The 53-year-old star's journey to the Academy Awards began in his hometown of Mesa, Ariz. Kotsur, who is the first deaf male actor to be nominated for an Oscar, was born deaf into a hearing family, and he and his parents learned American Sign Language to communicate.
As he shared on a recent episode of The Hollywood Reporter's podcast Awards Chatter, his father was a huge part of his childhood and would take him golfing, water skiing and camping and would coach his sports teams. But when Kotsur was 17, his dad was hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed from the neck down. "My father was unable to sign or communicate with me any longer," Kotsur said on the podcast through an ASL interpreter. "It was a complete communication breakdown and everything for our family changed in that moment."
Seeing what his father went through gave Kotsur a new perspective. "I could still play golf, I could still go water skiing, I could go camping. You know, it didn't matter whether I was deaf or not," he continued. "So looking at my father, it really taught me such an important lesson. My father was my hero. My father gave me strength in show business. I didn't care if Hollywood was ready for me or not. I had to remain persistent and do what I loved."
Kotsur started his career hosting workshops and acting in stage productions at Los Angeles' Deaf West Theatre. In fact, it was there that he worked with Paul Raci from Sound of Metal, a 2021 Oscar favorite that Kotsur had also auditioned for, and performed in shows that were attended by Marlee Matlin, the first deaf actress to win an Academy Award and his future costar in CODA.
Kotsur also directed, spearheading the 2013 film No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie featuring Matlin, and made several movie and TV appearances, including in CSI: NY, The Number 23 and Scrubs.
Still, life in Hollywood wasn't easy, and Kotsur considered quitting the biz. "I was starting to feel like giving up," he said on Awards Chatter. "And so I auditioned for CODA, and I told myself, 'This is my last chance. This is my last hope.' And I gave it my best shot."
The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did he land the role, but CODA has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, and Kotsur is up for the Academy Award in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category. If he wins, he can add the gold statue to his SAG, BAFTA, Critics' Choice and Film Independent Spirit Awards.
In CODA—which stands for Child of Deaf Adults—Kotsur plays Frank Rossi, a fisherman from Gloucester, Massachusetts. He's married to his wife Jackie (Matlin), and they have two kids: Leo (Daniel Durant) and Ruby (Emilia Jones). Ruby is hearing while her parents and brother are deaf. She acts as their interpreter and works on the family's fishing business with Frank and Leo. But when she develops a passion for singing and is encouraged to apply to the Berklee College of Music, she feels conflicted over whether she should stay with her family or follow her dreams.
One of the most moving parts of the film is when Frank asks Ruby to sing for him and he places his hands on her neck to feel the vibrations. For that scene, Kotsur drew inspiration from an experience he had with his own daughter Kyra, who he shares with his wife Deanne Bray.
"I have a daughter in real life who's a CODA, she's 16 years old, and sometimes I see her playing music," he said on Vanity Fair's Little Gold Men podcast. "And so when I'm walking by, I see her practicing the piano….So I put my hand on the piano to feel the vibration of the piano and I made that connection to my daughter."
As for his favorite scenes, Kotsur cited one where the family attends Ruby's recital. At one point in her performance, the film's audio fades and it's completely silent.
"I see hearing people begin to get kind of antsy or anxious just with that 30 seconds of silence because they're not used to it. 'Oh finally the sound is back!'" Kotsur told Deadline's video series The Actor's Side. "But, you know, that's what we experience as deaf people. And so, finally, you can just begin to experience the deaf perspective."
Fans will have to watch the Oscars to find out if Kotsur wins the golden statue, but it certainly won't be the last time they see him on the big screen. "It's great to finally be recognized," Kotsur said on a recent episode of The Kelly Clarkson Show. "It means that our peers are accepting our work as artists not because we're deaf, we're just actors who happen to be deaf. And we're being recognized for our talent."