‘Sound of Metal’ breakout Paul Raci on his 40-year journey to Oscar: ‘I must be way too specific’

Listen up, Hollywood: Paul Raci is ready to make some noise. 

For more than four decades, the 73-year-old actor has been cutting his teeth on stage in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as in bit movie and TV roles. But on-screen success somehow eluded him until Darius Marder’s electrifying hearing-loss drama “Sound of Metal” (streaming on Amazon Prime), nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture, best actor (Riz Ahmed) and best supporting actor (Raci). 

The Oscar nod “really is life-changing,” says Raci, who nearly slept through the announcement on nominations morning. “To go from where I’ve been and doing what I have to do to pay my mortgage: going to court every day and being a sign-language interpreter, then every once in a while, getting a shot in a film – .

“This is different because now, I’m turning roles down,” he adds. Plus, “I’m bringing some content to Amazon and we’re in discussions about widening the awareness of disabled and deaf actors.”  

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"It's a little surreal, but it's sinking in every day," "Sound of Metal" star Paul Raci says of his Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. (Photo: Rich Fury, Getty Images for ABA)

“Sound” follows a young punk-metal drummer named Ruben (Ahmed) who suffers from sudden hearing loss and reluctantly enrolls in a remote commune for recovering deaf addicts, run by the stern yet gentle Joe (Raci). 

Although he himself is hearing, Raci’s parents were both deaf (his dad was born deaf, while his mom lost her hearing when she was 5). Like Joe, Raci is a former addict who’s worked in sober homes similar to the one depicted in “Sound.” The character was originally written as an Iraq War veteran, but was changed to reflect Raci’s own experience serving in Vietnam from 1969-73. 

“I didn’t know Paul fought two tours in Vietnam when I watched his (audition) tape, but I felt it in his eyes,” Marder says. “I didn’t know he had struggled with addiction himself but I didn’t doubt his words for a moment. I didn’t understand his complex and deep connection to deaf culture but Paul’s conviction was pure and alive, coming from a deep and sometimes painfully acquired truth.” 

"Every single scene I worked with him made my job that much easier," Paul Raci, left, says of co-star Riz Ahmed. (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios, Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

We caught up with Raci over Zoom from his home in Burbank, California, where he lives with his wife and daughter when he’s not fronting Hands of Doom, an American Sign Language (ASL) Black Sabbath cover band. 

Question: Were you the kid who practiced his Oscar speech in the mirror, or was acting something you hadn’t even considered growing up? 

Paul Raci: It was in my mind – I remember watching the Oscars as a kid. But the thing for me was, I was always put in this position of storytelling. When my mother took me to the movies in 1956 to see “Love Me Tender” with Elvis Presley, what I didn’t realize is I’d have to interpret that whole movie for her while I was sitting there. There was no captioning, no accessibility for deaf people for pop culture. Years later, my dad liked to watch “Bonanza” on television and I’d interpret all the characters for him.

Then I was into rock ‘n’ roll. My mom bought my first tickets to see the Beatles, but on one condition: When I got back, I had to explain the whole (concert) to her. She just drank it all in. 

Paul Raci poses for a portrait at his home in Burbank, Calif. (Photo: Chris Pizzello, Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Q: What was the first professional acting gig you ever booked? 

Raci: My very first movie was (“Rent-a-Cop”) in 1987 with Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli. I had one line, it was to Burt Reynolds. He was sitting over there and I was the bartender, and I go, “Tony! Phone call!” That was it. And from then on, it was downhill, my friend! 

Q: Why do you think it’s taken 40 years for you to find a role like Joe in “Sound of Metal?” 

Raci: When I graduated from the University of Illinois, I sat down with my acting teacher, Bill Raffeld. I go, “Bill, what’s next for me?” I’m all excited. And he says, “Paul, I don’t think you’re going to have any success until you’re much older.” I said, “Nobody wants to hear that! What are you talking about?” So he sent me to Second City to be an improvisational actor. He said, “Get another tool to put in your box and just be patient.” He just passed away last year and now this thing has happened. 

So I don’t know how to explain it, other than when I moved to Hollywood, I was already 40 years old. I tried to fit in as best I could until finally I just gave up. I’d say to my wife, “I must be way too specific because they’re certainly not looking for me.” Once I let go of that and became more of myself and didn’t care anymore, then this thing kind of metamorphosized into a role for Paul Raci. I think that might have been what my old acting prof was talking about.

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In Amazon's "Sound of Metal," Joe (Paul Raci) is a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing in the war and now leads a sober house for deaf addicts. (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios, Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Q: There’s a powerful scene between Joe and Ruben (Ahmed), when Joe tells him to leave the sober house after breaking the rules. How did you approach that moment? 

Raci: A great acting teacher once told me, “You gotta fight those tears. If you cry, then the audience won’t cry.” So you can see Joe fighting and fighting, but he’s fighting for his own life and everybody in that sober house. When Ruben has to leave, I remember thinking, “God, I want to run out there and bring him back.” But I couldn’t do that. 

We knew we weren’t going to get a lot of takes and our hearts were out there on that kitchen table. I remember looking up and there was Darius Marder, our director, tears just streaming out of his eyes. And Riz Ahmed broke my heart. … God, if I never have another acting experience, that’s the ultimate one right there. 

Q: Joe believes that deafness “is not a handicap. Not something to fix.” Did your parents share that view? 

Raci: No. You have to understand in the ’50s, all we knew was, “Your parents are deaf. They’re hearing impaired.” Then I moved to Los Angeles and met the great Ed Waterstreet, who established Deaf West Theatre. He was of the opinion that there’s nothing to fix here. And I started to see young deaf actors say, “I’m perfect and complete as I am. If you don’t know American Sign Language, who’s the one impaired here?” They started to turn it back on the hearing community. So that is a shift I’ve seen from growing up: watching my parents feel oppressed by the hearing man, to now deaf people being empowered with their own identity. That’s very refreshing. 

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