Troy Kotsur on Becoming the First Deaf Actor Ever Nominated for an Oscar

Kotsur joins his 'CODA' co-star Marlee Matlin as one of only non-hearing performers recognized by the Academy.

coda, troy kotsur
Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, and Marlee Matlin in 'CODA' | Apple TV+
Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, and Marlee Matlin in 'CODA' | Apple TV+

On Tuesday morning, Troy Kotsur made history: He became the first deaf male actor—and only the second deaf performer—to earn an Oscar nomination.

Kotsur's CODA co-star Marlee Matlin paved the way back in 1987, winning Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God. But until now, that record went unbroken. Kotsur, a 53-year-old Arizona native who has worked in theater for years and also appeared in an episode of The Mandalorian, can't believe his fortune. "I’m not used to this!" he told Thrillist over Zoom after the nominations. "I’ve gotten so many phone calls and texts since they announced the news this morning. It’s just been amazing. My poor manager."

The AppleTV+ crowd-pleaser CODA focuses on Ruby, a hearing child of deaf adults (hence the acronym) played by Locke & Key's Emilia Jones. Her parents (Kotsur and Matlin) rely on her to help with the family's fishing business before school every morning, but when Ruby signs up for the choir and discovers she has a solo-worthy singing voice, she must decide whether to stick around her small Massachusetts hometown or spread her wings elsewhere. As the Oscars have made clear, Kotsur is fantastic in the role, particularly in a moving scene where his character places his hand on Ruby's vocal cords to hear the emotive vibrations as she sings.

During a spirited video call aided by an ASL translator, Thrillist talked to Kotsur about his newfound awards glory, working with Matlin, and his favorite movie of 2021.

We all saw your huge reaction to the BAFTA nomination a few days ago. What did your reaction to the Oscar nomination look like? Did you fall off any chairs today?
Troy Kotsur: I didn’t fall out of my chair today. I learned my lesson. I tried to avoid that happening, but I was on the phone with my wife on FaceTime, and when they announced it, we were both screaming. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I didn’t want to bother the neighbors or they might think I’m in trouble in the house and call 911 or something. So I’m relieved that didn’t happen. I was a bit more under control. I just feel blessed, and I’m overjoyed.

Marlee Matlin was the first deaf performer ever nominated for an Oscar, and the two of you worked on CODA together. What does it mean to you to share that milestone with her?
I remember when I was younger and I saw Children of a Lesser God. That was the first time I saw authentic deaf representation on the big screen, and so that inspired me. Through the years, I really didn’t see enough. Marlee was the only deaf actor out there, really. She really inspired me because she knew that I had been working hard on the theater stage and she knew I was a serious actor who loved my craft. She was the one that made it happen so that I was able to work with her on this project. I told my friends at the time, when I was 17 years old, “I hope to work with her one day,” and they laughed at me. And now my friends can see me now, and look who I’m working with: an Oscar winner!

You mentioned you’ve heard from a lot of people this morning. Who stands out?
First of all, my wife. Before that, my first message was from the art director of Deaf West Theatre, and he said congratulations. And then I got over 100 messages after that, but Deaf West made it in first. I feel honored because I’ve worked onstage with Deaf West since 1994.

There aren’t as many in-person events and red carpets as there normally would be during awards season because of the times we’re living through. Have you gotten to meet your fellow nominees?
Not yet, but one thing I’m looking forward to is meeting Kodi Smit-McPhee from Power of the Dog. I really enjoyed his work and his performance, so I hope to meet him because we had a similar experience and a similar journey. All of this is new to us. You can’t even imagine something like this when you graduate high school and your group of friends all take off. To arrive at an award like this, we become a new group of friends. We’re starting to make history, so I feel honored to be celebrated along with so many talented actors.

coda, troy kotsur and marlee matlin
Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin in 'CODA' | Apple TV+

When CODA sold for a record-breaking $25 million out of Sundance last year, what life did you expect this movie to have?
It was amazing because I never thought that would happen at Sundance. Growing up, I was always a fan of Sundance because many independent filmmakers felt so passionate to work on their projects and make that happen at Sundance. I didn’t realize that CODA would be such a success, winning four awards: best ensemble, the audience award, the jury award, all of that. It was truly amazing, and so after Sundance, I knew it would be a good year because we could continue that momentum. COVID put up so many barriers, and I felt like we were missing something because I was really looking forward to going to Sundance, and of course we couldn’t do in person. But with all the streamers and that culture shift, everyone was with their families during COVID. It coming out on a streamer like AppleTV+ actually happened at the right moment and the right time. So in a way, it was a curse, but it was also such a blessing that it happened under the pandemic.

Since CODA premiered on Apple and picked up awards buzz, I’m curious what kinds of phone calls you’ve been getting. Are offers coming in for interesting projects? Do you feel like people are more interested in telling deaf stories?
I have several scripts that I’ve been excited about that we’re still reviewing. We haven’t made a decision yet. And on some of these projects, they’re actually trying to adapt a hearing role so that a deaf actor can portray it. They’re becoming more creative, and we’re having more meetings. I really appreciate that folks are willing to go a different approach and look at it in a new way, so I see Hollywood beginning to have a transformation.

My next projects is a movie we’re working on called Flash Before the Bang, and the director and the producer are both deaf. We’re collaborating with hearing producers as well, and I’m really looking forward to that process. Also, there will be eight unknown deaf actors portraying this track team at the Oregon School for the Deaf, they won the state championship, competing against hearing teams all over the state in the ‘80s. I’ll play the head coach, and I’m really excited to work on that project. I feel like I’m ready to pass things on to the next generation. I hope Hollywood is ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work on something new.

Does this sort of success make you feel like you owe it to members of your community to pay it forward and help open more doors?
Exactly. When I was about 12 years old, I saw several deaf actors on stage. After that, I got to meet those deaf actors, and I said, “Can I become an actor?” They said, “Yes, absolutely.” That actually gave me hope, and so now young actors are asking me the same question. You know what my answer’s going to be.

Other than CODA, what was your favorite movie of 2021?
I loved Dune because it’s really hard to create a great science-fiction film with a great story. I was impressed with the visual experience, so it was friendly to my deaf eyes. It’s like music to a hearing person’s ears, seeing beautiful visuals like you saw in Dune.

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Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @tarantallegra.