Oscars 2021: Paul Raci on Sound of Metal, supporting actor nomination, and living an 'enhanced' life
'For me, Sound of Metal was very personal because I’ve had to deal with hearing loss my whole life,' says Paul Raci, who plays Riz Ahmed's mentor Joe in Sound of Metal.
His is a calming presence in Sound of Metal. As Joe, Paul Raci plays a mentor and guide who helps the struggling metal band drummer Ruben (essayed spectacularly by Riz Ahmed), to decipher and come to terms with his advancing hearing loss. He helps him navigate through the complex emotions of denial and anger, bringing him to the point where healing can finally begin.
In various hues before, Raci has brought healing and meaning to many deaf people. Hollywood may have belatedly woken up to the rich talent of Raci, but his has been a lifetime of service: both as a Vietnam veteran and as a tireless champion of inclusion. No wonder then that Raci harnessed all his life experiences to put them into the role of Joe, one for which he has received BAFTA and Oscar nominations. A role that resonates with his own life and struggles. A role for which he has had experience from a very young age.
Being a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), Raci has been interpreting the world to his parents since he was a child. In an exclusive interview, he says, “My dad was deaf from the age of six months, they think. He had no memory of hearing anything. However, my mother, when she lost her hearing at the age of five due to spinal meningitis, had already acquired language, had heard a lot of music, and could speak. So she always felt isolated from pop culture. And that’s probably the worst thing about deafness: the isolation from what’s going on around you. My mother always felt connected to music in some way. So when I was a little boy in Chicago, learning about the Top 40 music, she was always fascinated about who was ‘hot’ at that point. When Elvis (Presley) came out, she wanted to know about Elvis. When The Beatles came out, she bought me my first tickets to go and see them live. She bought me my first guitar, she paid for my first few lessons. I was always trying to interpret in sign language for her what the songs in the late '50s and early '60s were about.”
His musical journey may have started in childhood, but this Vietnam War veteran has been strongly connected to it over decades. Today, he is the frontman of Hands of Doom: ASL Rock, a Black Sabbath tribute band. What sets Hands of Doom apart is that their performances incorporate Raci’s signing for the hearing impaired as well. While being a tribute act for a legendary band may be one thing, interpreting metal for a deaf audience is a whole different ball game. How then does the translation process from lyrics to signs work? Especially since there is a chance of messages getting lost in translation.
“That’s a great question!” he says, adding, “As a matter of fact, nothing gets lost. What happens is, it gets enhanced. I take a song, and translate it from English to American Sign Language. I go to another CODA, and get her advice on the translation. Then I go to another deaf person, and get his advice on the translation. Between the two and my own interpretation, I end up with what happens on stage."
"I’ll give you an example of how this works: There’s a Black Sabbath song called 'Into the Void,' and it’s about a rocketship full of people leaving planet Earth to find another planet to live on because the Earth is destroying itself through war and destruction.” In Raci’s ASL translation for the deaf audience, he translates it as if it is a rocketship full of deaf people leaving Earth because it is isolating and oppressive. The song then becomes about a group of deaf people from Earth who want to find another planet just for only deaf people. “Or hearing people would be allowed on this new planet only if they used sign language. I had to add this bit about the deaf people and their experience here because a lot of deaf people feel like they’re living in a foreign country even though they’re from here; nobody speaks their language, and nobody hears their signs,” Raci explains.
Prior to Hands of Doom: ASL Rock, Raci has also been associated with Beethoven’s Nightmare, a deaf rock band with band members who cannot hear. Raci describes his two-year stint with them as a “very rewarding, highly enjoyable learning experience”. His deft signing and ability to reach out to more hearing-impaired talent has seen him work with the Deaf West Theatre as well. For both, he says, the experience has been a lot of rehearsals and patience. The additional interpreting and getting-the-essence-of-the-meaning right phase has doubled the work time but it has made the work that much more gratifying.
His acting duties aside, Raci’s life has been devoted to inclusive initiatives. How hard has that been? “It’s only as hard as a hearing culture makes it on you. I mean, you introduce an idea like the Deaf West Theatre, which is theatre for deaf people with deaf actors. Hearing people aren’t exactly jumping with excitement to see a deaf show until they find out what a rich experience it can be. You just have to keep on doing what you think is the right thing to do — which at this particular point is to be inclusionary. And then the rest of the world will catch up with you,” says Raci.
The world, and Hollywood, is indeed catching up with the actor who has hitherto had to contend with bit roles on television and in cinema. When he finally gets the recognition he deserves, it is for a part that rings close to home. His own struggles with tinnitus, coupled with his extensive work with deaf people, helped him transition from Paul Raci to Joe in Sound of Metal.
His first experience with tinnitus was on the aircraft carrier he served on in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. As a medic, he worked a lot on the flight deck where the jet planes were stationed. “Today, I’m 73 years old. All the men I served with on that flight deck have hearing loss. My tinnitus is in my right ear. At least a few times a week, I have this screeching in my ear that I can do nothing about but wait for it to stop. What’s made it worse for me is not just serving in Vietnam but being involved with rock and roll bands. Every musician I know who is with a heavy metal band, suffers from tinnitus. That’s just a fact of life now. You’ve to protect your hearing.
For me, Sound of Metal was very personal because I’ve had to deal with it (hearing loss) my whole life. So do a lot of musicians.”
The film has been a personal journey for Raci but the response to it, and the subsequent BAFTA and Oscar nominations, have exceeded all expectations for the humble actor. He admits willingly that life has changed rather dramatically since the nominations, and he cannot wait for what lies ahead. “Pre-Oscar/Bafta, I wasn’t offered very many roles of substance. Maybe one line in a TV show or one day’s work in a movie. Now, after the nominations, I’m turning down roles that I don’t want to do, and have the arduous job of trying to decide what my next meaty role in the next movie is going to be. No more one-liners for me!” he says, joyously.
Showbiz may have restricted Raci to one-liners, but his life and body of work speak tomes of his compassion, courage, and creativity. The nominations have only brought his work to a world stage.
Sound of Metal is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.
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