If ever art has imitated life, it is Paul Raci’s selection to play Joe, the head guru of a sober house for the deaf, in the acclaimed drama Sound of Metal by director-co-writer Darius Marders.
Raci, 72, cut his teeth in the Chicago theater scene, appeared in numerous plays at Los Angeles’ famed Deaf West Theater, and has been seen on TV shows such as Parks and Recreation, Goliath and Baskets. But it was his experience growing up with two deaf parents, his lifelong involvement with the Deaf community, and his proficiency in American Sign Language that caught Marder’s attention once he broadened his search for casting. ‘actors initially deaf at CODA (Children of Deaf Adults). like Raci.
Much like Joe, Raci is a Vietnamese vet who has overcome addiction, has led deaf recovery groups and, like the suddenly deaf protagonist in the films, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), plays in a heavy metal band. The piece couldn’t be a more perfect fit.
Envelope recently spoke with Raci by phone from his Burbank home about these parallels and the attention he received for his fine performance, which includes Supporting Acting Awards from the National Society of Film. Critics and the National Board of Review, as well as an Independent. Nomination for the Spirit Award.
Darius Marder said the most important thing he learned from making the film was that not everyone sees deafness as a disability. It is also one of the themes expressed in the film by your character. Can you talk a little bit about the divide of deaf culture between those who accept being deaf and those, like Ruben, who want to change or fix it?
There seems to be a gap between just leave me alone I’m perfect the way I am and if you wanna go ahead and do it [get cochlear implants] Go ahead and give it a try. That’s all Joes tryna tell Ruben [when he decides to have the ear surgery], even though Joes is truly heartbroken by the decision.
But the deaf community in 2021 is much more willing to include everyone in the tent. Deaf people have also gained the power to believe that they are ruling their own destiny and they are not going to let an overhearing person tell them how to think about themselves or what they are capable of doing. I wish my parents could be alive today to see this change in attitude.
The lesson for all of us, I think, is that you can’t really judge another man’s or woman’s journey.
Are there things that you, as a member of the deaf community, have brought to your character or to the film that weren’t specifically scripted?
Darius told me from the start: Look, I’m not Shakespeare, so if you think something’s wrong let me know. There are a few lines in the film that haven’t been written down, like when Joe tells Ruben about the bomb that knocked him out in Vietnam: I still remember the music I was listening to when that bomb went off. It was an improvisation line, and it comes from my mother, who still remembered the music [from before losing her hearing at 5].
And if you watch the movie you will see how Joe climbs the stairs how I had to pull myself up the ramp. This is my father. My father, being stone deaf, had a lot of balance problems, especially at night, and climbing the stairs was like a perilous journey. There are so many subtle little things that have influenced me.
Is there a difference in attitude between someone born deaf or deaf from a young age and someone, like Joe or Ruben, who has lived much or most of their life in full hearing?
The difference is huge. Look at the difference between my [born-deaf] dad, with his peaceful acceptance of who he was and his deaf world, and my mom, who remembered hearing. The older she got, the more deaf she got, and she was like, F this; I don’t want to do this. Now for someone like Ruben it’s a hard road to hoe, man, really hard. Guy like Joe: really tough.
Despite your long history with the Deaf culture, did you learn anything new about the Deaf community or yourself while playing Joe?
I can’t say that I learned anything new except that there has been a heightened realization of the capacity of deaf people and the number of deaf actors who need a break. [It also] strengthened my knowledge about [how] any deaf person, if you try to communicate with them, to be present with them with your eyes to give a little gesture or learn a sign language phrase oh, my God, that just opens the door. They will be your best friend. They want to be in touch with the auditory culture; they want to have a relationship with you.
I was just happy [by it all]. I knew we were doing something right and the result speaks for itself. If you had been able to see Riz on set, how in the deaf community, and how open he was, it was a beautiful thing to watch.
How has it been to suddenly be the center of so much attention after spending 40 years as a fellow actor?
Being in the middle of it right now is overwhelming and rewarding. I think that just added about 20 years to my life, because I feel like a very young man right now.
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