There were four things “CODA” star Emilia Jones needed to master to star in Sian Heder’s crowd-pleasing family drama: how to sign and understand American Sign Language, how to speak in an American accent, how to sing, and how to fish (really, really early in the morning). During a recent lunch with IndieWire in downtown Manhattan on the afternoon of the Gotham Awards (where Jones would go on to win Breakthrough Performer just hours later), the actress still recalled all those asks — all big enough on their own — with obvious excitement.
“I was just sent a script and I was asked to audition, but I was filming at the time and so I asked for an extension,” she recalled. “I got this extension, and then I was sick and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, not only am I 17 years old, I’m British, I don’t know sign language, I’ve never had a singing lesson, and now I’m also ill.’ But I loved the script. I loved the story. I loved the Rossi family. I loved that they were so relatable and dysfunctional, but also it’s about a culture that’s rarely seen on-screen. So, so much of it excited me.”
Heder’s film, a remake of the French feature “La Famille Belier,” takes its title from Jones’ character, Ruby Rossi, and her unique lot in life: She’s the child of deaf adults, with her vibrant parents played by Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and awards season breakout Troy Kotsur. Ruby is the only hearing person in her household — her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf — and the film introduces us to a world where Ruby has long served as her family’s (tenuous) connection to the rest of the world. But Ruby has her own dreams, like attending the Berklee College of Music to sing, that seem poised to put her in conflict with the rest of her tightknit clan.
The film opened the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the coming-of-age tale enthralled viewers (it swept the U.S. Dramatic Competition prizes, both from jury and audiences voters) and buyers (Apple ultimately paid a record-smashing $25 million for the film at the festival) in equal measure. After premiering in select theaters and on AppleTV+ in August, Heder’s film has rightly remained in the awards conversation, pulling in nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice Awards, the Gothams (Kotsur also won in his category, Outstanding Supporting Performance), the Indie Spirits, and a wide assortment of critics groups.
©Apple TV/Courtesy Everett Collection
Like Ruby, Jones is the only hearing member of the film’s core foursome. And while the actress, just 19 years old and still charmingly wide-eyed about the wild ride of “CODA,” can easily talk about the many challenges the role provided for her, what’s most refreshing is how much she seemed to relish the experience. It sounds hard, but that only appears to have added to her joy over the project.
First of all, the actress loves auditioning, so while the idea of embodying Ruby via an early self-tape might sound scary, she dove right into it. Jones ultimately recorded four dialogue scenes, plus a recording of her singing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac (in the film, Ruby sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” though the actress said “Landslide” was originally written into the script). Something must have clicked, because Heder soon reached out to ask her to send through a few more songs. One problem: Jones still wasn’t a singer.
The actress forged ahead, picking two songs she loves — “Gravity” by Sarah Bareilles and “All I Want” by Kodaline — recorded them on her phone in her bathroom, and sent them to the filmmaker. “I knew that other people were probably sending professional recordings, but I was like, ‘I’m just going to try my best,'” Jones said.
It worked. Soon Heder was Skyping the actress to see how she could handle the other big demand of the role of Ruby: American Sign Language. Jones mirrored Heder’s signs during the video chat, throwing her all into it. That worked, too. Two weeks later, Jones got the part. That’s when things really got tough.
The actress didn’t just want to just copy her lines in ASL, she wanted to learn how to actually sign, all the better to communicate with her castmates during shooting. She trained for nine months. Jones was still filming the first season of Netflix’s popular series “Locke & Key” in Toronto when she snagged the part, and spent a large portion of 2019 filming the series during weekdays, then transitioning to ASL training and singing lessons on her weekends.
“I had an amazing sign language teacher named Anselmo DeSousa, and I turn up for my first lesson and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s learn sign language!’ And he’s like, ‘Nope, I’m not teaching you any sign language until you know about my culture,'” Jones said. “He taught me all about deaf culture, and he taught me the alphabet, because if you don’t know any signs, if you know the alphabet, you can finger spell any word. He taught me the alphabet, and then I started learning the language, and then I learned my lines, but I didn’t just want to learn my lines, because I wanted to be able to communicate with Marlee, Troy, and Daniel without an interpreter.”
For Jones, who was so taken by the close-knit family at the center of “CODA,” the idea of showing up on set and not being able to communicate and bond with her onscreen clan was a non-starter. “I didn’t want to talk through somebody, so I made sure that I learned as much as I could in the nine months while I was working 75 hour weeks,” she said. “So quite a challenge!”
It paid off: When she arrived in Massachusetts in the summer of 2019, she felt comfortable enough to improvise alongside her co-stars (Kotsur in particular, she noted, is a master of improvisation). The rest of the onscreen Rossis took her “under their wing” immediately. The foursome would hang out even during the weekends, with Kotsur and Durant watching football while Matlin would cook for the bunch.
“I think you can’t fake that kind of thing. We’re very much a family,” Jones said. “We have this group chat, a family group, the Rossi family group chat that’s always going off. … We wanted to spend time together. I’ve honestly never felt so close to a cast before.”
She kept up her training on set, while also learning all those other skills, like fishing. “We’d go out with the fishermen at 3 a.m. every morning for two weeks, and then I’d get back smelling like fish guts and I’d be a state and then I’d go into ASL training,” Jones said. “I would get home every night and my arms would ache because I was using muscles to sign that I hadn’t used before. I really didn’t want to take an easy route.”
After all that hard work, Jones admits, she didn’t know what would happen to the film, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the globe. “There was a moment when I was like, ‘Is anybody going to see this movie that we have worked so hard on?'” she said. “There were no signs of theaters opening back up. I trained for so long and we all put our heart and soul into it, it was kind of worrying in a way.”
And then Heder called her with some incredible news: The film was opening the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. “I remember I was screaming, Sian was screaming,” Jones said. “And then Sian’s kids were in the car and they were like, ‘Is Emilia having a dance party?,’ and I was like, ‘You know what? That’s a great idea. I should be having a dance party!'”
The response to the film, both from audiences and buyers, was astonishing to Jones. She was just excited that people were seeing the film, let alone that it might have a life beyond the festival. “The night that the movie premiered at festival, I was on a night shoot in a field in -25 degree weather,” she said. “I’d check my phone and it was like, ‘Everyone is loving the movie,’ and I’d put my phone away and I’d be back in the field, and I’d be like, ‘Wow, this is so weird, we’re not all together again, but people are watching.'”
At the end of the festival, the film swept the awards, picking up not just the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section, but a Directing Award for Heder and a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble for the cast. And while they could not all be together to celebrate, Jones still felt close to everyone involved with the making of “CODA.” All that hard work, it really was worth it.
“This movie is a love letter to family, and I think a lot of people during the pandemic have either been forced to be apart from their loved ones or they’ve reconnected,” she said. “This is kind of the movie that you need to see, because there’s so much love and there’s so much heart. I think you need a movie that’s going to make you laugh, but you also need a movie that’s going to make you feel, but that’s not harrowing or depressing. Those movies are great to watch and you learn a lot watching them, but right now what we’re living through is quite depressing, so you need that kind of balance.”
Jones’ next role is a big departure from the warm-heartedness of “CODA”: She’s starring in Susanna Fogel’s “Cat Person,” an adaptation of the viral short story of the same name from Kristen Roupenian. While the projects are very different — in Fogel’s film, Jones plays Margot, a college student who becomes entangled in a toxic relationship with an older man (played by “Succession” favorite Nicholas Braun) — Jones’ level of passion is similar.
She first read the story on the recommendation of a friend, and then ultimately shared it with her mom. “She read it and she had so many stories,” Jones said. “I had so many stories! We were kind of relating.” Incidentally, Jones had a general meeting planned with Fogel around the same time, and at the end of the chat, Jones recalled, the filmmaker suddenly said, “I don’t know if you’ve read this short story, but I’m making ‘Cat Person’ into a movie.”
Jones, ever a sponge for new information and new experiences, recalled expounding on the story at length. “I guess because it was fresh in my mind, I spoke about it for a long time on the phone to her,” Jones said. “And then I guess that was just enough, because she was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play Margot.'”
The project shot in New Jersey in November and December 2021, another experience Jones looks back on incredibly fondly (she loved making the film; plus, Fogel introduced her to the magic of Target and Braun is “an incredible team player”). The script, from Michelle Ashford, expands on the short story, and Jones said it’s now “kind of a psychological thriller” that she expects will “provoke conversation.”
And while Jones has a busy schedule ahead of her, “CODA” never seems to be far from her heart. She’s a proficient ASL signer now, but she really wants to master it, and then move on to learning British Sign Language next. Around her neck, Jones still wears a gold charm in the shape of the ASL sign for “I love you,” the same sign Ruby makes as she drives away from her family at the end of “CODA.” On to the next thing, but always with her family on her mind.
“CODA” is currently available to stream on AppleTV+.