‘CODA’ Star Emilia Jones Is Going to Make You Cry So Hard—And Then Become a Huge Star
“CODA” is a coming-of-age crowd pleaser about an aspiring teen singer born into a deaf family. And its astonishing breakout star Emilia Jones is about to become a very big deal.
There are habits we formed because of the pandemic, sometimes in indulgent or even desperate fashion. We drank and binged on comfort foods. We puzzled. We developed a fierce delineation between the concepts of “soft” and “hard” pants. And we cried. Oh, did we cry.
The film’s title is an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults, unique members of the deaf community who are hearing but grew up with American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language.
Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA is a remarkable entry in the canon of coming-of-age films, centered around a teenage girl who has spent her life as de facto translator for her deaf parents and brother. She discovers she has a voice—a beautiful one, it turns out—thanks to her school’s choir teacher, and wants to pursue it out of school, and maybe even at college. That complicates things for a family that relies on her to be their voice as part of their fishing business. Not to mention the emotional shock: How does a family react when their daughter’s passion not only flies in the face of their needs and interests, but their ability to even appreciate it?
Glee and Sound of Metal are typically brought up in conversations about the film. Filled with musical set pieces, familiar yet flawless beats following a shy girl soaring into her own, and a gut-wrenching exploration of family dynamics in the deaf community—executed by a historic cast of deaf actors in leading roles—CODA produces tears as it unfolds at the accelerated pace of the chocolate factory conveyor belt in the famous episode of I Love Lucy.
It debuted to a Sundance Film Festival audience watching from their couches who were grateful for the uplift, especially after the heavy year in the industry and in… life. A bidding war immediately ensued, and the film shattered the festival record, selling to Apple for an astonishing $25 million, a poignant gesture of faith that the world—and Hollywood—would be back again to enjoy it.
Watching the film again before speaking to breakout star Emilia Jones, who plays Ruby, the hearing child of the deaf Rossi family, was an exercise in escalating breakdowns: a light cry, then a choking stream of tears, and finally, as Ruby signs and sings along to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” while her family watches in awe, a full-on cathartic sob.
After earning raves, scoring that $25 million bid, and winning four awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, CODA hits theaters and is available for streaming on Apple TV+ Friday. Six months after that rapturous festival debut, we’re still navigating a pandemic and staring down the dread of the unknown. Yet here is a film about the power of art to bring people together and the capability of a family to heal through their deep love for each other.
“I think CODA is coming out at a good time,” Jones says, speaking over Zoom ahead of the film’s release. “It’s a relatable crowd pleaser. It’s gonna make you cry. It’s gonna make you laugh. Laughter and tears are an irresistible double act. Plus, it’s this huge love letter to family.”
In ways she’s starting to experience but also can never expect or prepare for, Jones’ life is changing because of this film. Just 17 when she shot CODA and 19 now, she is the star of a leading Oscar contender. Her mother is played by Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actor to ever win an Academy Award (for Children of a Lesser God in 1987). That their emotional scenes together are the backbone of the movie elevates her shot at awards recognition, too.
The London native has been acting since she performed in Shrek the Musical on the West End when she was 8 and most recently starred in the supernatural Netflix series Locke & Key. But this is the kind of showcase for a newcomer that earns silly monikers like “It Girl” and “Next Big Thing.” Whatever that may mean, there is something undeniable: She’s incredible in a difficult role in a sensational movie.
“I’m very humble so I don’t believe anything that people are saying when they tell me nice things,” Jones blushes. When countered with the argument that $25 million is a pretty irrefutable statistic, she laughs. “OK. I guess I’ll have to come to terms with it.”
In what we now solemnly refer to as “normal times,” Jones would have been zipping through Park City, Utah in party dresses and fashionable winter wares to screen CODA and soak in its reception. Because of the circumstances of this year’s virtual festival, she was actually on a night shoot in a field “in the middle of nowhere,” she says, when the movie premiered.
“It was, like, minus 30s. Absolutely freezing. And then suddenly I pulled my phone out and it was just all these amazing reviews about CODA. I couldn’t believe it.” When, a day later, news broke about the record-breaking sale to Apple, she was in the bath. Her parents were visiting her at the time, and she ran out soaking wet to celebrate with them.
“There was a moment in time when it felt like the world just wasn’t going to open up anytime soon, and I was worried that maybe no one would see this movie that we all worked so hard on,” she says.
“The pandemic has either forced people to be apart from their family or allowed you to reconnect with them. I know, for me, I was away from home for like a year. And then when the world shut down, I was able to go back home and spend quality time with my family. That feeling of family is something people can relate to in the film.”
In CODA, Ruby is a high-school outcast. Not only is she the interpreter for her deaf family, but together they own a fishing business. They’re up at 3 a.m. to hit the waters outside Gloucester, Mass. and the smell of mackerel on Ruby’s flannel only makes her stick out more. Still, she musters the courage to audition for her school’s choir, partly because of her crush on the school’s star performer, but also because of her secret desire to sing—one she had buried because of the awkwardness it might cause in her family.
The school’s choir teacher pushes her to audition for the Berklee College of Music, a future she never saw for herself and that her family has a hard time processing. They depend on her as their ear and voice to the world. Now she has chosen to center her life around something they cannot appreciate; they can’t hear her sing. “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” her mother signs to her.
Ruby’s musical ambitions open a Pandora’s box of unacknowledged tensions between mother and daughter. When they finally have it out, Ruby point-blank asks if her mother wishes she had been born deaf, too, like her brother. The answer is wrenching, but it’s more honest than any film in this genre normally has the courage to be.
After auditioning for the movie with a gentle cover of “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, for which she accompanied herself on guitar, Jones trained for nine months to play Ruby.
A lot is made, especially during awards season, of the training for a skill or sport or the learning of a language or dialect that actors undertake for certain roles—always met with fawning awe. For CODA, Jones did triple duty. She learned how to be a commercial fisherman, worked with a vocal coach to beef up her belting, and learned how to sign ASL fluently and with a specific bent on how an interpreter would approach conversation.
“If you do a film, sometimes it’s going to go to a huge movie screen and your eye is the size of a car or a bus, so less is more,” she says. “When you internalize a lot of your emotions, you can still tell and you can see through your eyes. You don’t have to do that much. But with sign language, it’s so physical and it’s so emotional too. You inhabit what you’re saying. It allowed me to get out of my head and really embody what I was saying in a vulnerable way. There are no words to hide behind.”
As Matlin told The Daily Beast, at her insistence, the deaf members of the Rossi family were all portrayed by deaf actors, remedying an original pitch to hire hearing performers and teach them ASL. When CODA hits theaters, it will be the first film to have burned-in captions, which is to say that they are permanently on the print of the film and will require no special equipment or accommodation to access—a historic moment for the deaf community.
Watching Matlin, as well as Troy Kotsur, who plays Ruby’s father, and Daniel Durant, who plays her brother, not only influenced and informed how she signed on screen as Ruby, but also how Jones communicates to all people.
“Definitely in my life now I give people more eye contact and my full attention,” she says. “Especially watching Daniel, no matter what somebody was doing for him, he would look at them and he would thank them. I thought that was so lovely. I’m like, why don’t we do that anymore?”
She’s started to drive her mom a little mad when she’s at home. “Say I’m wondering what’s for dinner and I just got out of the shower, I’ll definitely walk through the house to the room that she’s in, even if I’m soaking wet. Instead of just shouting through walls.”
Even her connection to her own emotions are different now. She remembers when it was time to shoot the climactic “Both Sides Now” performance. It was near the end of the shoot, which she spent with Matlin cooking “family dinners” on weekends and fundamentally changing her life in ways she knew few acting jobs ever would again.
“ASL makes you more emotional,” Jones says. While singing the song and signing along to it, she got to the lyric, “To say ‘I love you’ right out loud,” and looked up to the theater’s balcony where Matlin, Kotsur, and Durant—Ruby’s family—were all sitting. Lost in the moment, she forgot how the song’s melody went and changed it. That’s the take that’s in the film.
“I'm hoping that people are gonna watch this film and want to know more about ASL, know more about the culture,” she says. “I know a couple of my friends that have seen the movie are now texting me saying, ‘Hey, there’s a deaf woman that works in my local shop. I want to ask her how her day is and tell her I’ve got my own bags.’ It makes me excited because times are changing and we’re headed in the right direction. And I think representation done right is definitely CODA.”
As with every year, there is buzz around certain A-list names in this year’s Best Actress race because of their industry stature and the pedigree of the projects they’re working on—Frances McDormand (The Tragedy of Macbeth), Lady Gaga (The House of Gucci), Kristen Stewart (Spencer), Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and Jennifer Hudson (Respect), to name a few.
But while so many of those performances are just predictions whispered into the wind based on hopes and assumptions—and just as likely to ride off into obscurity on those gusts as they are to arrive at the Dolby Theater in March—Jones’ work in CODA is already unimpeachable.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Jon Frosch raved that Jones acts and sings with “captivating directness” that works for a teen who “has long shouldered the responsibilities of adulthood.” But his praise doesn’t end there. “She’s also subtle, suggesting an entire palette of moods in a character who’s never had the luxury of indulging them,” he says. “It’s an intuitive, unshowy powerhouse of a performance.”
Most reviews of the film amount to an entire choir of praise for the newcomer. In Polygon: “An astonishing breakout performance.” In Variety: “Emilia Jones acts with a captivatingly authentic purity of feeling.” And IndieWire dubs it a “star-making turn.”
Of course, winter award season hopes are wishes upon a scorching sun at this point of the hot summer—and of the year in film. And whether or not that matters, a coronation as Hollywood’s next thrilling discovery certainly does. When critics and industry tastemakers are trumpeting the pleasures of a great crowd-pleaser, to the tune of ace reviews and a $25 million Sundance record, being the face—and, it turns out, the voice—of such a buzzy title is a great position in which to find oneself.
She’s already won one of the hottest industry roles, in the adaptation of the viral 2017 short story Cat Person that ran in The New Yorker, about a college student’s sexual experience with an older man. (Succession’s Nicholas Braun will play her counterpart.) She’s also in the midst of shooting season 3 of Locke & Key.
Asked whether she hopes to get to go to Sundance at some point and take in the experience she missed out on because of the pandemic, she counters that she’s most looking forward to just seeing CODA play on the big screen… anywhere. A planned Los Angeles premiere was recently scrapped because of concerns over rising COVID rates.
It’s one thing, after all, to cry alone while watching CODA on your couch. It’s a whole other thing to be around everyone crying together. Jones laughs. “It’s a different experience. And I want that.”