And what about singing lessons? Throughout the movie you beautifully sing songs by Etta James, Joni Mitchell, and Aretha Franklin with so much heart and emotion, yet you had never taken a vocal lesson prior to this. You appeared to have the confidence of someone who’s been singing professionally for a very long time.
I did a West End show when I was eight where I sang and was in the choir at school. I’m always humming, but I had never done anything at the level required for CODA. The lessons were really fun because I was learning the correct techniques. All of the singing we did was live on set, so everything you hear was recorded right there and not in a studio.
My singing teacher, Elaine Overholt, gave me the confidence that I needed. I was nervous because whenever I sing on my own, I sing gentle covers. Suddenly I was singing Etta James and Aretha Franklin—all of these big songs! But Elaine pushed me, and I loved it.
Do you consider yourself fluent in ASL?
I’m still learning. When we were in production, I was mostly focused on the script. But the minute I got to set, I realized that I signed so much in the film that I actually knew a lot more than I thought. When I met Troy, Daniel, and Marlee, I suddenly was having a conversation and was like, “Oh my goodness, what?!” I realized I was piecing all of my lines together to talk. My goal is to be absolutely fluent. I spent all of the lockdown taking ASL. It’s such a beautiful language. It’s so physical and emotional too, because you really inhabit what you’re saying.
Prior to CODA, did you have a relationship with the deaf community?
I really didn’t. ASL was something that always interested me, but I hadn’t been given the opportunity to learn anything. I honestly didn’t know anything about deaf culture. That’s why I was so grateful to Anselmo. He didn’t just teach me about ASL, he taught me about deaf culture.
How do you most relate to Ruby?
I definitely relate to her when it comes to singing. I had never sang like this before, live in front of everyone on set, so that was daunting. Especially because the actors who were in the school choir were actually music students—either students at Berklee College of Music, or students who had just graduated from there. So I was singing in front of the best singers ever. I felt like Ruby because every time I got up and sang I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so nervous!”
What was your favorite scene to film?
I loved the quarry scenes. I had never really jumped off rocks like that before, and I’m a daredevil, so I loved that. But my favorite scene to film was with Troy on the back of the pickup truck. It was the last scene of the day, and we were trying to figure the best way for Troy to feel my [singing] vibrations. We were working it out and Troy broke away, looked at me, and said, “I would give anything to be able to hear you sing right now.” We were very close because Troy was missing his daughter, and I was missing my dad, so we had this special bond. He folded me into one of his hugs and it really touched me.
Growing up, what was your idea of what it meant to be a successful actor, and has that idea changed as you’ve become a working actor?