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Duluth actor Daniel Durant on 'CODA' and 'Best Picture' win

"The world is changing," Durant said about the rising representation of the Deaf community onscreen.

Six people on the red carpet at the Academy Awards: three men in tuxedos flanking three women in gowns, two red and one silver-glitter
Members of the "CODA" cast arrived at the 94th Oscars with Sian Heder, the film's writer and director, from left: Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Heder, Amy Forsyth and Daniel Durant.
Contributed / Mark Von Holden / A.M.P.A.S.
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LOS ANGELES — Sunday night capped an extraordinary journey for Duluth actor Daniel Durant and the rest of the team behind "CODA," the winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Picture . Durant and the other core members of the movie's ensemble cast joined the film's producers onstage at the Dolby Theatre to accept Hollywood's most coveted award.

"I've been awake all night," Durant told the News Tribune via Zoom on Monday afternoon. "I can't believe that we won the Oscars. We got Best Picture, and the second deaf person won an Oscar. It's just a great feeling."

The title "CODA" is an acronym for "Child of Deaf Adults." In the movie, Durant plays Leo, one of two young adult children of parents played by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur. Those actors, like their characters, are deaf. Emilia Jones plays Ruby, Leo's sister, who is hearing and discovers a talent for singing.

"CODA," the first Best Picture nominee with deaf actors predominating in its cast, won all three Oscars for which it was nominated. The film's other two awards went to Kotsur — winner of Best Supporting Actor, the first time a deaf man has been nominated for an acting Oscar — and to Sian Heder, who wrote and directed "CODA." She won this year's Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

"The biggest moment was seeing Troy win," said Durant, with Gabriel Gomez on the call as an American Sign Language interpreter. The "CODA" artists, Durant said, were sitting next to the cast of Documentary Short nominee "Audible," about a student athlete at the Maryland School for the Deaf. "So there were deaf people in the rows next to us, and there were iPads with interpreting. So we were all there. It felt great."

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Up until now, said Durant, opportunities for deaf film actors have been few. "That's why today is such a huge day. Troy won, and he's been a brilliant actor for so many years. He's been in LA. The Deaf community knows who he is. He's been famous in the community for such a long time, and now he's finally getting the recognition he deserves."

After the awards, Durant said, he met up with his mothers, Mary Engels and Lori Durant, who were in LA to share in the celebration. Durant smiled as he described the culture shock. "I mean, we're from Duluth! Coming from there to here, it's just so crazy. Meeting all these famous people, and it's so fancy. We were excited."

Do people at Oscar afterparties know where Duluth is? "No," Durant said. "I just say northern Minnesota: 'So you know where the lakes are? All the way up in the corner.'"

Durant said he did perceive some similarities between Gloucester, the Massachusetts fishing town where "CODA" was filmed, and Duluth. "I'm so proud of where I'm from," he said, pointing out that his first stage experience came from the Duluth Playhouse. "I'm thankful to them, because that's where I found my skill. They believed in me. ... They went ahead and wrote a children's play for me, and I was involved in it, and that's where I found my passion."

Four people, in foreground of a crowd, applauding enthusiatically.
Daniel Durant, second from left, in Best Picture winner "CODA."
Contributed / Apple TV+

His passion led him not just to the Oscars, but to the White House, where Durant and the other "CODA" lead actors visited last week at the invitation of first lady Jill Biden.

"We were supposed to just meet Jill," Durant said, "and then Marlee asked if we could meet Joe. Jill was like, 'What? You haven't met Joe yet? OK, let me go see what he's doing.'" A few minutes later, the actors were in the Oval Office. "It's kind of a small room," said Durant, "but it's really nice. There's so much history there."

When President Joe Biden walked in, said Durant, "he recognized us instantly, and he gave us hugs." The president talked with the cast at length, Durant said. "His staff kept tapping him and telling him, 'You need to go,' and he kept saying 'Wait, I'm going to talk with this cast.' He kept showing us pictures of his family and told us so much about his life, and we could see that 'CODA' touched him as a movie."

While Durant is happy to be returning to Duluth with his family, he said it's bittersweet to reach the end of an awards season when he's constantly been alongside his "CODA" family. "I'm sad right now," he admitted. "We won the Oscars, yes, I feel amazing, but at the same time, am I ready to disconnect from my ('CODA') family? It's hitting me hard right now."

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Durant spoke with a warm nostalgia about the cast's time together on set, where he met Jones for the first time.

"The first time we all met, we went out to the fishing boat," he said. "She was only 17 years old, and she was so enthusiastic. She learned how to sign, she learned how to fish ... On the weekends, Marlee would host us and have us for dinner, and we'd watch football games. Emilia would come and learn sign language from us and Deaf culture, and she joked around with us. ... She has such a Deaf heart."

Young woman looks backward from moving car, making ASL sign for "I love you" with her first and second fingers crossed.
Emilia Jones in "CODA."
Contributed / Apple TV+

In addition to the "CODA" wins, of course, this year's Academy Award ceremony will also be remembered for the stunning moment when Will Smith walked on stage to slap presenter Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Durant said he didn't see that moment, having just stepped out of the auditorium after Heder's win.

"I don't condone violence," he said, reflecting on the incident, "but also, everyone's human, and I can't even imagine the pressure that Will Smith is under. I have no understanding of the situation."

While Durant has to keep specifics on his future projects under wrap for the moment, he said, he sees a bright future for Deaf representation onscreen. "The world is changing. There's more perspective about deaf people, sign language, and Deaf culture in general ... people are coming to me and talking to me and saying that they want to put deaf characters in their movies. But this is just the beginning."

In the meantime, Durant expects to "go to sleep for a few days" when he gets back to Duluth, then hopes to return to work at the Eveleth school where he works as a tutor. "I would enjoy that for a while to calm things down," he said, "but soon I'll be busy again acting."

Despite the past several weeks' frenetic pace, said Durant, he's in no rush for the "CODA" clamor to subside. "People will come up to me and ask me if I'm tired," he said, "and I'm like, no, I'm just excited. I'm so happy to be here in this history making moment."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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