CODA premiered at Sundance earlier this year and swept all of the festival’s top prizes. Did you have a hunch going into the week that the film would have the incredible response and success it did?
No! I hoped that it would do well, and I knew that Sian [Heder] had an incredible script, and she’s such an amazing director. Troy [Kotsur], Daniel [Durant], Marlee [Matlin], me, we all put our hearts and souls into this. Going into the week, I was actually really nervous. And I don’t often get nervous because I’m like, “You know what? I had fun, and I learned from the project, so what will be will be.” Right before it premiered at Sundance, I texted Sian and said, “I feel sick.” She was like, “Me too!” It had been such a big part of our lives. Sian and I learned sign language. I trained for nine months prior to shooting. It was such a long time, so if people didn’t like it… Although, I learned an amazing language, so it wouldn’t have mattered. But it’s that pressure of “Oh my gosh, I hope people love it.” And then when people were so lovely about it, it was an incredible feeling. It was weird, though, because we weren’t all together. I was actually on a night shoot in a field the night it came out, and I remember I ran back to my trailer to do the premiere Q&A, and I left, and then I got a bit of signal and went on Twitter, and people were sending me things. I called Sian in the field, and it was snowing, and I was like, “Oh my goodness!” I am so happy for Sian and everyone that people are actually enjoying it.
Take me back to the beginning. How did this project come to you?
I was sent the script, and I read it and fell in love with it. I fell in love with the Rossis. I loved what Sian had done with the story. I loved Ruby. When I read it, I thought, “Whoever gets to play this character is incredibly lucky because it’s not every film that you get to learn three skills.” I think you’re lucky if you get to learn one skill. I look for that in films. It was like, “Oh, I want a challenge, but three?!” That was totally out of my comfort zone, so I knew I really wanted to do this film. I wanted to learn sign language. I sing all the time at home. I did a musical in the West End when I was 8, and I’ve been in the choir and things, and although I found it a little bit daunting, I did always want to sing in a film. And then, fishing was just a bonus to learn. So yeah, I was immediately drawn to the script.
I taped four dialogue scenes and sang “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Then, they asked me to sing three more songs of my choice, so I did that. I had a terrible cold at the time, though, so I remember thinking, “Great, this is not good.” And then, I Skyped with Sian, and she talked to me about the role and the project and what she wanted to do with it, and I just remember when I was talking to her I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to work with you so much,” and then she said, “I know you don’t know any sign language, but if I get my friend to sign this scene, can you copy it the best you can and then send it to me?” I love a challenge, so I was like, “Okay, let’s do it!” This was on a Friday, and I was flying to Toronto to film Locke & Key season one on that Monday. I watched the link she sent three times, and then I’m British, so I made myself a cup of tea and went to sit down and actually properly watch it to then try and learn it, and the link had expired. It was the weekend, and no one was in the office, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, there is no way I could possibly do this justice if I just have a night to do it.” I was panicking, but I did remember when I watched it that Ruby finger-spells Berklee, so all weekend, I was finger-spelling Berklee. Finger spelling is really hard because at first you’re like [signs B-E-R], but for Ruby, it’s her first language, so she’s super quick. Anyway, I stayed up until 4 a.m. once I got the link and taped it. A couple weeks later, I got a call saying I got the part, and I remember Sian saying, “We couldn’t believe how quick your finger spelling was.”
The role of Ruby required you to not only learn ASL but to also sing live. Did you find that intimidating at all during the audition process and filming? Was there one that was more challenging?
All of them were challenging in their own way. I found singing a little bit daunting, I guess, because whenever I sing, I sing gentle covers on my guitar, and then suddenly, I turned up to my first singing lesson, and they were like, “Okay, here’s Etta James and Aretha Franklin.” I was like, “Oh my goodness, these are fully grown women with incredible voices. This is very scary.” And then, I found out it was live on set, too, and I was like, “Okay, wow. This is scary.” I’m going to say the hardest was doing both at the same time. Say you do four takes. If your sign language is only right or perfect in one of them, that’s the only one they can use. So when I went into that scene, I thought, “Okay, my acting has to be totally right. I have to get all of my signs right, and I have to sing in tune.” It was this [miming patting on the head and rubbing the stomach] kind of situation, multitasking. That was the hardest because I had to get everything as perfect as possible at the same time.