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Emilia Jones on ‘CODA,’ Her Intense Training in Sign Language, and Filming ‘Locke & Key’ Season 2 and 3 Back-to-Back

One of the most emotionally heartfelt films so far this year, that is also truly a love letter to family, is CODA, which follows 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), the sole hearing member of a deaf family. Until now, her life has revolved around being an interpreter for her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and working on the family fishing boat with her older brother (Daniel Durant), but when Ruby joins her high school’s choir club and gets some guidance from the choirmaster in how to channel her passion into a real gift, she realizes that her life is at a turning point between family obligations and the desire to pursue her own dreams.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Jones talked about her journey to getting this role, the huge challenge of everything she had to learn to take on this project, her intense training in sign language, the hardest scene to shoot, narrowing down the songs that she’d sing in the film, how fun it was to play the romance, and what she’d taken away from the experience of making CODA. She also talked about playing Kinsey Locke on the TV series Locke & Key, filming Season 2 and 3 back-to-back, and how much her character has evolved.

Collider: First of all, congratulations on this film and on how much audiences are responding to it. What’s it like to actually hear feedback on a project like this, that’s not only a great film, but hopefully gives people a deeper understanding of a culture they might know little to nothing about?

EMILIA JONES: Yeah, exactly. That’s what drew me to this project. I love that there was such emphasis on authenticity. It’s a story about a family. It’s not about a family that’s deaf. It’s just a love letter to family. This family is not solely defined by being deaf. These are characters that people can relate to. And Troy [Kotsur], Daniel [Durant] and Marlee [Matlin] are absolutely incredible. I loved working with them. I think the family dynamic that we have on screen is what was in real life too. We had a lot of fun, playing these deep and layered characters. And I loved learning sign language. I really didn’t know anything about deaf culture and about that world, so I just loved immersing myself and learning so much. My hope, when people watch the film, is that they will wanna know more too. A lot of people that have seen it, they’ll write and go, “Oh, my gosh, I wanna know more. I wanna learn a couple of signs.” A crew member on Locke & Key came up to me and signed, “I loved the movie.” Someone will say, “There’s a man that lives on my street and he’s deaf. How do I sign this? How do I sign that?” So, I hope that people watch this film and wanna know more.

It’s one of those movies where I would imagine reading the script must’ve been a pretty emotional experience, but did you have a moment where it sunk in, just how much you’d actually have to do for this role?

JONES: Yeah, there was. I learned sign language for nine months, and then a week before I left to fly to Massachusetts to have intense training with Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, I thought, “Oh, my goodness, I’ve taken on so much.” I had a little wobble because I just wanted to do everything justice. I wanted to make sure my singing was the best. I’ve never had a singing lesson before. I wanted to make sure all of my signs were accurate and truthful. I’d never fished before. There was a moment where I was like, “Okay, this is a lot.” But then, I flew to Massachusetts and I was like, “Nope, I love the challenge. I wanna learn and I wanna be pushed beyond belief.”

Even with the final singing performance you have, you’re not only singing and doing the sign language, but you’re having to think of the accent and do everything at once.

JONES: Yeah, that scene was definitely the most challenging to film. It’s like multi-tasking under pressure. When I was filming “Both Sides Now,” I had to walk into that scene being as accurate as possible with my signs, I had to sing in tune because everything was recorded live on set, and I had to make sure tonally my acting was on point. I walked into the scene thinking, “Okay, I have all of these things that I have to do, so I have to do the best I can, otherwise, you don’t have many takes to choose from.” If you do four takes, but your sign language is only correct in one of them, you only have one take to choose from, and your singing and acting may have been better in the other take. So, you just have to make sure that, with every take, you’re doing everything on the same level. I definitely went into that scene thinking, “Okay, I have to make sure that I get everything almost a hundred percent correct.”

When you were on set, did you feel like you’d really nailed it?

JONES: The take that (writer/director) Sian [Heder] and the editor and everybody picked for the film was a take that I actually messed up. We shot that towards the end of filming. The moment when I sign, “I love you,” I just looked up at Marlee, Troy and Daniel. We had become so close during this film. It was such a special project to be a part of and it was such a special film to make. I signed, “I love you,” and I looked up at them and got really emotional, and then I changed the melody by accident, and that was the take that they picked, in the end. I just remember that I was happy that I had done it, but also, it was such a special song to sing. Joni [Mitchell] says that “Both Sides Now” is the work of her childhood’s end, when she was coming to that point in her life where her childhood was ending. It was the perfect song to sing and it was the perfect time to shoot it too, when we were coming to the end of the film. So, that was definitely a very emotional, but a very special scene to film.