Sound of Metal‘s Paul Raci talks to Awards Daily about his breakout role, many decades in the making.
For more than 30 years, actor Paul Raci has worked as a theater actor, while having guest parts in popular TV series, from L.A. Law to Scrubs and Parks and Recreation, to most recently Baskets. But in 2020, it’s his performance as Joe, the deaf addiction program director in Darius Marder’s film Sound of Metal, that has proven to be a real breakout part for the actor.
Raci grew up with two deaf parents and often served as interpreter or what he calls ” a bridge” between deaf and hearing culture. In many ways, Sound of Metal is the film he was born to be in, as he recognizes much of himself and his parents in his character.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Raci about his work in the film, including disrupting the chemistry between Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke), and what it was like shooting his final, climactic scene in the film.
Awards Daily: You’re in one of the best movies of the year, in my opinion. Did you have any idea when you took on this part that this film was going to be a breakout for you? Did you know you were in something special fairly early on?
Paul Raci: Honestly, yeah. (Laughs) When I read the script, I knew that it was special. And then when I got there for filming, I was only there for three weeks, but when I’d go home at night and get ready for the next day, whatever scene was happening, I knew that it was real. I knew that it was special. I’ve mainly been a stage actor my whole life, so I’m used to prepping for three to four weeks and then putting a stage play up and running it for three weeks. This wasn’t so much that preparation. I felt like my whole life had already been preparing me for this particular role, because everything about this guy, I had experienced everything that he’s done. I felt like it was the right moment and I knew that the work we were doing, especially with our director [Darius Marder] and with Riz, was very special. I just felt it.
AD: I would imagine this would be a different kind of set for you, too, since you were on a set where people were predominantly using ASL (American Sign Language). Was that different than what you’re used to on sets?
PR: Yeah, because a lot of deaf people don’t get opportunities to act. If they do, they get day player stuff or comic relief or something like that. But there are so many deaf actors that I’ve worked with in LA that are highly talented. They don’t get an opportunity. On this set, there were a lot of deaf people. We had to have interpreters. I’m used to being an interpreter, so when the interpreter that we had on set was too busy, I found myself doing the work because that’s what I’ve done my whole life, be that bridge between one culture to another. I’m kind of like the go-between. It’s comfortable for me. But Darius would get on my butt because he wanted to focus on my job as an actor, and here I am doing interpreter work. It’s just what I do naturally. My parents were deaf; I’ve done that my whole life. What’s gratifying was that in the Silver House, all of those characters were all deaf. What a beehive of activity and buzz, and it was just beautiful. I just loved it.
AD: I talked to Olivia Cooke about her work in the film, and she said that they shot her scenes mostly in order. What was filming for you like, coming in to disrupt the flow between Riz and Olivia? I know they literally separated them for months.
PR: Oh, definitely. That was a blessing to be able to shoot chronologically like that. I can’t see doing it any other way. I’ve had addiction problems myself. It started when I was in Vietnam. With that first meeting we have with Riz, and then when he brings in her, I’ve honestly seen that scene portrayed in real life so many times I can’t even tell you. For example, the one line that sticks out in my mind. I ask him how long he’s been clean and he says “Four years.” And then I can see he’s uncomfortable, and I ask him to bring in Lou and say, “How long have you been with her?” And he says “Four years.” Any addiction counselor and anybody that knows anything about addiction, they know he just switched out one addiction for another. It’s just a tenet for AA meetings to never get emotionally involved with someone you meet at an AA meeting. It’s a rule. So here they are breaking the first rule. My character Joe gets it. Even with Riz and I, it wasn’t like we were friends between takes. It was like life was unfolding on set, and so was our relationship to each other, as just people in the dressing room. We only did two or three takes of everything, so it was all very brand-new. There wasn’t a lot of prep like theater. You had to know what you were getting into and then just be it, which was really, as it turns out, a beautiful thing.
AD: I get the sense that Joe has had many people come through his program and not make it. But he doesn’t seem jaded. How do you think he stays positive and optimistic?
PR: You’re right. He’s seen many, many fail. Joe is about saving lives, because he has lived through that experience. He was addicted to beer of all things, and lost his wife, lost his kid, lost everything. I think for Joe, he finally makes the turnaround where he really believes he wants to join the deaf community because that’s where he finds his sense of stillness. That’s where he finds the real peace he’s trying to reach. When he sees this joyous community and how resilient they are, that’s what addicts have to be. They have to be resilient if you want to live or survive your addiction. Joe’s about saving lives at all costs. And yet you know bad things are going to happen and you take them as they come.
AD: What was it like filming your final scene in the film? That’s where you really see disappointment from Joe.
PR: Every day out there in Ipswich (outside of Boston), it was a beautiful, sunny day, but the day we filmed that scene, it rained and was overcast. So there was this ominous feeling already as we walked up to the house. And all the deaf people had wrapped the day before, so the whole deaf camp was gone. The house was empty. It was just Riz and I, and it was raining. I knew the importance of that scene. I knew what had to be done. I was just emotionally ready, because as you say, Joe has been through this a million times, and when he finally comes back to me, I had to say that was almost a spiritual acting experience for me, because we were both so locked into each other’s emotions, and after the first take, I look up in the corner and I see Darius weeping. I knew it wasn’t just me; it was for real. Then we did another take, and then we did one more, and we had to do Riz’s side, and every time I looked to the corner, Darius was weeping like a baby. Quite frankly, everybody on set was very respectful. I can’t think of a better situation to film that particular scene. He just let us be.
AD: It’s probably my favorite scene in the film. Do you think Joe reacts this way when other people fail the program or do you think he was especially affected by Ruben?
PR: Joe has to be present with everybody. It doesn’t matter if they’re deaf or hearing, but with Ruben, I think it especially hit Joe hardest because he’s also late deafened. If you’re culturally deaf like my father was, that’s one thing. But my mother was deafened later on in life, and there’s a certain bitterness and longing that she had for music, a longing that she had for the old life. Both my parents are embodied in Joe’s character. But the one that is the most heartbreaking for me is my mother, who lost her hearing at the age of 5 and she still missed music. There’s a line that you hear me say, where I say, “I still remember the music that was playing when the bomb went off.” That’s a line that I improvised, because my mother remembered the music that she listened to before she went deaf. I remember one time she was rocking me in a rocking chair, and she tried to sing me a song [sings, “I’ll get by/As long as I have you”], and she tried to sing it for me, and I looked up at her and said, “Mom, that’s not how it goes.” And the hurt and disappointment in her eyes still lives with me, because I was just a cruel little boy. That’s the part of Joe that I think he is attracted or feels closer to Ruben because they’re so much alike. Being latent deafened is probably the most loneliest feeling.
AD: I can only imagine. What do you think happens to Ruben at the end? Does he go back to you? And if he does, does Joe welcome him?
PR: Well of course, everybody’s got that question. I don’t think he goes back. Everybody asks me that. And had this movie been made in Hollywood, he’d probably go back and get together with the schoolteacher. (Laughs) Everybody wants that beautiful Hollywood ending. I love the way [Darius] ends it. It’s kind of European in a way. It’s real life in a way. I think Ruben disappoints Joe so much with his decision—I think Joe would welcome him back. However, there’s so much messed up in between there, because the reason I would give him pause—as I say to him in that last scene: “You look and you sound like an addict.” This behavior is not getting us anywhere. If he did come back, I’d hate to say that Joe would turn anybody away. We’d have to address that.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.