Daniel Durant hopes Duluth enjoys CODA

Jim Lundstrom

Reading up on the life of deaf actor Daniel Durant for background about the new movie CODA, in which he plays the son of his acting role model, Marlee Matlin, you realize he’s got an amazingly cinematic story.

Born in Detroit to addicted parents who left him on a stoop, he was raised by his father’s sister, Lori Durant, in Duluth. According to his own IMDB biography: “He attended mainstream schools in Duluth before transferring to the Minnesota State School for the Deaf in 8th grade. Daniel graduated from MSAD in 2008 and attended RIT in Rochester, NY and Gallaudet in Washington, DC. Daniel moved to Los Angeles, CA in 2012 to join the Deaf West Theatre production of Cyrano.”

That led to other theater work, and in 2013 he was cast in the recurring role of Michael in the TV series Switched at Birth. He also continued in theater, being cast in the lead of the Deaf West Theatre production of Flowers for Algernon, and followed that with the co-lead in Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening. He made his impressive Broadway debut in that role in 2015, and received many accolades, including Outstanding Broadway Debut Performance. He has done theater in Norway, France and Canada. In 2019 he joined the cast of the second season of You on Netflix (which began life as a Lifetime series).

And now comes CODA, which was released on Apple TV and nationally on Aug. 13. The Upper Midwest premiere in Duluth is at the West Theatre Friday, Aug. 20, but Daniel had a special showing for family and friends on Thursday, Aug. 19.

Here is a synopsis of the film from the production notes: “17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the sole hearing member of a deaf family - a CODA, child of deaf adults. Her life revolves around acting as interpreter for her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and working the family’s struggling fishing boat with her father and older brother (Daniel Durant) every day before school. But when Ruby joins her high school’s choir club, she discovers a gift for singing and soon finds herself drawn to her duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Encouraged by her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) to apply to a prestigious music school, Ruby finds herself torn between the obligations she feels to her family and the pursuit of her own dreams.”

In an email interview, Daniel mentioned that co-star Marlee Matlin was an acting inspiration to him from childhood. So it’s interesting to note that the filmmakers immediately had Matlin in mind for the mother of the family, but thought to attract audiences, they would need some other big-name stars who would have to pretend to be deaf. Matlin said she would love to do the movie, but only if deaf actors played the deaf members of her family. So this is a groundbreaking film in many ways.

CODA, which is an English remake of the 2014 French feel-good dramedy La Famille Belier, debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won four awards – Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, director’s award for Siân Heder and a special jury award for its ensemble cast. It also won the highest purchase price in Sundance history – $25 million. When Daniel isn’t acting, he co-leads acting workshops for deaf students in area schools, serving as an acting teacher and coach for deaf film camps as well as national speaking engagements for colleges and universities. We hope to learn more about that in the future.

Here are is the Q&A with Daniel:

Reader: With all the accolades from Sundance and positive reviews leading up to the release on Apple TV last week, what does it mean to have the theatrical release of CODA in your hometown this week?

Daniel Durant: Well I’m very excited and also very proud. You know I’m from Duluth – I grew up here and this town is a large part of who I am, and now here’s a giant feature film being brought to the small town that I was raised in. I really can’t wait for my community and for everyone from Duluth to see this work that I did – I hope that they’ll be touched by CODA and enjoy it.

Reader: I understand you are having a private screening on Thursday for family and friends. Want to say anything about that?

DD: I’m very much looking forward to it! This will be my first time actually seeing CODA on the big screen myself! I definitely want to get that movie theater experience and I’m also looking forward to seeing many of my friends and family that I haven’t seen for a while. We’re going to be getting together again along with some other people I grew up with here – Deaf friends from camp, from the Deaf Academy, acting friends, old classmates and even the teacher who gave me my first taste of acting, she’s going to be there as well. I’m proud to show my work to everyone, and I also want to thank them all for pushing me towards success.

Reader: I also understand that you will do a Q&A at Thursday’s private screening. How do you prepare for that? Can you anticipate questions that might be asked after people have seen the film?

DD: We’re having a talk back after the private screening and I’m excited to facilitate that. We did a lot of this in all the theater productions I’ve been involved in – including on Broadway. I enjoy being in the moment and going where the audience wants to go.

Reader: What would you like people to take away from CODA?

DD: I would want them to come away with a heartfelt family story. You know, every family is different but every family has a story to tell. CODA is the story of this family and what they’ve gone through as a Deaf family with a hearing daughter in a small fishing town. I hope the audience will see the emotion and the laughs – especially the laughs. There are many funny scenes that give a unique view into Deaf culture and humor that I bet many people haven’t seen before. But really, I hope they’re touched and happy to have seen it.

Reader: I’ve read about your introduction to theater through a teacher’s aide who suggested a drama program that led to your first lead role. Want to expound on that experience? Did that actually set you on your path, or did that come later?

DD: Yes, she did lead me to my first role! That was Raysa Carlson, one of my most memorable teachers from grade school. She could see that I was talented with drawing and signing. I was a really silly kid, telling lots of jokes and ASL (American Sign Language) stories when there wasn’t much to do in class. That creativity gave her the idea to write a play in order to give us more experience with different types of art, and I was lucky that she gave me the leading role! I’ll never forget the first day when I showed up and I didn’t even know what the word “rehearsal” meant. This was my first time for everything, so she explained that acting was like being a different person. I discovered that I liked being someone new and playing someone else! It was really fun and I enjoyed it so much, but I wasn’t really thinking about it as something for the future at that time. It wasn’t until much later in high school when I was working with Pam Wright in drama class that I started to consider it. Pam thought I was good at acting and that I could become successful if I put more time into it and focused my studies on the craft, so I took that advice and started to pursue it in a more active way. Pam really believed in me and pushed me to work hard and believe in myself.  

Reader: Want to say anything about your history in Duluth, and coming back with this film under your belt?

DD: Well, I was adopted by my two wonderful moms when I was 18 months old, and that’s when my life in Duluth started. My first time onstage was in Duluth, and I started to pursue acting while I was in Duluth. I’m proud that I got my start here, and I’m proud to bring it back to Duluth because the people here have been very supportive – I have many wonderful friends, family and people who follow my work in the area (I met many of them on social media!) and they’re behind me. Also, every time I come back to Duluth, I never stop being taken with how beautiful it is here.

Reader: You’ve had other triumphs in your career, such as the 2016 Theater Award for Outstanding 2016 Broadway Debut Performance for your portrayal of Mortiz Stiefel in the revival of Spring Awakening. Do you have a preference as an actor for stage or film?

DD: I love both! They’re very different, though. On stage you tell the story in sequential order, beginning, middle, end. When you’re in a TV series or a film, you often jump around in the script. It’s a very different creative process! Also, on stage you have to go really big. Big facial expressions and big emotions so that the people in the back of the house can feel your energy. In movies or TV, the camera is really close and you have to play things smaller. So, I do love both but right now I’m leaning towards doing more TV and films – that’s my current goal.  

Reader: What was it like to work with Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin?

DD: Well, when I was growing up here in Duluth, all my interpreters and teachers and family and friends would always talk about Marlee Matlin. I really looked up to her as an icon – she’s so successful, she’s been in major Hollywood movies, and I thought that if she could do it that I could do it as well.  The very first time I worked with Marlee was on the TV series Switched at Birth. I was so nervous I didn’t know what to say or do! But honestly, she was just so nice and friendly, so warm and welcoming. She asked me what my name was and we chatted and got to know each other. She’s just a really wonderful person, so funny and she’s always got that “mom energy” – always asking if I was hungry or if I was warm enough. I really enjoy working with her and I thank her for everything she’s done for the Deaf in Hollywood. She’s definitely a legend.

Reader: Did you see the decider.com review that just came out today, with the headline “Daniel Durant Is An Absolute Snack in ‘CODA’” and begins with this paragraph: “No matter what you think of CODA—the critically acclaimed coming-of-age film that began streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday—I think we can all agree that actor Daniel Durant is a total hottie.”? I can honestly say I’ve never read a review like that. I did read in another interview that you are single. Your thoughts on this review?

DD: Wow! I just don’t know… I mean, I don’t even know what to say! I guess I have to agree with you that I’ve never seen a review like that, and I’m not sure how to respond besides thank you very much!  

Reader: What’s next for you? Projects in the works?

DD: I can say that I will be on an upcoming series that I’m very excited about, but that’s all I can say for now.

Reader: Anything else you want Duluthians to know?

DD: I’m really proud that I’m from Duluth. I want to say thank you to everyone who’s supported me and my career in acting. I love all my fans in the area and of course, everyone in the community in this beautiful town. I’m excited to keep doing projects and bringing them back home to share!