Troy Kotsur on Super Bowl Sign Language National Anthem Performance
It’s been two years since Troy Kotsur pulled on the heartstrings of Sundance audiences with his supporting performance in “CODA,” and one year since his Oscar win for the role made him a household name. Now, he’s found his way back to his home state of Arizona, where the whole country will watch him perform the national anthem in American Sign Language during Super Bowl LVII on Sunday.
When “CODA” — an acronym meaning “child of deaf adults” — rose to popularity, it sparked a larger conversation about our widespread failure to acknowledge Deaf culture and make efforts to accommodate and include deaf people.
Ahead of his Super Bowl performance, Kotsur spoke to Variety about the visual art of interpreting music into sign language and his thoughts on the progress our culture has made.
How did your involvement in this year’s Super Bowl come together?
It’s a funny story. I’m a big fan of the Arizona Cards and I always follow them early in the season. I realized they weren’t doing so well this year, so I kind of stopped following the NFL because I was so busy. And then the National Association of the Deaf asked me to perform the national anthem. I was on the fence for about two weeks and then I learned that it was my hometown that was hosting the Super Bowl, so I said, “Hell yes, I’m in.” It’s really a big deal for me. I feel extremely honored to be here in my hometown. How could I turn it down?
Why were you on the fence at first?
Well, I have a lot of issues with the camera framing not really getting the signing and some of the politics behind it. There’s a lot of issues. And music’s not really my thing — but of course I love sign language. It’s very poetic when you sign songs, but it’s a challenge to get the timing and the rhythm to sync up with the singers. But after I made the decision, I did a lot of research and analysis that really helped me get a better understanding of the author’s intention. I’m adding a little salt and pepper that will make it even more poetic, even more delicious. It’s a visual art. That’s my personal art form, as a visual performer. So I’m putting it all out there.
Have you had conversations with the NFL about making sure the camera captures your performance in a way that honors your work better?
There’s one camera, a close-up on me, which they’ll be streaming on Fox’s YouTube channel. Then there’ll be more of a wide shot with various cuts; I imagine they’re going to focus on Chris Stapleton and the audience and the players. I’ll try and let technology take care of itself. I’m just going to focus and do my part.
What’s the process behind a performance like this? Since Chris Stapleton will be singing the anthem, will you be signing an interpretation of his rendition? Or is your performance more your own?
I’m doing my own performance. What’s important is to get the intention right and make sure that everyone can understand the meaning of the sign. I compare my signing with Chris Stapleton’s rhythm and timing, and my wife helped me a bit to see how many beats per second, or sometimes a singer might exaggerate a certain phrase. So that’s a challenging part of the process.
My hearing family members really freaked out when they found out that I was performing with Chris, because they said he has such a beautiful voice. So I feel honored to work with him.
You mentioned seeing this as a visual art. What will your performance look and feel like? What are you using for inspiration?
After reading the lyrics of the national anthem, I did a bit more research and really wanted to focus on what inspired the author, Francis Scott Key. I was analyzing his intention. He witnessed what was happening in the [American Revolutionary War] and it was a terrible war, but the flag still survived. It was still there. So he ended up writing a poem, and he gave it to a friend of his who was a soldier, and it spread like wildfire. Later on, they added music to that.
Playing around with my ASL translation, I wanted to tell the story from his perspective and put myself in his shoes. What he saw and what he heard. He wrote it down, so now I’m putting that into signing. So I’m playing the role of Francis Scott Key in this performance, and it’s been really fun for me. And because I’m an artist and an actor, I’ve done a lot of analysis and research to figure out that character. I don’t want to just sign it word-for-word. I want it to be meaningful, with emotion and with multi-layers of nuance and color.
“CODA” was such a conversation starter. Now that it’s been a year, does the industry feel different to you terms of Deaf inclusion? Do you and your peers feel that there’s been significant positive change?
I have seen a lot of positive change. Improvements and baby steps. I feel like more deaf actors are given more opportunities in several TV series and films, and a lot of younger deaf actors as well. And so many of them have been asking for advice and we’ve had a lot of meetings developing our projects. I’m really looking forward to the next page, and I don’t want to be in a rush. If I’m in a rush, I’ll get a bad script. But I want to be careful and let time take care of it.
There was a disappointing incident at Sundance this year, where your “CODA” co-star Marlee Matlin was provided with a malfunctioning captioning device for a film she was supposed to be judging. What were your thoughts?
I think there’s a positive side of it, because it’s a new experience for folks to provide those accommodations. They can see, with trial and error, some of the mistakes in this technology. Many times, they’re not prepared with these captioning devices. They don’t charge the battery, or it doesn’t work at all. So when new movies come out, it would be really great if there was burned-in captioning. That way, there would be access for everyone. Us deaf people are used to foreign films, and watching the subtitles. So really, I think it’s a step forward when these mistakes happen: It actually can create positive change. If that didn’t happen, then the message wouldn’t be spread that there’s such problems with accessibility in movie theaters. Maybe there’ll be more motivation for more deaf filmmakers to submit to these festivals and more motivation for filmmakers to include burned-in captioning in their film submissions.
Did you feel similarly about the lack of closed captioning for Bad Bunny’s Spanish-language performance and acceptance speech?
I call this a pre-production conversation. The producers of all these events and festivals need to think about that as a part of their planning and budget. When you have performances in other languages, you need to make sure you’re prepared. American Sign Language is another language as well and often we’re a linguistic minority. This is a work in progress. Hollywood is still a work in progress.
What are you working on now?
Well, I’m under a lot of contractual obligations not to talk right now… but we’re working on a Western, we’re working on science fiction project, we’re working on a lot of action. I’m looking for a role that will cause audiences to think outside of the box, that you never thought a deaf person could play.
There’s a possibility of some projects and we’ve had several pitches with some streamers. Oh, and I just finished shooting an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with Larry David that’ll be out later this year. It was a lot of improvisation. It wasn’t scripted and that was a blast. And I also did an episode of “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” that was shot in the Scottish Highlands — and what an experience it was. Really an adventure. So look out for that.