Fresh off her star-making turn in Apple TV+’s CODA, 19-year-old Emilia Jones is ready to take on her next big challenge: Fame.
REFINERY29 – On her first day shooting CODA, Emilia Jones jumped off a 40-foot cliff, landing in the freezing water of a Massachusetts quarry.
“Straight into the deep end, quite literally,” Jones laughs as she describes the experience in our Zoom interview ahead of the August 13 release of Siân Heder’s tender and funny coming-of-age film.
At 19, British-born Jones is facing her own leap into the unknown. She has been acting for more than half her life, making her film debut at 8 years old as Jim Sturgess’ daughter Jasmine in the tearjerker One Day. Since then, she’s played a litany of “Young” so-and-sos, including Young Fiona in a West End production of Shrek: The Musical. In 2020, a month before lockdown, she underwent the modern-day acting rite of passage: a Netflix series. As Kinsey Locke in supernatural horror drama Locke and Key, Jones picked up an American accent and a teen following. Now, Jones is on the brink of a new kind of success: a history-making Sundance project like CODA, which required Jones to juggle a new language, formal singing training, and, not to mention, learning to fish.
“The minute I put on fishing overalls, I was ready,” Jones says.
Heder had already auditioned 100 actresses by the time she received Jones’ self-tape. “I was looking for a unicorn in the part of Ruby,” she tells Refinery29 in an email. “I needed someone who was 17, who had an exceptional singing voice, who could sign ASL like a fluent signer, play both comedy and drama, carry the film (she’s in almost every scene), and go out on fishing boats to commercially fish like she’s been doing it her whole life.”
On screen, Jones’ character, Ruby Rossi, is navigating her first real taste of independence from her family with whom she shares an uncommon closeness. As the hearing child of deaf adults (known by the acronym “CODA,” hence the film’s title), Ruby acts as a link between her parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin), older brother Leo (Daniel Durant), and their surrounding community in Gloucester, MA. She interprets her parents’ embarrassing sex questions to their doctor, works as the only hearing deckhand on the family fishing boat, and argues for fair prices for their daily catch. So when her choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez) encourages her to apply to the Berklee School of Music as a singer, Ruby feels conflicted. Does she risk pursuing a dream that excludes her family and forces her to strike out on her own? Or does she stay behind and surrender to the more comforting fable that they cannot function without her?
For Ruby — and Jones — the answer is clear: The only way to figure it out is to jump.
CODA made history at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival in January, sweeping the festival’s four top prizes, including the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, before being acquired by Apple TV+ for a record-breaking $25 million (£18.2 million). It’s a significant achievement for any indie film written and directed by a woman, but specifically for one portraying disability in a way few films have before. A remake of 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, CODA strays from the original by rightfully casting deaf actors to play deaf characters. Acting heavyweights like Marlee Matlin (still the only deaf person in history to win an Oscar) and Troy Kotsur sink their teeth into a script that allows them rare nuance and complexity — they’re deaf, sure, but they’re also surly, funny, silly, loving, sexy, selfish, and supportive.
For Jones, CODA’s authentic casting was a no-brainer. “No one else could do these roles justice,” she says. “It’s an experience no hearing person will ever fully be able to understand.”
According to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, just 2.3% of speaking characters in the 100 highest-grossing films of 2019 were shown with a disability — a tiny fraction of the 26% of U.S. adults with a disability. Recently, films like the Oscar-nominated The Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer losing his hearing and co-starring actor Paul Raci, whose parents are deaf, and the popularity of the Quiet Place franchise, which cast Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf, as teenager Regan Abbot, have opened up a much-needed conversation about the spectrum of stories to be told. CODA is yet another addition to that burgeoning canon.
Is it the defining story about the deaf experience though? Certainly not. There are undoubtedly those who will point out that the film ultimately centres around the one hearing person in the Rossi clan, with its deaf characters orbiting her journey. But is it important in depicting the breadth and richness of an intricate community? Of course.
“CODA is not representing a universal deaf experience,” Jones says. “It’s a love letter to family.”
Jones lights up when she talks about her experience learning from her co-stars and ASL dialogue consultants Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, whom Heder hired to guide the entire crew and production team. Before our interview starts, Jones pauses to introduce Justine Rivera, the interpreter she requests be on every call, to facilitate communication with the Deaf community. In lockdown — which she spent in London with her father, mother, and younger brother — she continued to practice ASL, a language she “fell in love with” while filming.
Signing, Jones believes, opens her up to new possibilities as an actor. “Normally when I’m acting, I think less is more,” she says. “You can portray a lot through the eyes, and you don’t have to do that much. But with ASL, everything has to be physical. You have to show what you’re trying to get across with your body. It’s helped me in my life, too: I give people more eye contact.”
In many ways, Ruby’s coming-of-age mirrors Jones’ own. Like her character, Jones has always had one foot in the adult world. As a result, she’s more contained and self-aware than most 19-year-olds while still very much being a teen. In a world where the on-screen version of 17 has largely been shaped by people in their mid-20s (*cough* The O.C., Gossip Girl, Riverdale, Euphoria, 13 Reasons Why ), seeing a real teenager play her own age still feels remarkably novel. “Tell me about it,” Jones says. “[When I was] 16, 17, 18, I would always lose out to 24-, 25-year-olds. Ruby needed to be played by someone that was kind of figuring it out.”
That living connection with Ruby’s psyche led to one of the movie’s most emotional moments: Ruby decides to stay behind and work to help her family, deferring college — and her dream of singing — indefinitely. Still, Frank, Jackie, and Leo come to see her sing in her high school choir’s concert where she performs a duet of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s hit love song, “You’re All I Need To Get By,” that, by the looks on the audience’s faces, brings down the house. We wouldn’t know; like the Rossis, we don’t hear it. We experience Ruby’s performance as the family does — in total silence — and see the impact her voice has on those around them. Later though, Frank and Ruby sit outside their home, and he asks her to sing it — but for him this time. Tearing up, he rests his hands on her throat, feeling the vibration of her vocal chords, as she assures him that he and the rest of the family are all she needs to get by. It’s not true, and they both know it. The next morning, Frank ushers Ruby out the door and to her Berklee audition. Her future is waiting.
It’s the kind of scene that melts the heart, and Jones gets visibly emotional just talking about it. “It was the most special scene to film,” she says. “Troy kind of looked at me and said, ‘I would give anything to hear you sing right now.’ I think [he] was missing his daughter, and I was missing my dad. He folded me into one of his hugs, and we just kind of sat there. I’ve never connected with anyone on screen as much as that.”
Kotsur, Matlin, and Durant served as a surrogate family to Jones during filming, mirroring the close relationship their characters share. “Marlee was constantly checking if I was sleeping enough, warm enough, eating enough,” Jones says. Matlin, she adds, makes “amazing gluten-free cookies.”
Matlin, meanwhile, has nothing but praise for Jones. “We have a relationship that’s very special and we’re so connected,” she says in an email to Refinery29. “I hope that when she gets bigger, she won’t forget to talk to me. Ha!” The veteran actress also has some wisdom to impart to her young co-star: “Listen to your gut when making decisions. Ask as many questions as you want. And don’t let anyone limit you in any way.” – Marlee Matlin
But her enthusiasm about disappearing into other people’s experiences doesn’t extend to talking about her own life. The prospect of becoming famous seems ridiculous. When I ask her if she’s thought about the potential impact CODA’s success could have on her career, she physically recoils. “The word fame hasn’t even passed into my mind,” she says. “I put everything I had into this film, and it was really, really, really hard. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” But famous? That’s for the Kardashians. “I don’t think my family would let me, honestly,” she continues.
It’s a healthy attitude, especially for someone who started work so young. But perhaps because of this grounded home life (her father is BBC and ITV presenter Aled Jones), Jones is able to seek an outlet for her self-described “adventurous” streak in her work. Ask her what roles she’d like to manifest, and she’ll come up with some intimidating options. Viola Davis is a hero, and lately, Jones has been craving something “really challenging and dramatic.” Another dream role is Maggie from Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. (Anyone have Shailene Woodley’s number?)
“I’ve never done a film that’s harrowing. I’ve played sad, but I’ve never done a film where my character is at a breaking point and struggling.” Can she give an example? “I just watched Vanessa Kirby in Pieces Of A Woman. That was absolutely insane. I was watching it with my mouth open. So good.”
But if challenging, dramatic, and complicated women are what Jones seeks, her future is looking bright. She’s currently wrapping production on Locke & Key season 3 (the second season will premiere later this fall). And in June, it was announced that she’d play the lead in Susanna Fogel’s adaptation of viral New Yorker story Cat Person, alongside Succession’s Nicholas Braun. Told from the perspective of Jones’ character Margot, the story follows a young woman’s burgeoning attraction to an older man, culminating in a viscerally uncomfortable sexual encounter.
“They’ve kind of turned it into a thriller,” Jones says of the film, which is set to start shooting in late September in New York state. She hasn’t met Braun yet, but they’ve been messaging and talking, and she’s been watching Succession to get a sense of his work. (“He’s amazing!”)
If CODA documents the early stages of the transition into early adulthood, Cat Person provides a darker, well, coda to that chapter in a woman’s life. Notably, the film will mark Jones’ first time filming a substantial sex scene, and what a controversial, messy, and startling one to start with. But Jones is unruffled by the prospect. She’s excited to take on something totally different — and ready to jump once more.