Rotten Tomatoes’ “Essentials” series will provide an in-depth look at one nominee or potential nominee from each of the major awards categories – the four acting categories, and directing – diving into their highest-rated work from both fans and critics, essential titles from their filmography, and featuring thoughts on their nominated film drawn from an extended interview.
The cliche in Hollywood is that every overnight success is about 10 years in the making. For Paul Raci, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his gently arresting turn in Sound of Metal, that jump into the limelight took…well, just a little longer. “I started professionally acting in ’80,” he tells us over Zoom from his house in Burbank, his long hair resting over his shoulders, his two black electric guitars proudly on display in the background. Over 40-plus years, he’s trawled the boards in his hometown of Chicago and Los Angeles, where he moved in 1989, and picked up one-liner bit parts here and there on the small screen for Parks and Recreation, Baskets, Scrubs, and Baywatch, and occasional tiny big-screen roles along the lines of “Bad Guy” in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. So the news — which would permanently change things — came as a shock.
“I don’t have an alarm clock,” Raci says, painting the picture of the morning of the Oscar nominations announcements. “I have a head clock. And that morning my head clock was turned off for some reason. I was supposed to get up at 5. I look at the clock on my dresser. It’s 5:25. So we run into my living room, turn on my TV, and they’re on the second name of Best Supporting Actor. And they go, ‘And the third one is Paul Rah-see.’ And I go, ‘No, it’s Ray-see, but I’ll take it!’ So then it’s 5:30 in the morning and my neighbors are bringing me champagne, chocolate-covered edibles — not the kind you’re thinking of, like the fruit kind, flowers… My wife is crying; my daughter’s crying. It didn’t sink in until a couple of days later when my wife and I looked at each other and were like, ‘Really? This is happening? Really?’”
Really. And for good reason. In Sound of Metal, Raci plays Joe, the leader of a shelter for deaf recovering addicts who takes in Ruben (star Riz Ahmed), a noise-rock drummer who recently lost his hearing. From the moment we meet Joe, we know him. Every move he makes or line he delivers feels lived in and authentic, and his eyes have the kind, wise quality of someone who is zen but ran into some bumps getting to that place.
That verisimilitude is no accident: Like Joe, Raci served in Vietnam, though he didn’t lose his hearing there. Raci also grew up a CODA (child of deaf adults) and, like Joe, struggled with substance abuse, worked in programs to help deaf addicts, and made his living serving the deaf community, in Raci’s case as a sign-language interpreter in the Los Angeles court system, a job he still holds. (Director and co-writer Darius Marder tweaked the original character “just slightly,” according to Raci, to make it more true-to-life.)
Now, Raci is recognized and congratulated daily at his morning coffee spot or favorite Mexican joint, “even with the mask on,” he adds. “I’m not gonna say I’m tired of it yet, no,” he admits about his newfound celebrity with a laugh. Here’s how he got there.
After two tours in Vietnam, college, and a stint as the frontman of a rock band, Raci and 10 of his actor pals started the Immediate Theatre Company in the far-north-side Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park. “Real theater, theatrical realism” is how he describes the group’s ethos. “We tried to emulate Steppenwolf [the famed Chicago theater company], where something would burn in your mind and you’d remember it when you got home.”
While there, he nabbed a Jeff Award — think Oscars for Chicago theater — for Actor in a Principal Role for Children of a Lesser God. “Marlee Matlin was the supporting role in that show,” he says of the play, which chronicles a romance between a deaf student and her teacher. “And then they were making the movie around the same time, so they called her, she auditioned, and the rest was history: She played the lead in the movie, which was made about a year after the show that we did.” Los Angeles beckoned.
“You’re in Chicago, thinking you’re gonna move out here and sit by the pool with your sunglasses on and wait for your agent to call you. It ain’t gonna happen, man,” Raci says. “I quickly found out that if you’re 40 years old, which I was when I moved out here, that nobody’s looking for you. They were looking for you about 10 years ago. So I missed that boat.” Between frustrating auditions and his day job at the courts and the odd one-liner part in a TV show, Raci put his heart into the Deaf West Theatre, “which has deaf productions — deaf run, deaf owned, deaf board of directors,” he explains. “So that’s where I’ve been doing my trade for the past 20 years.”
There were nibbles of making it big onscreen, though: “So I get this role on Parks and Rec and, hey, there’s a possibility of becoming a series regular [claps his hands]. Dang, here it is! Series regular. Comedy. I do comedy. I’m falling off my chair. This is great. I grew up at Second City in Chicago. So I get the role, it’s a couple of lines with Amy Poehler. No series regular. Didn’t happen. But they dangle that carrot in front of you: ‘There it is, come on, come and get it, Paul… Oh, no, not this time.’ But you know what? It’s been thirty years out here, okay? That happened to me all the time.”
Raci actually turned down Sound of Metal — that is, after his agent and wife coaxed the film’s casting director into giving his audition tape a look, stressing how perfectly her husband’s background matched the role, and after Darius Marder met up with Raci on the east coast and he accepted the part. “I found out I could make more money in Los Angeles as a sign language interpreter in the court system than traveling to Boston [to shoot the movie] and lose money,” Raci recounts. “But eventually Darius figured out that he could give me a little more per diem, and at least I wouldn’t lose any money, okay?”
With an indie budget, “you get two or three takes — that’s it,” Raci tells us, going on to explain that there were no rehearsals, which, for viewers, is surprising to hear, given how palpable and realistic he and Riz Ahmed’s interactions are. “When I sit down for my very first scene with Riz, that’s the first day I met the guy. He doesn’t know me; I don’t know him. He’s a brilliant actor, just so bewildered and full of loss. He was blowing my mind. It was just perfect. I’m so grateful to Riz for breaking my heart in every scene.” For proof of their powerful interactions, look no further than their last scene together — “the scene,” as Raci calls it — where Joe’s eyes well up in a way that compels the audience to follow suit.
With the accolades he’s received for Sound of Metal — Raci has won a whopping nine Film Critics Awards for Best Supporting Actor, as well as one from the National Board of Review, not to mention the Oscar buzz — the actor’s days of hearing “Oh, no, not this time” from folks in the industry would seem to be behind him. “I’m sifting through some movie role offers right now — you know, I’ve turned down about ten, so I’m wheeling and dealing here,” he jokes. “What a blessing. I can’t decide whether to do this role, which is really cool, or this one, which is really awesome. I have writers wanting to know if they can write a movie for me. I say, ‘Dude, write your movie. Don’t worry about me, man.’ But that’s how wonderful it is right now.”
Wonderful, sure, but Raci feels a strong responsibility to keep pushing for better deaf representation, a throughline of his life and career. “We need to have some deaf protagonists in movies that just happen to be deaf. A lot of deaf people have said to me, ‘How cool is it you guys showed a deaf sober house?’ You would think deaf people would go, ‘Don’t show us that way.’ But they’re thrilled. You’re showing them as normal, with foibles and failures and temptations.” He goes on, animatedly, with a bit of his Chicago accent poking through: “There are too many talented deaf men and women out there who are actors, who really have chops, who really know what they’re doing. So I’m trying to get the idea out there that there’s more to be done as far as deaf characterizations. There’s a lot more to be done.”