Sound of Metal: Writer-Director on Film’s Portrayal of Deafness and Addiction


Darius Marder and Paul Raci
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for ZFF; Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for AT&T

Darius Marder (left) and Paul Raci

In Amazon’s Sound of Metal, which has earned six Oscar nominations including best picture, Riz Ahmed plays the drummer in a heavy metal duo whose world is torn apart when he begins to lose his hearing. Ahmed’s Ruben, a recovering addict, turns to a sober living facility run by a fellow deaf addict named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Raci, who was raised as a child of deaf adults (CODA) and is fluent in American Sign Language, is an actor with four decades of experience on stage and screen. For this breakthrough role, the 73-year-old Raci has earned his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He joins writer-director Darius Marder (who has been co-nominated for best screenplay) for a conversation about depicting the deaf community onscreen, and how Raci’s upbringing influenced his acting ambitions.

Script is intersection of three themes: music, hearing loss and addiction?

DARIUS MARDER Music and hearing loss were always there. There was this handoff with this project of Derek Cianfrance’s, and I was never going to deviate from that. Derek had kind of stumbled across this wonderful concept, which was this transformation that would occur in the realm of this couple who play metal. It took me years to fully understand that it was about addiction more than it was about deafness. I didn’t want to make a movie only about struggling with deafness, but I didn’t know how to achieve that. It wasn’t until I fully grasped the addict in Ruben. It took so much writing to get to.

How much about this community were you familiar?

MARDER I am just at the beginning of understanding it. “The deaf community” is such a massive idea; it involves so many subsets and nuances. It’s a culture, and like any culture it would take a lifetime to fully understand it. And maybe you would never understand it if you’re not really from it. That’s a little how I feel. My grandmother was late-deafened, so I had a window into Ruben’s experience. She was a younger woman, and she had to contend with straddling the two worlds. I found that people within the community were so generous with me. At first they were rightfully suspicious. But I wasn’t just looking to manipulate something or do something false; once we worked through that, there was such a generosity of sharing, which ended up on the screen.


MARDER Paul, as a CODA, you’ve been taking care of and looking after the deaf community for your whole life. Getting you to shift out of that mode was quite difficult, because you are such a caretaker. You’re always looking out. And you brought me little cultural truths that were super wonderful, and I was always happy to learn them. You were very much a part of that because you grew up in deaf culture.

MARDER It’s interesting how each actor needs a different process in order to inhabit a role. For Paul, it was about trusting his own DNA, and some of that was deeply personal. What’s interesting about Joe as a character is that he’s an addict, too. There were scenes that we entered into where we both discovered things in your life, Paul, that were brutal — the kind of things that one lives with and never talks about. You had to enter your own garden of truth in order to enter into this character.

Sound of Metal
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Raci (center) with Olivia Cooke and Riz Ahmed in Amazon’s Sound of Metal.

MARDER CODAs live between two worlds and they can end up being a liaison between the two. That becomes their role in life. With you, Paul, I think acting is that one place where you’re free of the confines of that responsibility. You were born into a sense of duty, which is so noble. You were that liaison you had to be, but it’s such a heavy burden. And acting is that place where you are that individual, which is why I was so dogmatic about you not being in that interpreter role when you were not acting. You needed to be there for you — which I think for a CODA is not normal. I could have changed the role to be a CODA, but in having that role be deaf, Paul was able to bring his father and his mother into that role. So when Paul’s walking up the stairs, you know, and holding on to the rail — that’s his father, right, Paul? Because your father didn’t have great balance. And when Paul’s reading lips, that’s your mother, because your mother was a lip reader. So it enabled you to, in a way, heal some of that divide, and I saw that happen in real time.