Learning ASL Completely Changed Acting for ‘CODA’ Star Emilia Jones

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Emilia Jones is generating awards buzz with her performance in Apple TV+’s “CODA.” To play Ruby, a music school hopeful and the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf family, Jones learned American Sign Language. The English actor also took singing lessons and mastered an American accent to add authenticity. Up next: She’ll play Margot in the film adaptation of the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person.”

You’re still rather young, but what advice would you give your younger self?
I would say: You hear no a lot more than you hear yes, but just keep at it. In reality, as a kid, I was really good at hearing no. It never knocked my confidence; it never knocked me down. 

What is your worst audition horror story?
I got down to the last two for “Stranger Things” Season 2 for [the character of] Max. I sent my tape to audition, and I was a little bit older than the rest of the kids. I was also a hell of a lot taller than them. They were like, “We’re going to fly you to New York to meet the cast and screen test.” I flew out, and I was literally a head and a half taller than everybody. I looked like the older sister. I walked in like, “Oh, well, I’m not going to get this.” So we just had fun. 

What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
Reading “CODA,” I was like, I have to do this movie. I sent four dialogue scenes. Sian [Heder, the writer-director,] said, “I know you don’t know any sign language, but if I send you my friend signing, will you copy the scene the best you can? I just want to see [you] sign; it doesn’t have to be perfect.” I thought to myself, It needs to be perfect. I knew I had to try my absolute hardest because I was already at a disadvantage being 17, British, [and] not a signer. 

Did learning ASL impact the way you act and your physicality?
100%. Everything changed for me in terms of acting. Whatever happens in the moment, you can internalize what you’re feeling, and a lot of it shows through your facial expressions and through your eyes. You don’t need to do that much. Less is more. Whereas with sign language, you can’t do that. You’re having to show [it] with your whole body, it’s so physical. That allowed me to get out of my head and embody what I was saying. Everything changes: your facial expressions, your physicality. I found the ASL on set really taught me and all the crew a better way to communicate. ASL really taught me the true meaning of communication. 

They sent a link on Friday, and I sat down to watch [it]. I went to make a cup of tea and sat down again to properly work on it, and the link had expired. I thought, Oh, my gosh, how am I going to do it? But I remembered that Ruby fingerspells “Berklee” in the scene. All weekend, I was just fingerspelling “Berklee,” “Berklee,” “Berklee,” “Berklee.” They finally sent the link through [again] on Monday. I stayed up until four in the morning, because I wanted to learn the rest of the scene. Two weeks later, Sian called me and said, “The role is yours. And we couldn’t believe how fast your fingerspelling was.”

READ: How Riz Ahmed Learned ASL for ‘Sound of Metal’

Tell us about your first day on a professional set.
My first film was “One Day” with Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway. I think it was in the first week, Anne Hathaway was sat down on a little picnic blanket having lunch, and she said, “Emilia! Emilia! Come sit with me and have lunch!” [I thought,] Oh, my gosh, I’m going to sit with Anne and have lunch. That was probably the coolest memory I had from my first project. I remember for the first few projects I did, every time I wrapped, I would cry for weeks. I still get really emotional, but I was especially emotional as a kid.

Did learning ASL impact the way you act and your physicality?
100%. Everything changed for me in terms of acting. Whatever happens in the moment, you can internalize what you’re feeling, and a lot of it shows through your facial expressions and through your eyes. You don’t need to do that much. Less is more. 

What performance should every actor see and why?
For emotional scenes, every actor should watch Viola Davis. I love that she’s not afraid to ugly cry. I think sometimes in movies, crying scenes are diamonds rolling down cheeks. It’s not like that in real life.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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