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Meet Oscar Nominee Paul Raci, 73-Year-Old Breakout Star Of “Sound Of Metal”

Paul Raci in "The Sound of Metal"
Amazon/ "The Sound of Metal"
Paul Raci in "The Sound of Metal"

Over the past several decades, Paul Raci grew frustrated with his screen career. He was convinced he had more to offer as an actor than the bit parts and one-off roles that make up his IMDB credits. So Raci largely channeled those creative efforts into stage productions at the Deaf West Theater and his heavy metal bands. Now, the rest of us are getting to know Raci and his work.

Raci, now 73, is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor this month for his performance in “Sound of Metal.”

The child of deaf parents and fluent in American Sign Language, Raci plays a Vietnam vet who runs a group home for the hearing impaired, with a specific set of rules.

What have the past few weeks been like for you?

Well, absolutely different than anything I've experienced. It's been kind of hectic. A lot of interviews with the Zoom thing. And a lot of phone calls, which are bringing offers that I've never experienced in my life before. So it's great. It's been great.

You went to L.A. relatively late in life to try to make it on screen — at age 40, right?

Correct. Yeah.

What brought you out west?

Well, I was I'm an actor, I'm a stage actor, I always have been and Chicago has a very rich tradition of theater, 99-seat theater, if you want to call it that. And a couple other great theaters, Steppenwolf included. But I just felt like I wanted to come out here and try some television or film or expand my career as all actors do when they move out, but I was already 40. And as I've said before, I found out very quickly, Hollywood’s not looking for that. So I just kept my head down and started doing what I what I love to do, which is just act so wherever I could find that was available in theater, I would do that. A couple of big parts came along, you know, day play roles in movies and TV. I tried that as much as I could. And then I finally just got really frustrated and decided to just be myself and that meant going back to doing some heavy metal music. And so that's what I've been doing. Everything seemed to just open up once this offer came down the line for “The Sound Of Metal.”

What was your experience like leading up to this film? I imagine it was a lot of auditions. I don't know if you were doing background work. I mean, I imagine you had to do some other jobs too, right?

Well, I basically I've been a certified sign language interpreter for the L.A. court system here. And I work in Bakersfield, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, as a sign language interpreter in courtrooms, so that was my day job. And then also pursuing, I've never done background work. I was like, Oh, no, that's not me. I'll never do that. But I'm doing you know, these one-liners. You know, the goal is when you move out here to try and get a series regular job on a television series or try to break through with some kind of a role that's got some meat to it. But as I found out, casting directors, they have their rules. And if you don't have a certain amount of work under your belt, they're just not going to trust you to go into a room and carry a big role. So I even saw that online. I saw one of my acting friends talking to a casting director here in Los Angeles. And my acting friend says to this casting director, who knew? Did you ever get Paul Raci in for an audition? And the casting director commented back and said, Well, no, because we have our rules. And I thought to myself, God, if that isn't proof of what these guys are…how many talented actors are there in Los Angeles that are not getting a shot at anything, because they have the rules about who they're allowed to bring into a room for a bigger role? And it certainly did not include me.

Is it like a certain look they're going for? I mean, what were you told?

Not so much a certain look; we're going for a name. And a name could be anybody that you've never even heard of. But they've done a feature role or a co-star role, or something like that, which I've got, but it just wasn't good enough. So it was probably a combination of everything, you know.

But you didn't give up. How come?

Because I'm an actor. I didn't give up as well, because you've always you know, it's kind of like the Al Pacino role in “The Godfather.” Just when I get out, they pull me back in. I told my agent, many times, you know, I'm tired of this, I'm not going to go out there for this role, I'm not going to try this one-liner thing. I deserve some respect, blah, blah, blah. Then they dangle that carrot in front of your face. And all of a sudden you find yourself working on some sides here or working on a role that may just get you in the door so they can see you for something else. But it's always that kind of a thing. So as much as I thought about giving up, I just never could quite do it. Because I just knew that if I got in the right room or had the right role that I could prove what I was capable of doing. So that's always that. That forever positive thought in your mind that maybe this one will do it.

Can you tell me a bit about your work with Deaf West Theatre? What kind of productions you did, and what it's like for someone who hasn't been there before?

Oh, absolutely. When I moved out here in ‘89, or 1990, I met a guy, deaf actor. His name is Ed Waterstreet. He was a visionary. He wanted to set up  a deaf theater. So he founded Deaf West Theatre. And so here's the kind of things that we did there. We did Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men”. The classic play of George and Lennie. And this play, I was playing George. I was hearing and Lenny was played by this tremendous deaf actor, the great Troy Kotsur. He's a deaf actor. And in the context of the play, if you know anything about Steinbeck's great novel, or his play, there's a bunch of farmhands that work on the farm.

So in our production, Stephen Rothman was the was the director, he made all the farmhands deaf and the person that owned the farm was hearing. So right there, it set up a political portrayal of how it is for deaf people to live in here in their own country in the United States, that they have no access to pop culture, their whole life is being controlled by the hearing man. So here's the hearing farm, the hearing boss, taking care of the farmhands who are deaf. George and Lennie come to this farm, and they see all the political ramifications of that. And so every show we seem to do at Deaf West Theatre kind of set that theme up of deaf people being controlled, oppressed by the hearing man, and that just seemed to follow through in every play that we did. So that was the kind of thing we did. It was wildly popular. And the audiences at Deaf West Theatre were mostly about 75% hearing and the rest being deaf patrons that came to see the shows. So they've been doing that now for 25, 30 years and they're getting they get bolder and bolder. They've gone to Broadway with several plays now. “Awakening,” things like that. So they're really creative and wonderful and I just love everything they do there.

This may be a parochial question. So apologies if that's the case, but did you ever play roles where you were playing deaf? You yourself are hearing. You're fluent in ASL. And in the movie we'll talk about in a minute, you play someone who has to read lips. And you can speak and communicate either way. So did you play different roles along that spectrum that I've just laid out?

Never, never. Those are roles that are only, you know, sanctioned for deaf actors. So I've never done that and there would be no reason to because there are plenty of deaf actors in this town and in New York and Chicago that are deaf and highly, wildly talented. This particular role for “Sound of Metal: is not a role that was written for a deaf actor. It's a hearing man's role, really.

The deaf culture, the deaf community is not a monolith. There are so many different degrees and levels of deafness, including at the top of the spectrum what my father was, which was totally deaf. And then it goes down to people that are able to read lips who are later who are deaf and later in life. And the role of Joe basically parallels the role of Ruben, who is the drummer who is losing his hearing. He's a hearing man who loses his hearing later in life, has the ability to speak.

You know, the aircraft carrier I served in Vietnam. I served on an aircraft carrier as a hospital corpsman. And today, all those guys that served on that aircraft carrier on the flight deck, are my age, they're in their 70s. And most of them are very hard of hearing or deaf. And because they're hearing people who are walking around with hearing loss that they got from this flight deck. In my case, I've got a little tinnitus from working on the flight deck. Also being in rock and roll bands. Anybody who works in a heavy metal band is going to have an amount of tinnitus. But Joe is a guy who's deafened later on in life, so it was obvious from the script, from the director, and everything that he wanted, that he wanted that portrayal so that there would be a parallel between Ruben and Joe that they both had experienced hearing loss later on in life, but had the ability to speak and read some lips.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what your childhood was like. My understanding is, as you said, your father didn't have hearing. Your mom had hearing for a few years early in life and then lost her hearing. And you learned sign language before you learn to speak English. Is that right?

Yes, I grew up in Chicago, Illinois in the 50s. My dad never heard or actually never remembered hearing because he lost — he had spinal meningitis at the age of six months. My mom, on the other hand, had spinal meningitis at the age of 5. So if you look at a 5-year-old child, next time you see one, you can see that they've got language, they've already accessed language. They know music. And so that was my mother's life. She had her hearing taken away from her at the age 5. She still remembered music. And so as I'm growing up in the 50s, I was absolutely into the Top 40, was into music very, very much so and I would sign those songs for my mom. As a matter of fact, in 1956 Elvis Presley made a movie called “Love Me Tender,” it was a Western. And he was the rage at the time, and my mom was interested in pop culture. She said, let's go to the movies and see this movie. So it was right around the corner from where we lived, the Division Theater on Division Street, we went into this darkened theater. Thursday night, I believe. I was sitting next to her and literally that realize that, that I would have to be interpreting the movie for my mom as it was being portrayed on the screen. So I'm sitting there with my mom. And we're looking up at the screen, and I'm craning my neck. Richard Egan is in this movie, Deborah Paget, Elvis Presley. Civil War movie.

And here I'm acting out all these parts for her in this darkened theater. And we're both fascinated, I'm watching an adult themed movie,  my mom's gaining access to this movie. It was such a bonding experience. But that's when I really started to realize that, wow, this acting thing is kind of cool. You know, you just got a captive audience. And then a few years later, my dad would be watching “Bonanza” or “The Fugitive” on television. And I said to my dad, what do you think this script is talking about? He goes, I don't know. I'm just making it up in my head. I just couldn't stand it. So I just sat down next to the television and started acting out all these parts from so he could have access to this, these stupid television shows, which at the time weren't that stupid. They were fascinating to both of us. There's no closed captioning. There's no devices that we have nowadays. There was no interpreting profession. So I was it. I was the conduit to the hearing world, I was the guy that was in on all the negotiations between the gas company, the electric company, negotiating for a car or a mortgage, or the rent for the Chicago Club of the Deaf, with the hearing guy that owned that space. So here I was, in situations that I didn't belong in, that I had no idea what I was talking about, but I was doing the best I could to facilitate communication from one party to the next. So that's what it basically was like. Now, guys that were born in my time, we're a different breed, the kids that are born today or after 1980, there's an interpreting profession now, things are much easier. There are devices where you can actually text. So it's a different world that I grew up in. But the one that I did, I have to say, I'm absolutely grateful for my experience. It was a wonderful, wonderful thing that as I look back on, and I was a blessing at the time, though, it's an annoyance as a little kid, you know.

It must have given you such empathy to see the struggles that your parents would have to go through with you as the conduit. As you say, everyday life is hard for everybody. But, you know, being in a marriage where you're raising a child and you and your spouse are both deaf, that must be so hard.

Well, yeah, it could be it can be and yet, empathy to the point of….You know, you're interpreting for your deaf parents. And the hearing people are saying things like, oh, here, don't interpret that for your dad, that's just for you and me. I started to feel distrust for hearing people just like my dad did. I started to dislike hearing people, just like my dad did, because he felt oppressed. So I identified very heavily with my father's feelings for the hearing community. When we talk about this whole thing about whether I'm deaf, or whether I'm hearing, I'm not a deaf man. I'm certainly not a hearing person, though. I'm a CODA. I'm a child of deaf adults. I identify with being that conduit for being that guy that that lived with my parents lived their lives with them, not for them, not through them, lift them with them. So American Sign Language is my first language. English is my second language. It's the language I learned after acquiring language from my parents, which was sign language. So I had to not only learn that language, but I remember thinking myself, I'm going to have to learn how to deal with these people. These hearing people who I don't like very much, who I don't trust very much, who make fun of my parents, who talk down about my parents in front of me, as if I'm not going to tell them what you're saying to me. So that empathy, yes. To the umpth degree, I think, yeah.

How did you get this role?

Well, my agent found that in the breakdowns at first. It was sent out as an audition for deaf actors only. And then two weeks later, they came on. So they wanted to look at some people that could actually speak and play late deafened. And so at that point, my agent then made available to me, so I read the script, put the audition down on a piece of tape and sent it in and just forgot about it. Because usually, after reading the script, I mean, it was a beautifully written script, very sensitive, and I knew it was a great role, but I didn't really expect there to be any interest because that's the way it's gone for the past, let’s see, 35-40 years. So I just forgot about it. And then my agent followed up on the tape and found out they were inundated with audition tapes and really couldn't go through them all. And then she asked that they did find the tape after she cajoled them. And they called back 10 minutes later and said the director wants to talk to Paul.

And from there the rest was history.

Yeah, pretty much the rest was history. I met him, we talked about it. And I was at a conference in Massachusetts for CODAs, which I go to every one or two years, we get together children of deaf adults. And he lived about an hour away. So he came up to see me there. And when we sat down, had a meeting, and that was it pretty much.

What were some of the similarities between the character Joe and your own background?

Well, there were many. First of all, he was an Iraq War veteran when I read the script. And so because I'm a Vietnam veteran, we kind of tweaked that. But the things that were similar were just being in a deaf community, the way I grew up, coming back from Vietnam with addiction problems, or my own interpreting and addiction programs for deaf addicts, which I've done many, many, many times. But the most striking one, I think, was Joe's philosophy about spirituality. Growing up a Roman Catholic altar boy in Chicago, I, I was taught to pray to a God who is way up there in the clouds, somewhere beyond the clouds, probably looking down at us with this big robe paired with a long white beard. And you have to pray outside of your body to bring something down here. So anyway, when Joe says to Ruben, about where the kingdom of God resides, that struck me so hard, because that is exactly what my spirituality had shifted into, almost a Buddhist-type quality where there is only one. And if God is, then God is right where I am, and I'm one with God, there's no separation. And the kingdom of God being right here; Joe points to his chest. I thought that was so close to what I believe, so much so that that's probably the one thing that I really looked to as I read the script.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, who, for people who haven't seen the film yet, he's a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing and winds up in the home that's run by your character. He's such a tremendous actor, and the two of you have such charged scenes together. What was it like working with him?

Just a dream. A lot of that has to do with our director Darius Marder, who shot the film in chronological order, so the very first scene that I have with Riz, I just arrived at the set that day, I didn't know Riz, he didn't know me. And the very first scene we have, I'm doing an intake on him as an addict in my deaf sober house. And so it was perfect. We didn't know each other, we're getting to know each other. And we got to know each other as the film progressed in sequence as they filmed it. And I was there for 21 days, you know, three weeks. And by the last scene that we shot together our most emotionally charged scene, if you will. By that time, we were friends. It was a goodbye scene. I'm saying goodbye to Riz as an actor, as a man. And our characters are saying goodbye to each other because they had to throw him out of the place, you know. So it couldn't have been a more perfect shooting sequence as we as they did it, but Riz Ahmed, and I've said this before Ian, I'm so grateful for his acting, presence and brilliance, giving me everything I needed and breaking my heart and everything that I did with him. He just broke my heart. He's bewildered. His sense of loss was so palpable, that it was feeding me with everything I needed. And so we had a connection that was profound, and I'm just forever grateful to his, his acting brilliance, so I can't there's no other word I can think of Besides that.

I found the movie so affecting working in radio, I wear headphones, you know, 10 hours a day, every day and it's how we make our living here. And the way that the film takes you through what it sounds like, maybe, to lose your hearing. But speaking with you today, I'm also struck by the parallels that you two have with your connection with music, because Riz Ahmed has his own music career, obviously separate from this film. You're in your bands, your Black Sabbath tribute band, and then you mentioned your connection with your mother, who had a passion for music. And I hadn't thought about that angle before talking to you today.

Well, yeah, she bought me my first guitar, she took me to see that Elvis movie. When the Beatles came to Chicago, she bought me my tickets. On one condition that when I got home, had to report to her and tell her everything that happened at the concert, which I did. And we sat on the edge of my bed and I described it for her. We both had tears coming out of our eyes, because it was such an emotional experience for me. I loved seeing the Beatles. It was my everything at that time. And I could see the longing in her soul, her eyes, that she wanted to know what it was about them that made me so passionate, and she seemed to get that because it was what she was missing. And she remembered it.

I improved that line in the movie where I'm talking to room and I say, I lost my hearing and Vietnam where bomb went off. And I say, I still remember the music that was playing before the bomb went off. And that is reminiscent of my mother telling me you know, I still remember. I still remember it. And as a boy, I was sitting on her lap one time in a rocking chair, as a matter of fact. And she started to sing this old song. My mom was deaf, and I was just a little kid. And the song was one of those old 30s, 40s songs. “I'll get by as long as I have you,” that really old crooner song. And I looked up at my mom and I knew the song because I heard so many people singing on television and the radio. I said, Ma, that's not how the song goes. And I'll never forget the look of horror and my mom's eyes because she realized, oh, my goodness, I can't hear myself and I can't sing that song. And it was just a horrible moment that I had thinking of cruel I was. I just blurted out, Mom, you can't sing anymore. And she made that realization.

So anyway, I say that in the movie as an improv line, because that's what my mother still remembered. But she actually couldn't do it anymore. So she was the catalyst. When I played in rock bands, when I got back from Vietnam, I started playing, I had a Bowie band that we used to do in Chicago, she'd sneak into the clubs without me knowing. And just watch me. I looked at the guy at the bar way in the back of the club, and there she is, you know, having a high ball. A Seven and Seven. She just couldn't stay away. She wanted to see what I was doing. And she's the one that she did all my costumes for me. And I had these Steven Tyler outfits that she would make familiar with the zipper that goes from your, from your throat all the way down to your crotch, you know. And I would just rip that zipper all the way down and just be Mr. Sexy. And there's my mom in the back of the club going pull that zipper up, dammit. She was a riot. She was a riot. But she just loved it. She loved just even just watching me do it.

Every actor has probably practiced an Oscar speech, whether they would admit it or not. What would this award mean to you at this stage in your career, you know, knowing what it took to get to this point?

Oh, yeah, I don't know. You know, I'll be honest with you. Somebody said something to me a week ago, a friend of mine who knows me very well. And she said, God, Paul. This doesn't seem like a support Best Supporting Actor award. It seems like a Lifetime Achievement Award. And in a way, I just feel like I'm there now with the nomination because you can't hope for an Academy Award. There's five guys in this category that are all tremendous. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm a winner already. But for all the work I've done for 40 years as a sign language interpreter, working in the deaf community, being an actor that just did theater, and a couple of day player roles here and there, and they have this kind of recognition. It feels like a lifetime recognition for me because that’s all I've been doing. I never expected this to happen and I don't expect anything else to happen. Except, hey: this is great. I've got a lot more work to do. And I can't wait to get on with it.

I'm excited for you because I found your performance to just be indelible. And I'm glad we'll get, probably, to see a lot more of you now on screen after this film and your success. So good luck at the Oscars, and congratulations. And thanks for the performance.

Oh man, Ian. I appreciate you, appreciate all the kind words and hope to talk in the future.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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