to have this story show that items like implants are important, but they’re not cures?
Joe says it in the movie: “Deafness is not something to fix.” When I moved out in 1989, 1990, that was the thing I started to notice about young people, young deaf people. They were saying to me, “I’m perfect just the way I am. You’re disabled. You can’t speak my language, so stop calling me disabled.”
When the cochlear implants first came out, there was a demonstration [with] the guy [who] had one of these cochlear implants. He was on stage in front of a whole Deaf community and he couldn’t hear very well and it was awful. My dad was there [and] I said, “Dad, you want one of those things?” He goes, “Fuck no. I’m perfectly happy the way I am.”
My father died a happy, peaceful man. My mother was always, I hate to say this, tortured a little bit because she did have [hearing] ’till she was five years old. So she was tortured by not being able to hear Elvis. I went to see the Beatles. I came back and I told her what it was all about and she had tears in her eyes because she had seen Frank Sinatra in Chicago as a young girl and loved the excitement so much.
Do you see commonalities to her story in Ruben’s journey?
Oh, my mother would really relate big time to this movie and it is cool to see the way Ruben gets taken in by the community. When you’re in that world, they’re not disabled at all, communicating, loving each other, supporting each other. It was hard not to feel that when we were on that set. Riz Ahmed, I could see he was falling in love with them.
Were there ways to bring your expertise onto the set?
I’ve had my addictions. I’ve had my problems with drugs. I worked in many deaf ministries. There are AA programs in sober houses, [but] they’re mostly hearing. Then I came out to California and they have a place out here called Awakenings. It’s Deaf owned and Deaf run. We need more of that.
I didn’t communicate too much in the trailer when we were getting made up for the scenes, but I have tons of material based on addiction and every once in a while I’d slip them a card and say, “Hey, Riz, I want you to think about this.” I was trying to share some of my little tidbits of addiction wisdom, kind of like method acting.
Would you say that the character’s autobiographical?
A lot of my friends say the same thing. One guy asked me if I wrote it. My wife thinks it’s autobiographical. I think it definitely is.
We talked earlier about non-deaf actors playing Deaf roles. Does it make a difference when the story is showing that transition into deafness?
I hear people saying, why is this hearing guy playing a Deaf role? And my role, too! So Riz and I are gonna get some flak. The thing is, there’s the Deaf world [and] there’s the hearing world. What you call these people that you see in the movie, they’re culturally Deaf like my parents. Riz, Ruben, is not culturally Deaf. He’s a hearing guy who lost his hearing; same thing with Joe. He was a hearing guy to the age of his early 20s and then he gets hit with this bomb. There are millions of people on this earth right now who are in that category of “I’m not Deaf, [but] I’m not hearing anymore.”
What do you hope audiences walk away with in seeing Ruben’s story?
I hope that they can see how joyous the Deaf community is, and that not all deaf people are the same. The Deaf population is not a monolith. It’s so layered, so complicated. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s angry. The gamut of human emotion, amplified. I want hearing people to realize that attitude of there’s nothing to fix here. They need to come down to or rise up to our level to understand that there’s so much more and maybe you can appreciate what you have here [hearing] even more.