DULUTH — When we first see actor Daniel Durant as Leo, he is in the thick of it — slinging fish alongside his sister and father in the back of the family trawler in the waters off Gloucester, Massachusetts.
His sister, Ruby, the protagonist and titular child of deaf adults in the new feel-good drama “CODA,” belts big-voice soul tunes while she works and then, back on shore, serves as the Rossi family liaison with the hearing community, primarily the middlemen of the local fishing industry.
This supporting role is the biggest of big screen moments so far for Duluth's Durant, whose career started with DIY YouTube vids, which ultimately led to the role of Moritz Stiefel in a Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening.” In between: a recurring role on “Switched at Birth” and a spot in Season 2 of “You.” Meanwhile, home base remains Duluth, with work in Hibbing, where he teaches American Sign Language.
“CODA,” a buzzy movie that fared very well in its premiere at Sundance Film Festival this past winter — Apple secured distribution rights for a festival record $25 million — is available for streaming on Apple TV+ and is in theaters now.
Durant said the cast, which includes Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as his parents, had good chemistry and knew they had made a good film. Still, the reception has been a surprise.
“I’m thrilled. I’m so happy,” he said in a recent Zoom interview, with Brad Galloway as the ASL interpreter. “I really hope this will help change things in the world for the better, increase seeing ASL on screen.”
Durant was born deaf to deaf parents in Detroit. He was later adopted and raised by his father’s sister, Lori Durant, and Mary Engel, of Duluth. He went to the Minnesota State Academy for the deaf in Faribault, Minnesota, where he got involved with theater.
He was discovered by Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles via his YouTube channel, where he originally started to make videos for a long-distance girlfriend, but ultimately connected with more than that singular viewer.
Durant started as an extra and then earned a recurring role on “Switched at Birth,” an award-winning drama about teenage girls who discover they were, literally, switched at birth. It was noteworthy, and rare, in its casting of multiple deaf actors and the use of ASL on episodes. On Season 2 of “You,” he played the late husband of Love Quinn, the serial killer Joe Goldberg’s romantic interest.
In September 2015, Durant was in the cast of Deaf West Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening” that played at Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway — a version of the coming-of-angsty-age musical that starred deaf actors speaking in ASL alongside spoken English.
The New York Times called the production “thrillingly inventive” and described Durant as exuding “a boyish sense of melodramatic frustration.”
Emilia Jones stars as Ruby Rossi in “CODA,” a coming-of-age, follow-your-dreams drama about a young misfit entrenched in the family fishing business. It’s the eccentric choir teacher who helps draw out her singing voice and suggests that she tryout for Berklee College of Music.
The rub: The family relies on her as an interpreter for communication with the hearing community. They aren’t sure — and, honestly, she’s not sure either — that they can afford to let her go.
As of midweek, "CODA" had a 96% on the online review aggregator Tomatometer, with critics noting that it rises above the familiar touchstones of the plot. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post called it an “old-fashioned movie that adheres to admittedly familiar principles of storytelling and emotional stakes, but by way of such a winning cast, evocative atmosphere and genuine tone that it’s impossible not to love.”
A reviewer from the Houston Chronicle likened it to a memorable pop song: “It has great hooks, a solid beat and it’s fun to sing along to.”
Sian Heder, who was behind “Tallulah” (2016) and wrote three seasons of “Orange is the New Black,” is the writer-director of "CODA." Heder is not deaf, but Durant said he found authenticity in her script and credited her with doing her homework. Though, an oft-told story from filming is that when the actors saw the living room set up, they balked.
“This isn’t right,” Durant remembered thinking.
They rearranged it so that the family could sit on the couch and see the television and the front door, and described it as situational awareness.
“They were happy to change it,” he said.
He also recognized parts of himself in Leo, he said, a strong deaf man who is standing on his own two feet and rolls his sleeves up. This is similar to the level of hustle that Durant has known — going from a childhood where he knew of just one deaf actor, Matlin, his future co-worker who won an Oscar for her role of Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God.”
“The first time I was acting was when I was 9,” he said. “I got into it and really liked it. I thought, ‘This is what Marlee does.’
"That’s where it started.”
He's said he is seeing some progress in Hollywood and he's looking forward to more TV shows and larger roles.