If there was one name on everyone’s lips coming out of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it was Emilia Jones. The British actress made such a splash with her breakout performance in the film CODA—a coming-of-age story about a young woman who is the sole hearing person in her deaf family—that it went on to sweep the indie fest’s award program and was quickly snapped up by Apple TV+ in a record-breaking deal. There is much to love about this heartwarming film and its ensemble cast, and Jones as Ruby, a high school senior torn between pursuing her musical dreams and staying in her small town to help her family as their interpreter, is nothing short of captivating.
But stepping into the role of Ruby was no easy feat for the 19-year-old. In preparation for the film, Jones, who also stars in the hit Netflix series Locke & Key, had to master three skills: using sign language, singing, and fishing. A fourth could easily be tackling a Massachusetts accent, which she does so with aplomb. Not one to shy away from a challenge, she jumped at the opportunity, and before even stepping foot on set, spent nine months perfecting her ASL and polishing up her vocals by singing the classics by Etta James and Aretha Franklin. The rigorous work paid off, though, as Jones delivers a performance rich with authenticity and charisma. Is that award-season buzz I hear?
Heading into a big press weekend for the film, where Jones documented some of her standout looks exclusively for Who What Wear, I chatted with the young actress about becoming Ruby, a future in music, and raiding Hailey Bieber’s closet.
CODA premiered at Sundance earlier this year and swept all of the festival’s top prizes. Did you have a hunch going into the week that the film would have the incredible response and success it did?
No! I hoped that it would do well, and I knew that Sian [Heder] had an incredible script, and she’s such an amazing director. Troy [Kotsur], Daniel [Durant], Marlee [Matlin], me, we all put our hearts and souls into this. Going into the week, I was actually really nervous. And I don’t often get nervous because I’m like, “You know what? I had fun, and I learned from the project, so what will be will be.” Right before it premiered at Sundance, I texted Sian and said, “I feel sick.” She was like, “Me too!” It had been such a big part of our lives. Sian and I learned sign language. I trained for nine months prior to shooting. It was such a long time, so if people didn’t like it… Although, I learned an amazing language, so it wouldn’t have mattered. But it’s that pressure of “Oh my gosh, I hope people love it.” And then when people were so lovely about it, it was an incredible feeling. It was weird, though, because we weren’t all together. I was actually on a night shoot in a field the night it came out, and I remember I ran back to my trailer to do the premiere Q&A, and I left, and then I got a bit of signal and went on Twitter, and people were sending me things. I called Sian in the field, and it was snowing, and I was like, “Oh my goodness!” I am so happy for Sian and everyone that people are actually enjoying it.
Take me back to the beginning. How did this project come to you?
I was sent the script, and I read it and fell in love with it. I fell in love with the Rossis. I loved what Sian had done with the story. I loved Ruby. When I read it, I thought, “Whoever gets to play this character is incredibly lucky because it’s not every film that you get to learn three skills.” I think you’re lucky if you get to learn one skill. I look for that in films. It was like, “Oh, I want a challenge, but three?!” That was totally out of my comfort zone, so I knew I really wanted to do this film. I wanted to learn sign language. I sing all the time at home. I did a musical in the West End when I was 8, and I’ve been in the choir and things, and although I found it a little bit daunting, I did always want to sing in a film. And then, fishing was just a bonus to learn. So yeah, I was immediately drawn to the script.
I taped four dialogue scenes and sang “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. Then, they asked me to sing three more songs of my choice, so I did that. I had a terrible cold at the time, though, so I remember thinking, “Great, this is not good.” And then, I Skyped with Sian, and she talked to me about the role and the project and what she wanted to do with it, and I just remember when I was talking to her I was like, “Oh my gosh, I want to work with you so much,” and then she said, “I know you don’t know any sign language, but if I get my friend to sign this scene, can you copy it the best you can and then send it to me?” I love a challenge, so I was like, “Okay, let’s do it!” This was on a Friday, and I was flying to Toronto to film Locke & Key season one on that Monday. I watched the link she sent three times, and then I’m British, so I made myself a cup of tea and went to sit down and actually properly watch it to then try and learn it, and the link had expired. It was the weekend, and no one was in the office, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, there is no way I could possibly do this justice if I just have a night to do it.” I was panicking, but I did remember when I watched it that Ruby finger-spells Berklee, so all weekend, I was finger-spelling Berklee. Finger spelling is really hard because at first you’re like [signs B-E-R], but for Ruby, it’s her first language, so she’s super quick. Anyway, I stayed up until 4 a.m. once I got the link and taped it. A couple weeks later, I got a call saying I got the part, and I remember Sian saying, “We couldn’t believe how quick your finger spelling was.”
The role of Ruby required you to not only learn ASL but to also sing live. Did you find that intimidating at all during the audition process and filming? Was there one that was more challenging?
All of them were challenging in their own way. I found singing a little bit daunting, I guess, because whenever I sing, I sing gentle covers on my guitar, and then suddenly, I turned up to my first singing lesson, and they were like, “Okay, here’s Etta James and Aretha Franklin.” I was like, “Oh my goodness, these are fully grown women with incredible voices. This is very scary.” And then, I found out it was live on set, too, and I was like, “Okay, wow. This is scary.” I’m going to say the hardest was doing both at the same time. Say you do four takes. If your sign language is only right or perfect in one of them, that’s the only one they can use. So when I went into that scene, I thought, “Okay, my acting has to be totally right. I have to get all of my signs right, and I have to sing in tune.” It was this [miming patting on the head and rubbing the stomach] kind of situation, multitasking. That was the hardest because I had to get everything as perfect as possible at the same time.
Ruby is a complex character torn between her family’s needs and her own ambitions. Did you speak with any children of deaf adults in preparation for the film? If so, how did that influence your character development for Ruby?
I did. I talked to many, actually. I was very lucky because all of the interpreters on our film set were CODAs [children of deaf adults], so it meant not just talking to them prior but also talking to them on set in between scenes. I could double-check things. I could say, “Would you do this?” And although I spoke to every CODA, all their experiences were similar, but they’re also completely different. So that was interesting, too. It was nice, actually, because on some of the scenes when they called cut the CODAs would be crying. And then, Sian and I realized, okay, we’re telling something that is truthful and accurate. I was lucky I had the CODAs on set. I was also surrounded by deaf consultants and deaf teachers, and I think it’s so important to be taught by people in the deaf community because being deaf is so much more than sign language. It’s an experience that no hearing person could ever fully understand. I felt very lucky because everyone around me was approaching everything authentically, so I felt very grateful to not only be taught by them, but they welcomed me into their world.
You, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant really mesh as a family unit in this film, and you share some pretty emotional scenes with each. How did you build that bond with them prior to filming?
Honestly, I think we were incredibly lucky. The first day we met, we all just jelled and got on, and we were like a family, dysfunctional in a way and teasing each other. I met Troy and Daniel first when we went out on a fishing boat for the first time. It was like a bonding experience because you are suddenly on this boat, and you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going, so it was good fun. Troy, when I first saw him, I saw him across the parking lot, and honestly, he’s the coolest man I have ever met. He walks over and has his shades on and this cool walk, and I was like, “Wow, that’s my dad.” Troy is the funniest person also. He would constantly make us all laugh, which I think broke the ice at the beginning. Daniel is the kindest, sweetest person I’ve ever met. And they all really helped me with my signs straight away. On the boat, I would be signing, and suddenly, I wouldn’t know a word for something, and I would finger-spell, and they’d be like, “There’s a sign for that” and show me. Marlee, when we rehearsed in the actual space for the first time, was like a mom to me. She was constantly checking if I was okay and getting enough sleep and that I was eating. She’s an amazing cook, so on the weekends, she would invite us all around, and she would cook these amazing meals, and we’d watch football. We were in this tiny town. We were in Gloucester, and we didn’t know anyone but each other, so we were a family, which is why I got so emotional when we wrapped. I felt so close to these people.
I read that you had never taken a singing lesson prior to this project. You have such a beautiful voice. Are you interested in pursuing music further?
I love music. Honestly, music helps me with acting. I create playlists for every project I do. I am always humming. I’m always singing around the house. I would love to do a musical again if the opportunity came about. I would love to sing in a film again. I’m totally open to it. I really enjoyed singing lessons and singing songs that I would have never chosen to sing alone. I like a challenge.
I’m curious: What were those three songs you chose for your audition?
My first song was “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, and that was the one Sian asked me to audition because that was actually the song at the end of the film in the first script. I’m a big Sara Bareilles fan, so I sang “Gravity.” I love that song so much. And then, I did “All I Want” by Kodaline. I’m not a singer. I’m an actress, so I chose that song because it’s sad, and I felt like I could act it. The third one was “Hallelujah.” I can’t remember why I chose that one. I think I did it on the guitar. So those were the three songs, and then when I turned up on the day, we were singing all of these soulful songs that were so big. But I loved it. I had an amazing teacher in Toronto—because I was filming there at the time—and she is so confident and was just what I needed to get out of my comfort zone. Even if I hit a bum note, she would be like, “Sing out, sing out. You can do it!” I had a lot of fun working with her.
We’re starting to see more representation of the deaf community on screen with films like CODA and last year’s Sound of Metal, but there’s clearly still a long way to go. What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
I hope they can relate, and I hope that it actually educates people. I didn’t know anything about deaf culture or the deaf world or ASL, and I think watching this film you are watching a family who is a part of a culture that people don’t know much about. So I hope they can learn from that and maybe inspire people to a) want to learn and b) want to tell more stories. CODA is not representing a universal CODA or deaf experience. This is just one. So let’s go Hollywood! I actually have a friend in Locke & Key, the show that I’m filming at the moment, and she knows a lovely lady [who is deaf] that works in a local shop, and she texted me and said, “I really want to be able to communicate [with her]. We get on, but we can’t really communicate.” She was asking me, What can I sign to her? She said that it made the woman’s day, so I think it’s lovely if people watch this film and think, “I want to learn sign language.”
Locke & Key season two is coming this fall. What can you tell us about this next chapter?
Nothing! I’m such a spoiler. All I can say is it’s a lot more fun than the last season. You see us having fun with the keys. We’re coming to terms with being the keepers of the keys. There are a lot of twists and turns, and I think people will enjoy it more. I would read the script and gasp! I hope people really enjoy it. Season three is also super exciting. It’s full-on.
Between CODA and Locke & Key, I imagine you will be in press mode over the next few months. Can you take me inside your fittings for these appearances?
I’m doing a fitting right after this interview for the press I’m doing this weekend. In terms of fashion for premieres and press, I honestly have no limit. I’m very open. I feel like fashion is an excuse to express yourself, so I never like wearing anything boring. As I’m sitting here with my puffy sleeves! It’s an excuse to do something wacky. I feel really lucky to have been able to wear some amazing things. I went to the Venice Film Festival when I was 14, and it was my first proper red carpet. I had a friend who is a stylist, so she helped me find a dress. I wore Peter Pilotto, and it was honestly like a piece of art on a dress. That was honestly my favorite. I wore a really cute Chanel white dress. Oh my gosh, can you tell I haven’t been to a premiere in so long? I was meant to have the CODA premiere tonight, but because of the [COVID] cases in L.A., it was cancelled. I’m glad that I get to dress up over Zoom.
What are you drawn to these days in terms of personal style?
If I’m being brutally honest, I literally go from my place to set, but if I’m going out and about, like in L.A., I’m loving the puffy sleeves at the moment. I like gold, so I bought this skirt recently that has these cool gold buttons. I like vintage clothes and clothes that are casual and can be baggy but also look good and make you feel good. I wear a lot of colors. I don’t wear pastels. A bright color or a pattern.
Is there anyone who you think is doing interesting things fashion-wise?
Everyday style, Hailey Bieber. I think she has really cool looks. I would love to go into her closet for a day and pick a couple of outfits out. I think she is really cool. Red carpet, I like Zendaya, and I like Elle Fanning. They are brave and do things that are wacky and bold.
Looking ahead, what’s next for you?
Right after I finish Locke & Key season three, I go onto a film called Cat Person. It’s based on a short story that went viral. It’s a really cool project. Susanna Fogel is directing, and I’m a big fan of hers. I think she is amazing, and I love her as a person. Nicholas Braun is playing Robert, and I’ve actually just started watching Succession. I’m late to the game, I know, but he is absolutely brilliant, and it’s such a great show. I’m excited to work with both of them. And the story is really cool. I think everybody has a “Cat Person” story, so I think people will relate.
CODA is now streaming on AppleTV+.