‘CODA’ Actor Daniel Durant Gets His Hollywood Moment – In Duluth

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Daniel Durant watched the Oscar nominations in early February at his family’s home in Duluth. He was in front of several screens, one of which was pointed at him.

“CODA,” about a hearing girl and her deaf family, had just been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Durant plays the girl’s older brother.

Then Durant’s on-screen father and off-screen mentor, Troy Kotsur, received a nod for Best Supporting Actor, making history as the first deaf male actor to be nominated for a Oscar.

Durant’s family responded with tears of joy, then regained their composure to wait for the big one.

Durant watched closely, his eyes flicking between TV and laptop screens and his mother, who signed off on nominees as they were announced. When “CODA” was nominated for Best Picture, he jumped out of his chair, jumping wildly. He posted his reaction on Instagram – and received many responses.

“My favorite video of the day!!!!!” wrote Marlee Matlin, her on-screen mother and the first deaf performer to win an Oscar for her role in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God.” She added the American Sign Language emoji for “I love you.” Four of them.

“This is the absolute best!” wrote CODA director and writer Sian Heder. “I wish I was there to kiss you!”

“CODA” – and Durant – have their moment.

The film caused a stir a year ago when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was bought for a record $25 million by Apple. In recent weeks, it has garnered accolades from the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild – where the team won the much-hyped award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast on Sunday Night.

It’s a win that boosts the film’s profile ahead of the Oscars. Durant joined his cinematic family onstage for the emotional victory, a time when actors like Meryl Streep signed “I love you” to the cast.

Durant’s big Hollywood break came while he was based in Duluth.

He returned to his hometown to live with his mothers, Lori Durant and Mary Engels, at the start of the pandemic. He teaches ASL, works at a local restaurant, and occasionally gives presentations at colleges.

Occasionally, a private car sent by Apple TV+ shows up at his doorstep, whisks him off to Duluth Airport in 12 minutes, and he flies off to join his castmates for awards panels, photo shoots and publicity concerts. The cast is on the billboards and he, Matlin and Kotsur graced the cover of The Hollywood Reporter with the headline, “We’re not deaf actors. We’re actors. Period.”

A lifelong storyteller

The language came late for Durant, 32, who was born to parents struggling with addiction. As a child, he was adopted by his aunt-turned-mum Lori Durant. She taught him sign language, which he used to tell stories of fire trucks and police cars.

Durant starred in his first play, an original play by a teacher who saw his penchant for stories. When he faced a live audience from the stage of the Duluth Playhouse Family Theater, he learned something about himself.

“It was something that was innate in me, a talent,” he said.

Lori Durant said she remembers thinking that if everyone knew about ASL, they would be impressed with her son’s acting ability.

“As parents, we always thought, ‘If only they could see this,'” she said. “If only he could get that recognition and not be treated as less than – wouldn’t that be something?” “

Durant became a YouTuber, where he was discovered by Los Angeles’ Deaf West Theater, a company that combines ASL and spoken English in its productions. He was cast in “Cyrano” in 2012 with Kotsur, who was in the title role.

“I couldn’t believe his use of language,” Durant said of how Kotsur signed off. “It was so beautiful and so clear how he expressed himself. And the emotion was there, and the way he was able to take on the role of a character.”

Durant was also part of the Tony Award-winning cast of a Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening,” and had a recurring role on the Freeform television series “Switched at Birth” alongside Matlin.

The Oscar nomination, however, was his “crowning achievement”, he said. “It’s exciting to be a part of this. To be honoured. To be part of the history of the deaf community.”

“A Magical Connection”

“CODA” is the story of a family of deaf commercial fishermen – except for Ruby Rossi, the child of the deaf adult (CODA) mentioned in the film’s title. Ruby (played by Emilia Jones) is the bridge for her family in the community. Her secret: She’s a soulful singer who doesn’t dare imagine life beyond Gloucester, Mass. – until she finally does.

“It’s about a family’s relationship, the struggles they go through, their bond,” Durant said. “That’s why it resonates with so many people.”

Durant spent two months in 2019 filming in the small East Coast town where he and his comrades got hands-on tutorials on a local fishing boat. They spent the weekends watching football and eating at Matlin’s in Boston. They also explained their inside ASL jokes to Jones, who can hear.

“That’s where we developed our family bond,” Durant said. “It was a magical connection.”

‘I was born ready’

Durant doesn’t know if he’ll be in Los Angeles for the Oscars. They watched the other Best Picture nominees, evaluating the competition.

Lori Durant said it was hard to fathom the idea that their son – who takes on snow removal duties at their home – is in a film that takes on big names like Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“We just hope [Academy voters] I’ve seen enough Will Smith movies,” she said.

Durant said he feels a change — both in Duluth, where far more people know sign language than when he was a kid, and in Hollywood, where the doors are opening. He sees more deaf actors in superhero movies and feature films like “The Quiet Place.”

And he hopes that another great role will come his way.

“I have a belief there is something out there,” he said. “There’s a role there that’s going to work. I’m continuing with that, and it keeps me going.

“I was born ready.”

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