Paul Raci on 'Sound of Metal', Listening With Your Whole Body and His 40-Year Overnight Success

Olivia Ovenden
·6-min read
Photo credit: -
Photo credit: -

Paul Raci does not have an alarm clock, which means that the morning the nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards were being announced on live television, he was still asleep. When he awoke and realised the show was well underway, he leapt out of bed and found the right channel just as the presenters happened to be announcing the nominees for actor in a supporting role. "And right there she says. ‘Paul Raaa-cee’ and I go ‘It’s Ray-cee! but I accept!’" he tells me over Zoom from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and daughter. "Then the phone started ringing and my neighbours were bringing over wine, flowers, edibles – not the kind you’re thinking of, you know the fruit that’s covered with chocolate? My wife’s crying, my daughter’s screaming and my dog's howling. It was wonderful."

That morning, as in his career, Raci had arrived a little bit late but at exactly the right moment. The 72-year-old journeyman actor has been working for 40-something years, predominantly at the Deaf West theatre in LA and other theatres in Chicago, as well as appearances in shows like Parks & Recreation and Baskets. Now, in Darius Marder's Sound of Metal opposite Riz Ahmed, he has taken on a role which mirrors his experiences as a former addict, a Vietnam veteran and the hearing child of deaf adults.

The film follows Ruben, a touring drummer and recovering drug addict who loses his hearing one day, suddenly alienated from everything in his world. His girlfriend drives him to a deaf sober house run by Joe, the sage and serene group leader played the sage and serene Raci, who brings Ruben into the community and teaches him that listening isn't the same as hearing.

Joe is a kind of conduit to the world for Ruben in the same way that Raci used to translate for his deaf parents when contesting a parking ticket or paying a bill. One of his earliest memories is going to see Love Me Tender in Fifties Chicago, sitting half-facing his mother and squirming as he had to translate a scene where Elvis was in bed with his brother's wife.

Photo credit: Hilari Scarl - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hilari Scarl - Getty Images

"You learn that listening is not just listening with your ears, it’s a whole bodily experience," Raci says. "Your body is speaking all the time even if you don’t say anything. Not only is your face screaming what you’re thinking, but so is your body. I think deaf people are actually really good at listening, and how ironic is that?"

In the film we see those who lose their hearing and those who never had it in the first place, a distinction which Raci saw between his two parents. Unlike his father, who was deafened at six-months-old, his mother lost her hearing at around five and would long for the music which she could faintly remember. Raci remembers playing in a "David Bowie-type band" and his mother sneaking into bars to watch him, her buying him his first guitar or getting him tickets to see The Beatles at Comiskey Park in 1965, so connected did she still feel to the music she had lost.

Photo credit: Vertigo
Photo credit: Vertigo

Sound itself is a leading character in Marder's film, and the film switches between what Ruben can and cannot hear, often with painful results. Whether it is the thrashing of metal music or the the unbearable static chatter of a party heard through hearing implants, these are presented in contrast to the peacefulness which silence brings, although that idea comes with its own complications.

At one point Joe tells Ruben that not trying to fix "here", pointing to his ears, but "here", pointing to his brain, and the idea that deaf people are broken is one the film rightly challenges. "When I first read the script I started to cry," Raci says. "If my father were alive today he would stand up and cheer, because that’s how he felt: ‘Don’t fix me, leave me alone’." His mother, however, first heard about the cochlear implants and was more intrigued, and Raci recognises each person feels differently about their deafness.

Photo credit: Vertigo
Photo credit: Vertigo

It is this kind of nuanced depiction of the deaf community seen in Sound of Metal and Sian Heder's recent Sundance hit CODA, with these films moving away from portraying deaf people as pitiful or saintly as pop-culture so often does, and instead showing, as Raci insists, that "deaf people are not a monolith".

The addition ministry in the film shows people from all walks or life and with different hearing issues all coming together. Raci, who has battled addiction and also worked in deaf sober houses, has seen how deaf addicts are set up to fail by being sent with an interpreter into rehabilitation centres where they are unable to communicate with anyone else.

When Ruben goes ahead with getting cochlear implants, Joe must ask him to leave the house because he has to protect the other residents from feeling like they are broken. After Ruben walks out the door Joe almost gasps for breath, an exhale from a moment so still and intimate that it catches in your chest. "My acting guru once told me, 'Don’t cry, fight it, because if you cry we won’t'," he says. "I remember Darius [Marder] standing in the corner and after that take I saw tears were streaming down his face."

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Raci's journey, from translating for his mother in the cinema to landing an Oscar nomination in a film which has subtitles burned into it, has a fortuitous sense of symmetry. After serving as a hospital corpsman on a flight deck in Vietnam he developed tinnitus, the same issue which Ruben battles in Sound of Metal. Having run addiction ministries for deaf addicts for years he was eventually cast as that same figure in a movie, bringing to life the supporting role he played for so long to his parents. He has spent 40-something years doing walk-on parts and productions in black box theatres – "I usually show up for a day and say ‘Hey Joe, phone call!’ That’s my line!" – and now he's the first Oscar nominee to also front a Black Sabbath sign language rock band.

"I moved out here when I was 40 and guess what, they are not looking for 40-year-olds in Hollywood," he laughs. "To have this kind of validation for all the work that I’ve been doing is just an absolute blessing and a cherry on top of the chocolate sundae that I’ve been working on for all these years."

'Sound of Metal' is on Amazon Prime from 12 April and in cinemas from 17 May


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