She spent nine months learning ASL for the role, which is already getting awards-season buzz.
Emilia Jones is a magical person, I’m convinced. You'll understand why after you watch CODA, the award-winning Sundance movie that sold to Apple for a record-breaking sum and is available in theaters and streaming on August 13. In it, Jones seamlessly flows from a New England accent to record-speed sign language to singing with a voice that rivals Maggie Rogers. Turns out, Jones is British, has never had a professional acting lesson in her life, and only learned how to sing and sign months prior, just for the role. See? Magic.
Jones, 19, leads the heartwarming coming-of-age story about Ruby Rossi, a child of deaf adults (otherwise known as CODA) who discovers she has a talent for singing. A talent so big it could get her out of a sleepy Massachusetts fishing town and into the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant, all of whom are deaf, star as Ruby’s parents and brother, respectively, and the film was written and directed by Sian Heder.
“This is a family and culture represented onscreen that you don’t see very often, and I’m hoping it will interest people and open their eyes,” says Jones. “It’s an uplifting and relatable crowd-pleaser, and it makes you feel. Laughter and tears are an irresistible double act.”
Jones, who beat out hundreds of other actors for the part, studied ASL for nine months in preparation for the role. She’d sign between scenes on her Netflix supernatural thriller, Locke & Key; she’d sign while spending time in Southwest London, where she still lives in her family home...any opportunity to practice, she took. She also studied with a vocal coach. “I like to find a challenge in everything that I do,” she says.
When she’s not acting or signing or singing, Jones spends her downtime practicing guitar (she says she tends to lean toward sad songs) and wandering around London. But there’s a good chance Jones’s days of anonymously meandering will be numbered. She has all the makings for stardom, and Hollywood is noticing: She’ll next take on the lead role in Cat Person alongside Succession’s Nicholas Braun, based on 2017’s viral New Yorker story.
Until then, Jones is thrilled to be immersed in the world of CODA and hopes it brings about change. “This film is not just a universal deaf or CODA experience. It’s one family’s story,” she says. “I hope that people learn from our movie and want to tell more stories.”
Glamour: You beat out hundreds of actors to play the role of Ruby. What was your audition process like?
Emilia Jones: I was sent the script, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I fell in love with the Rossi family—they’re dysfunctional and such a loving, close family. When I read it I thought, “Whoever gets to play Ruby is the luckiest girl in the world.” It’s not every day that you get to learn so many skills for one movie, so that drew me to want to audition.
I sent in my audition tapes with four speaking scenes and a performance singing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Then I Skyped with Sian and we spoke about Ruby and her plans for the film. There was a huge emphasis on making this film as authentic as possible, and I loved that. I thought, “I have to be a part of this. I really, really want to do it.”
After the Skype session, I was asked to copy a sign language video that featured Sian’s friend signing one of the scenes. Sian said, “I know you don’t know any ASL, but just copy my friend the best you can. I want to see you sign.” I watched the video three times and then went to make a cup of tea. When I got back to my computer, the link had expired! Of course, it was a Friday evening so no one was in the office, and my audition was on Tuesday morning. I was like, what am I going to do?! I remembered that a part of the video included finger-spelling “Berklee,” so I just practiced that again and again and again. Once I was able to get the link again on Monday, I stayed up all night learning the other signs.
A couple of weeks later, Sian called me and said, “The role is yours.” She said everyone was really impressed with my finger-spelling, and that’s because all I did all weekend long was finger-spell “Berklee.”
How did you celebrate landing the role?
I always do this thing where I scream and shout and am very excited. My dad, mum, and brother were actually in Toronto with me when I found out, so we all went out to dinner. And then I went straight into ASL lessons. I was so excited.
How long did you study ASL?
I took ASL lessons for nine months. When I started, I was filming Locke & Key and we were working 75-hour weeks, so I only had weekends for lessons. But I was signing in between takes and always finger-spelling the most random words I could remember from the script. One of the crew members once asked me what I was finger-spelling and I was like, “Tinder!”
I had an amazing teacher named Anselmo DeSousa. He is deaf; I think when you’re learning ASL, you should be taught by a deaf coach because being deaf is so much more than just sign language. It’s an experience that no hearing person can ever fully understand. Working with Anselmo, I couldn’t really talk and had to sign in order to communicate. It pushed me and made me learn faster. He was so patient and kind.
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?
I never really thought about what it meant to be a successful actor when I was younger—I was always focused on the performance. If I was blown away by someone’s performance, I would think, “I look up to you,” and follow their career. Right now I love Viola Davis. I think she’s incredible. I follow her on Instagram and she seems super positive and fun—she has such great energy. She’s a boss and carries the whole crew and cast. Her performances are always so inspiring and every project is completely different. That’s what I like to look for.
On a lighter note, what was your favorite snack or beverage to have on set?
I had never had chai tea before, but there were these amazing chai tea bags at the craft table and I absolutely loved them. As for snacks, there were these apple slices with peanut butter and granola sprinkled on top that was so good.
Did you take away any skin care or beauty tips from the set?
I didn’t wear any makeup onscreen because I play a fisher girl. I had a big acne breakout right before filming and went to the doctor and was like, “I’m not allowed to wear makeup in this film and am covered in acne. What am I going to do?” I had a high level of cortisol in my bloodstream—I guess I was stressed from learning sign language and wanting to be the best I could. So I started using Proactiv and that really helped, as well benzoyl peroxide, serums from The Ordinary, and lotion P50.
What was one of the biggest lessons you learned on set?
I learned so much, but communication was the biggest takeaway—everybody taught me a better way to communicate. I’m filming season two and three of Locke and Key at the moment, and I’ve brought things I learned from CODA to the set, especially eye contact. Daniel really taught me that, because someone would come in and give him water and he would look directly at them and thank them. I give people more eye contact and attention now.
CODA is in theaters and on Apple TV+ on August 13.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast