It’s been a long time since Paul Raci won his first Oscar nomination at 72.
“Acting for all those years – 40 years knocking on the door – and then having that kind of success, it’s crazy, man,” Raci said recently in the backyard of his Burbank home.
For most of his career, Raci had to settle for one- or two-line roles on TV shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Baskets”. Then “Sound of Metal” director Darius Marder ripped Raci from obscurity and handed him the role of a lifetime: Joe, the stoic but sensitive leader of a sober deaf community that welcomes a punk drummer. troubled metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed).
It’s a role with real resonance for Raci, who grew up in Chicago as a CODA – a child of deaf adults – and, like Joe, dealt with addiction issues after serving in Vietnam. “I always say that I went to Vietnam like John Wayne, and that I took out Lenny Bruce,” Raci said.
A life spent as his parents’ aural performer had instilled in Raci a love for performance, but when he moved to Los Angeles decades ago to pursue an acting career, roles were rare. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and always knew what I was capable of, but nothing was happening for me here,” he said.
Still, Raci continued to hook up, working by day as a sign language interpreter in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system and by night continuing to hone her craft in stage productions at the Deaf West Theater. “I was always like, ‘I have to be so specific that there’s nothing here for me,’ said Raci, who is petite and stiff with tattoos and knee-length hair. “I was like, ‘I have to wait for this specific role.’” And then it finally happened.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How was the Oscar nominations morning for you?
Now, I don’t have an alarm clock – I have a head clock, and for some reason it was unplugged that morning. I had to get up at 5 am, and at 5:25 am my wife and I got up, “Oh, we missed it!” We run into the living room, turn on the TV, and just as it turned up, they were on the second guy in the supporting actor category. Then [presenter Priyanka Chopra Jonas] said: “And Paul Rah-this. I said, “No, it’s Ray-Here … and I accept!
So now it’s 5:30 a.m., my phone starts ringing. People show up with wine, they show up with edibles – not the kind you think of, but chocolate covered fruit and cupcakes. My friend Hillary, she brings a bottle of champagne – I said, “It’s six o’clock, Hillary!” My wife is crying, my daughter is crying. It stayed like that all day, so it was pretty exciting.
And what was it like after the dust settled?
Six days later, I looked at my wife and said, “Did this really happen?” But if I had to wait that long for this moment, it’s worth it, man. A really good friend emailed me two days ago and said, “Paul, this isn’t just a supporting actor nomination, it’s an award for the whole set. his career.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I still had a lot of work to do here. I think this thing added 20 years to my life.
For decades you worked in film and television every day. How did you make these kinds of roles worthwhile?
To be honest, this is more of a prejudice than anything else, because it just shows you how dreadful a failure you are in your head. I mean, I couldn’t get a regular audition for the show or even walk into the room because, “They need a name.” Thank God for Deaf West Theater – if it wasn’t for them, where the hell was I going to exercise my acting skills? I had nothing. But you go from gig to gig and hope something will happen.
So how did this finally happen? When you auditioned to play Joe in “Sound of Metal,” did you have any idea that this time around could be different?
I put it on tape, I sent it, and then I forgot it – because look, that never happens to me. When I leave an audition with the sides [script pages] in my hand, I tear them up, I throw them in the trash. I’m not going to dwell on things that are going to break my heart. But my wife, who is my agent, called the casting management office and said, “Have you seen Paul’s tape?”
At that point, they said, “We are inundated with tapes. We’ve got too many that we can’t even find Paul’s tape, and we’ll probably pick a name. Robert Duvall, Forest Whitaker, that’s what they were looking for, in terms of name. My audition tape was quite loud and my wife said, “Please look for her.” Ten minutes later, the phone rings. The casting office says, “Darius wants to talk to Paul.” A week later he came to meet me and we talked and talked.
It must be great to have a wife fighting for you in this regard.
Look, she’s been a little agent here for over 20 years, trying to compete with CAA and ICM. She has a boutique agency and she said, “I’m not going to shut it down until you’re a star, Paul.” She was always fighting to get me into a room, and that never happened to me. My state of mind was so stuck in rejection that even at the end of my conversation with Darius, I said, “Wait a sec, are you actually offering me the part?” He said, “Yes, I am.” But at first I told them I wasn’t going to make the movie.
Listen, I have a house to pay for here. It’s not the great movie I thought – it was a very low budget, and I could make more money staying here in Los Angeles and working in the court system than they offered me. I’ll go all the way there [around Boston] for something that will put me in the hole? I can’t afford this – I don’t even have health insurance for my family. So I said to my wife, “Tell Darius I’m not interested.”
Is that so? It takes courage.
Well that sounded like a really good movie, but I’m a blue collar like my dad and have to pay my bills. Then Darius calls me, “You can’t do that!” You don’t understand what it means. “So they kind of increased my per diem. He was so flexible with me, and I knew his heart was in the right place – he was so respectful of my point of view, my CODA experience, that I felt like I could trust him.
After living in these minor roles for so long, how did it feel to play such long scenes against Riz Ahmed?
Magnificent. Fulfilling. I experienced a lot of these moments in a 99-seat theater, but being able to film them is amazing to me. And being a stage partner with someone with the Rice Sparkle is a dream come true. In our very first scene, when he’s sitting across from me and I say, “So how are you?” He’s in so much pain and he just sits there, taking a very long time. And it was real! It breaks my heart.
I am eternally grateful to Riz Ahmed – I don’t know if I could have done it with another actor, because it was so intense. In our last scene together, I looked at the periphery of my eye when they called out “Cut,” and Darius Marder was standing there, crying.
Although you are a child of deaf adults, you are also a hearing person. Is there a reason Joe should have been played by someone who is deaf or hard of hearing?
That’s an argument some would make in the deaf community, yes. However, I would retort because I am a CODA and you cannot get me out of this culture that I grew up in. I would never take the deaf role of a deaf actor who is culturally deaf, but Joe is a guy who was deaf late.
I’m sensitive to it, and I checked it out before we went ahead. I asked Darius at the start, “I don’t feel comfortable that this guy is deaf. Can’t you make this guy a CODA? He said, “It’s interesting. Let me get back to you. ”He had three deaf advisers on set, and all three of them said to Darius,“ No, it’s more convincing to make him deaf, ”to have that parallel line between Reuben and Joe, that you feel so strongly.
The beautiful thing about it is that I’m addicted [“Sound of Metal” distributor] Amazon right now, and they come to me and ask me for content. I have other things that I have written, I have other deaf writers that I know, and because of this link I think some doors are going to be closed, because people are interested in what I have to say right now.
Have you determined what your next project will be?
Listen, I have “Team Paul” now. I have a management team, I have an entertainment lawyer, and the Paul team are now informing me that I have to be very careful with the next role I take on. I was offered – honestly to God – about eight, nine, 10 things. And I was never offered anything! I can’t wait to get back to work, but I’m going to have to be a little selective and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Are there any career goals in sight?
I love Bill Murray, he’s the same age as me. I don’t want to take any role away from Bill, but I would definitely like to play with this guy. I used to fantasize and meditate on things like that, things that I thought were too good to be true, because for many years my prayer was always: “Nothing is too good to believe in it. . It can happen.” Even though there was a part of me that didn’t even believe this, the prayer believed in me and lifted me up. You just have to persevere, even if the believer is not in you. If this is true for me, it is true for everyone.