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Sound of Metal Star (and Oscar Nominee) Paul Raci Would Do This All Again

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Sound of Metal could aptly describe the vibe of the office in Paul Raci’s Los Angeles home, which I’m peering into via Zoom: the space behind his left-hand shoulder is decorated with flashy electric guitars, contrasted against an austere background of patterned wallpaper. A grin on his face, he shuffles to his side, and throws a thumb up. “And there’s Iggy,” he says, showing off a framed charcoal portrait of Iggy Pop in pride of place, as a Catholic might mount a picture of Jesus Christ. Their resemblance is certainly striking: they both boast the visage of a weathered rock star, the same punkish, free-flowing hair. He’s rocking the hell out of a leather jacket and denim shirt combo on this call, too, recalling a recent New York Times shoot in which, leant against a tree in a full-leather getup, he inhabited the epitome of effortlessly cool. It was already my assumption, but as I’ll come to confirm over the next 40 minutes, effortlessly cool is simply Paul Raci’s standard.

Raci’s splash onto the scene has been one of this awards season’s greatest, most welcome narratives. For decades prior to his supporting role as Joe, the kindly leader of a Deaf sober house in Darius Marder’s riveting Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal, he had floated around Hollywood as a day player, occasionally thrown a bone with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles in shows like Parks and Recreation. Otherwise, the 73-year-old’s casting was relegated to such reductive types as “drunk guy” or “homeless man,” passed over for meatier parts in favor of buzzier talent, as is the insatiable demand of the often ultrasafe Hollywood system. But that the first question on so many lips after seeing Raci’s performance has been, “Where in the hell has this guy been?” tells us all about how flawed this system can be; and now that he’s here, it’s difficult to imagine a Hollywood without him.

“I think of the times I was 40, having moved from Chicago [to L.A.] already, and bam, nothing, then I turned 50, then I turned 60 …” he says, before turning, appropriately, to a classic-rock analogy. “There’s this quiet desperation that Pink Floyd talks about on [The Dark Side of the Moon], that you’re living and time’s running out. And I gotta do something, I gotta make it happen.” Nevertheless, he asserts, to be Oscar nominated after so many decades out in the cold is a real inspiration. “It should be inspirational, dammit,” he says, laughing. “I hope it is, man!”

Vulture spoke to Raci about the film’s novel depiction of Deaf culture, emerging from the other side of the Hollywood ringer after so many grueling decades, and, with an Oscar nomination in the bag, whether he thinks it was all ultimately worth it.

You’ve said before that you discovered your love for performance through being your parents’ hearing interpreter. Does this then feel like a pretty full-circle moment?
Yeah, it certainly is. Especially because of the content of the movie and the way I grew up. So to have this come full circle to what Darius wrote here, after all these years, my parents no longer here … I have to admit, it’s an emotional experience for me. They would have loved the movie, they would have loved to see all this recognition. But God, in a way, it’s made me even closer to them. You think about your parents all the time, but now, I really do. They had such a heavy impact on the way I thought as a kid, and the way I think now.

I was going to talk about this later, but my dad has had tinnitus since I was young.
Oh, really?

He used to be a drummer when he was young.
Oh, well there ya go.

And that the film has brought me closer to him, in a way, feels accurate.
I’ve had tinnitus for years now, because of the rock and roll, just like your dad. But even before that, when I was in Vietnam, I was a hospital corpsman on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. And all these guys that served in Vietnam with me suffer from tinnitus because of the force of the jet engines on their ears. It’s a population, including your father, including a lot of musicians, that’s just forgotten by society. The number-one affliction of all of our veterans, of all of our wars — Iraq, Vietnam, back to the Civil War — all over the world, is hearing loss, for obvious reasons. I have it in my right ear: I’ll be walking along and all of a sudden, eeee

Like a terrible whistling?
Yeah, and you don’t know when it’s gonna stop. So I just think: I’m gonna ignore it. And then it finally goes away. But when it hits, it’s right there. You can’t hear anything else.

Another thing that the film impressed on me, even growing up with my dad’s tinnitus, is this idea of being culturally Deaf. It’s so interesting, and novel, to see onscreen.
Deaf culture, with a capital D, is just a whole world unto itself. When I was growing up, it was the Deaf world and the hearing world. The connection between the two did not exist. If my father needed to negotiate something with the hearing man — mortgage, buying a car, whatever — he’s gotta bring his son, because there was no sign-language-interpreting profession like there is now.

To try and bridge that gap, and bring them together, I’ve been put in a position to do my whole life. But this movie is a unifier: It shows that when the two cultures intersect, the Deaf world with the hearing world, through Ruben, that all isn’t lost — it’s just another way of thinking. That’s something I love about Joe, he says: “You know, we’re not going to fix this [he points at his ear]. We’re going to fix this [he points at his head].” It’s brilliant writing.

It comes across as quite shocking to hear about the two cultures in a kind of binary opposition. But the way you describe it functionally — the need to bridge the communicative divide through, say, interpretation — makes a lot of sense.
To be honest with you, it’s as though the hearing world doesn’t give a crap. It’s just, “I don’t want to think about it, I don’t have to think about it, it’s too much trouble.” So that’s how my parents felt: “I’m a bother, it’s too much trouble.” Think about this: Helen Keller, who is Deaf and blind, said the most isolating of the two, if you want to put it that way, was her Deafness. And so that’s really my point, how isolating it is. How must that feel to any Deaf person, especially a culturally Deaf person, who hears nothing? Who goes through life, living their life here in America, and it’s as though you’re not really in your own country, because nobody speaks your language? It’s devastating, to say the least, for many people.

I want to talk about your career up until Sound of Metal, which you’ve described in … not incredibly attractive terms. You’ve made it sound like Hollywood is this kind of beast, with an insatiable hunger for names.
Oh yeah, there’s no doubt.

To be here now, then, after so many years, it’s an incredible feat of endurance. How did you do it?
[Laughs.] I love that choice of words there, that’s good. I’ll tell you what, Jack: First of all, I’m an actor. That’s what I decided I was at a very early age. So when you fall in love with that, any profession, you’re just going to do it. But I didn’t have very much success with it. I thrived on the stage, because that’s where most actors get all their recognition, on the stage — then they make the transition into film and TV and money, because you gotta make a living and you want to be comfortable. That thing never really happened for me, I was always just working in the court system, providing access to communication. And if I got lucky, I’d do some acting.

But it was just the pure desire to keep on doing what I wanted to keep on doing. And it looks like I held out long enough. There’s something to be said for luck being involved. But it’s uncanny how perfectly Darius Marder wrote this script, being so close to the bone of what my experience was, that when I read it, I knew it was very close to me. But I wasn’t counting on anything at this point. You know, like I said, I’m in my 70s now. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for somebody. I’m going to move on and keep on going.

It just goes to show how many actors have been forgotten because of the need for names. But if you dig under the surface, just a little bit, you can find some incredibly talented people.
I had an acting teacher in Chicago, who I met 30 years ago — I was living there, that’s where I’m from — and she was one of my top acting teachers. She emailed me just a couple of days ago … I’m getting emotional. She said she’s so happy for me, and: “I’m crying right now for all the actors in Los Angeles who never got a shot, and who never will get a shot, because they’re not a name. And you’re an inspiration to all of them.”

If you live in this town, you go to the 7-11, you pick up your food, deal with a waiter: Everybody in Los Angeles is an actor, or they think they are, or they want to be. They’re looking for that shot. And the way the system is here — that monster, that beast — it thrives on names and recognition. And the bottom line is the dollar. I understand that better than anybody because I’ve been rejected so many times. I’ve been told so many times they’re going with a name. I moved out to L.A. from Chicago with about 30 other actors who couldn’t wait to get out there, and now there’s only seven or eight of them left here, who could find a way to make a living.

You’ve been through the machine, and now you’re lavished with praise, awards success, the whole nine yards. Was it worth it?

Yes. Absolutely. I thought of that question a million times myself. But now, after this ride I’ve been on, I’m thinking: “Did I want to be on a TV show yesterday?” Yes. “Did I want to make more money?” Yes, but it never happened. “Was I happy anyway?” Yes, yes, and yes! I have a 24-year-old daughter who is a musician — listen, Jack, I put her through music school right here in Los Angeles. She’s a brilliant songwriter, performer. That was absolutely the joy of my life.

Have I had some ups and downs? Yeah, but this nomination, the recognition, the work that I was able to put on the screen that I’ve been doing onstage for so many years … so was it worth it? Yeah, man. Yeah, it was totally worth it. I can’t imagine it happening any other way. And at the age of 73, this is like adding 20 years to my life. I feel like I’m 24. I’m raring to go.

Sound of Metal Star Paul Raci Would Do This All Again