When Troy Kotsur was 8 years old, he discovered the movie Star Wars.
He would go on to watch it 28 times.
“It was so strong visually,” he explains. “It was great visual storytelling. … It blew me away. I had never seen light sabers, laser guns, robots, C-3PO, spaceships, and fighter jets. Everything looks so real, and it was so overwhelming.”
That movie, he says, changed his life.
Kotsur, who is from Mesa, was born Deaf.
“I see the world with my eyes,” he explains. “I’m a visual communicator.
“Our eyes, as Deaf audience members, are like our ears. At home, I would watch cartoons like Tom and Jerry, and I loved Tom and Jerry because there wasn’t any dialogue, there were just a lot of cat and mouse chase scenes, and it was so fun for me to watch as a child—I’d see their eyes and their tongues bulge out and all of that.”
In fact, he was so taken with it that the morning after he watched a show he’d get on his school bus—he attended a K-12 school for the Deaf—stand in the aisle, and tell everyone the story of what happened in the episode.
“I’d just see all these heads pop up and then turn and their eyes light up, and I felt like they were my audience. We didn’t have seat belts on the bus, and I was able to stand up on one of the chairs and just perform the entire episode of Tom and Jerry. I’ll never forget that shine in their eyes and their laughter. It really made me feel good, and I realized I wanted to perform.”
And thus began Troy Kotsur’s acting career.
While Kotsur had found something he enjoyed—the act of storytelling—it never occurred to him that he might encounter any limitations just because he was Deaf.
“It was the hearing world; it was Hollywood that had those limitations, and it took many years to break through, and so here I am today,” he says.
Here he is today, indeed.
In the years since he realized his career aspirations, Kotsur acted in productions at the Herberger Theatre in Phoenix, taught acting at the Sedona Southwest Institute of the Arts, was involved with shows produced by Deaf West Theatre, performed with National Theatre of the Deaf, directed the film No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie, and more. And on March 27, at the 94th Academy Awards, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for his role in the hit movie CODA.
The movie shares the story of the only hearing member of a Deaf family, who attempts to help her family’s struggling business while pursuing her own dreams of being a singer.
CODA stands for “child of Deaf adults” and it was a script he connected with immediately—for many reasons.
“Obviously I was thrilled to finally be able to show vulgar sign language and dirty signs,” he says, laughing, going on to say that hearing people don’t often think about the fact that a spoken script contains vulgar language, and there was finally a script that allowed Deaf culture to express it.
“You know, as Deaf audience members we’re used to your hearing movies with your subtitles with your F-words and your four-letter words and your F-bombs and so on, and we’re used to that. But where was the opportunity for us to show and portray that part of our culture?” he asks. “So, I was thrilled when I saw that in the script.”
Of course, Kotsur was also thrilled about the essence of Frank Rossi, the character he would play, who was the Deaf father to a hearing teenage daughter.
“Frank … he seemed like a very strong, loving, comedic [character]. He was frustrated. He loved his family. He was a universal character. It didn’t matter that he was Deaf or hard of hearing. He just was a reminder to cherish and love your family. The only barrier that Frank has—and that most deaf people have, for that matter—is communication.”
The film bridged the gap between the hearing and Deaf worlds, allowing people to relate to both via the spoken word and sign language, and gave audience members a glimpse into Deaf culture.
While he is proud of the film, his role, and his Oscar, Kotsur insists he is still the same person he was before his big win.
“I’m still the same person before and after the Oscars,” he says. “I’m still the same person, but what’s interesting is how others perceive me.”
He shares how when he goes to his favorite Starbucks drive-thru he’s now recognized by people who had given him coffee for years and talks about the cashier who, during a recent supermarket trip, came from behind the cash register to hug him.
“I’m still the same humble guy and I’m the same person, and it’s been interested to see other people’s reactions and see other people get excited,” he says.
Still, that recognition has sometimes made him think twice about where he shops.
He’s in Mesa often and he loves the SanTan area, although going to the nearby Apple store makes him pause.
“I go there,” he says. “But it’s a bit weird for me because now on all of the computer screens in the Apple store they’re advertising CODA, and so there’s a photo of me on every single computer monitor in the Apple store! So now I’m a bit uncomfortable showing up there.”
One thing he does still love is spending time on Arizona’s lakes—he plans to get a jet ski one day—and kayaking, jet skiing, and water skiing. He also enjoys golf and likes to head to Flagstaff to ski.
For now, he’s fielding acting offers and looking toward his next steps.
“I’m starting to see Hollywood open their minds a bit more to a new perspective and have a fresh take, finally, especially after the success of CODA and the big impact we made. I’m excited for Hollywood to finally push themselves to a new level and push themselves out of their comfort zone,” he says.
In addition to those changes, Kotsur wants to make an impact on kids who are born deaf. It's important to him that parents know that they don't always need to get their children a cochlear implant.
“I just don’t want American Sign Language to be ignored,” he explains. “It’s such as blessing for Deaf children. I think that it’s a perfect marriage to let these children have the option to develop their identity as Deaf people and learn sign language. … It’s so important for these Deaf kids to develop their own identity and their own method of communication.”
As someone who grew up Deaf, he says that he is proof that he knows what he’s talking about.
“Why do I need to change who I am to fit the outside world?” he asks. “This is who I am, and I just happen to be Deaf.
“Thanks to our film CODA we’ve had a big step forward, and I really hope that parents now know about the beauty of sign language and do what’s best for their kids and make sure they learn sign language and that they’re involved in their kids’ lives and pay attention to their needs. And, that hearing parents can learn from their Deaf children. … I want to encourage these Deaf kids. That’s what I care about.”