Trophy Talk

The Essentials: Paul Raci Reflects on A Career of Small Roles That Led to His Big Break

The 73-year-old actor discusses his big, Oscar-nominated role in Sound of Metal, the long and winding road he took to get there, and what it means for his longtime work in the deaf community.

by | April 12, 2021 | Comments

Paul Raci in Sound of Metal

(Photo by ©Amazon)

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.


Paul Raci in 2019

(Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

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.


Paul Raci

(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

“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.”


Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal

(Photo by ©Amazon)

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.


Paul Raci in Sound of Metal

(Photo by ©Amazon)

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.”

Sound of Metal is available to stream on Amazon Prime now.

Download Rotten Tomatoes’ printable Oscar Ballot; cast your vote in our digital Oscar ballot.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

marvel comics Television Critics Association Image Comics laika scorecard BBC One FX children's TV Endgame based on movie 20th Century Fox FX on Hulu Opinion Tokyo Olympics Cannes feel good Adult Swim Interview Peacock BBC America new zealand Legendary book VH1 Showtime rom-coms Country Lucasfilm king arthur The CW Cartoon Network new star wars movies The Walking Dead blaxploitation biography binge Best and Worst Musicals remakes superman die hard Winners DGA legend 90s Trophy Talk CBS Photos cooking rt labs critics edition prank Animation vs. TIFF golden globe awards thriller obituary AMC Plus superhero Lifetime Christmas movies TCA 2017 72 Emmy Awards Box Office Teen telelvision documentaries Extras reviews comic book movies Set visit game of thrones lord of the rings SXSW USA El Rey mission: impossible slashers Binge Guide Hulu Sony Pictures TCA Winter 2020 Spring TV free movies rt labs Film Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Wes Anderson Nominations Trivia golden globes new york YouTube Red ABC Signature Horror award winner live event LGBT jamie lee curtis Trailer Star Trek james bond heist movie mcc Thanksgiving Marvel kong romance critics hollywood Christmas 21st Century Fox dragons fast and furious docudrama dc historical drama ESPN 71st Emmy Awards The Witch breaking bad 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Chernobyl History spy thriller 1990s Walt Disney Pictures live action werewolf Captain marvel Marvel Studios Shondaland cancelled television WGN ABC Tumblr television dceu Amazon miniseries USA Network Schedule saw revenge unscripted a nightmare on elm street child's play finale Shudder Character Guide CNN movies Columbia Pictures zombies Sundance TV ghosts war RT21 Awards Tour black comedy Super Bowl international comiccon kids sitcom boxing Cosplay Crunchyroll stoner First Look Countdown Action Sneak Peek Acorn TV talk show Ellie Kemper comic book movie TV Emmy Nominations OneApp criterion mob rt archives Tarantino Tomatazos teaser game show IFC japanese supernatural biopic Dark Horse Comics casting CBS All Access TNT Winter TV spider-man genre travel nature mockumentary Exclusive Video classics cancelled TV shows Masterpiece crime Travel Channel satire independent 45 Crackle aliens canceled TV shows Arrowverse true crime Warner Bros. cancelled chucky 2021 Musical latino sequels Pacific Islander anime diversity women Paramount Network 4/20 indiana jones Rocketman news social media richard e. Grant Epix DC Universe green book strong female leads See It Skip It BET Comics on TV venice witnail Oscars 73rd Emmy Awards football Film Festival New York Comic Con Comedy christmas movies Reality Competition scary movies Rom-Com franchise Disney Channel renewed TV shows Superheroes Netflix San Diego Comic-Con films Mystery dexter Black History Month Election BET Awards Baby Yoda ratings Martial Arts Holiday streaming movies debate Star Wars halloween tv Mudbound Universal Pictures Ghostbusters MTV olympics MSNBC 2016 video on demand french Heroines Spectrum Originals festivals sopranos scene in color TruTV TV renewals CW Seed Pet Sematary aapi Pop TV razzies Amazon Prime Video Academy Awards period drama disaster king kong Discovery Channel RT History indie action-comedy dogs Kids & Family Britbox worst movies high school what to watch GoT animated popular singing competition Turner Classic Movies ViacomCBS elevated horror blockbusters political drama hispanic Writers Guild of America marvel cinematic universe APB Hear Us Out Valentine's Day suspense facebook blockbuster Nat Geo cinemax halloween toy story Neflix 93rd Oscars spanish language Summer harry potter FXX Hallmark Christmas movies TV Land National Geographic toronto PlayStation NBA Podcast Rocky Paramount Ovation stop motion GLAAD hist crime drama ABC Family tv talk Alien Mary Poppins Returns target Apple DC Comics 2015 Vudu godzilla japan screen actors guild Fantasy DirecTV Pop parents President Red Carpet Creative Arts Emmys canceled The Arrangement Instagram Live PaleyFest documentary royal family justice league Toys book adaptation series Certified Fresh Rock Grammys SDCC stand-up comedy cops NBC VOD E! YouTube TCM docuseries E3 24 frames Reality dramedy 007 all-time mutant politics Polls and Games basketball spain posters Biopics south america Classic Film technology Anna Paquin boxoffice Television Academy psycho X-Men BAFTA TLC Disney Lionsgate NYCC asian-american know your critic Universal slasher GIFs rotten movies we love Logo A&E scary A24 police drama Fox Searchlight Women's History Month Infographic Calendar pirates of the caribbean Disney Plus Esquire YouTube Premium Broadway Video Games Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt First Reviews screenings Comic-Con@Home 2021 Sundance TCA crossover SundanceTV theme song Pixar fresh vampires HBO Go Hallmark streaming hidden camera Stephen King Paramount Plus Amazon Prime Turner Mary Tyler Moore VICE Apple TV Plus trailers Quiz Pride Month nfl dark robots Song of Ice and Fire romantic comedy Sci-Fi Watching Series spider-verse Comedy Central 2019 comic books comedies YA psychological thriller anthology Marathons BBC archives IMDb TV The Walt Disney Company Food Network Tubi italian Fox News Superheroe Holidays universal monsters quibi crime thriller emmy awards critic resources TBS Syfy Nickelodeon Awards Elton John IFC Films LGBTQ directors Spike nbcuniversal space Year in Review composers 99% adventure zombie Funimation rotten Starz Mary poppins Lifetime comics Pirates Fall TV cars TCA Awards Disney streaming service Drama Freeform Premiere Dates Comic Book Music Avengers The Academy concert ID Emmys The Purge doctor who HBO reboot CMT adaptation hispanic heritage month Black Mirror transformers MCU PBS joker 2020 DC streaming service comic twilight spinoff American Society of Cinematographers 2018 cancelled TV series natural history spanish jurassic park Brie Larson cartoon wonder woman versus best AMC foreign HBO Max young adult Disney+ Disney Plus worst cats australia science fiction name the review FOX kaiju batman Western festival OWN TV movies Family sequel TV One dreamworks WarnerMedia Mindy Kaling art house Netflix Christmas movies gangster medical drama deadpool Bravo zero dark thirty Amazon Studios movie sports serial killer cults ITV Sundance Now Marvel Television video 2017 monster movies sag awards black Apple TV+ adenture discovery