Sound of Metal’s Paul Raci & The Story of Guy Clark

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This week, it’s Sound Opinions at the movies! Hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot talk with actor and musician Paul Raci, who is nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film Sound of Metal. They discuss the movie and the lack of representation for deaf people in the arts. Then, the hosts talk with the co-director of the movie Without Getting Killed or Caught, a documentary about folk and country singer-songwriter Guy Clark. 

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Sound of Metal’s Paul Raci

Jim and Greg talk with Oscar-nominated actor Paul Raci about his role in the film Sound of Metal. They discuss the movie’s impact, his career as a musician and the Deaf community.

Transcript below:

Jim: Greg, Sound of Metal was released last year, and it quickly got a lot of people talking. It’s one of the most gripping movies about music I’ve ever seen, one of the best about a drummer too! It stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a drummer in a two piece metal band/noise rock combo, who suddenly becomes deaf and is left terrified and depressed, adrift without that music that fueled him.

Greg: The film is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for our guest today, Paul Raci. He’s a longtime musician and actor who in the film plays the director of a sober house for the Deaf. While Raci can hear, American Sign Language is his first language, as both his parents were deaf. Throughout his career, he’s been a continuous advocate for deaf representation in the arts.

Jim: Paul’s performance in Sound of Metal is amazing. Paul, congratulations on all the attention this movie is getting. It’s well-deserved and it’s amazing how good this movie is.

Paul: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

Jim: We are eager to talk to you for a couple of reasons. Number one, we’re Chicago guys, of course, it’s a national show, but you have deep, deep roots in Chicago theater. But number two, your activism and your understanding of the Deaf community. Right. And American Sign Language, but also being a music guy. It’s a fascinating story. I’ve seen you mentioned in several interviews that your dad was born deaf, your mom lost her hearing, and you recommended a line to Sound of Metal because the character you play is a Vietnam vet who loses his hearing because of an explosion, a bomb. He will never forget the music he was listening to when the bomb went off. And your mom actually said that she will never forget what she was listening to when she lost her hearing.

Paul: Yes. So my dad lost his hearing at about six months old from spinal meningitis. So he just never heard, doesn’t remember hearing. But my mom did. So there’s a big difference between the two of them together, you know?

Greg: When did you learn sign language? Obviously, you had to do that to communicate, but how soon was that in your life?

Paul: Well, sign language is my native tongue, so to speak. That’s the first thing you learn as CODA (Children Of Deaf Adults.) That’s the first thing you learn to survive, you know, milk, food, feed me. But that’s your first language. And then I learned English as a second language after. And that’s where I, you know, listened to records and Jack Brickhouse and Howard Miller on the radio. I had a radio, I had records, I had my WLS. And there was constantly music going on that I would just sit there and listen to. And my mom really enjoyed watching me, listening to the music and kind of like singing to it. And so then I would sign the songs to her. I did a whole show for my mom just in sign language, singing it and signing it. We bonded over that, my mom and I. It was great. So I had, you know, talkie talkie all the time in my ear. But ASL is my first language.

Greg: What was your interpretation of how deaf people were portrayed in Hollywood movies up to this point?

Paul: Well, the portrayal has been mostly inaccurate since Jane Wyman in 1948 when she won the Academy Award for Johnny Belinda. And since that time, there have been portrayals that deaf people are not happy about, about the casting of hearing actors playing culturally deaf people. It just doesn’t work. And so they’re upset and they’re upset even up until this day. They want to see more authenticity on the screen, just as every other disenfranchised community does. I mean, the screen that we’re looking at, all these white guys running around, for the most part, is not the way, that’s not the world that I live in. So Hollywood has to do better. I think they are getting the message now. And there are deaf organizations that are up in arms about it and they always have been. And they’re trying to make breakthroughs here. And hopefully, I think Sound of Metal is starting that conversation about having more authentic portrayals of not only deaf people, but every disenfranchised group that is out there wanting (representation.) We have deaf actors that are brilliant.

Greg: And the quality issue is completely relevant. You know, having a deaf person play a deaf person is probably a good idea. But what were the things that bothered you about the way the Deaf community was portrayed prior to this? What were the issues that they didn’t get about what it meant to be deaf?

Paul: Well, you know, having an actor, no matter how good they, he or she is, (they say) this is a great challenge and I’m going to do a role in sign language so they learn American Sign Language. And then you watch the production of the sign language off of their body, in their hands, in their face. And it doesn’t match a lifetime of living American Sign Language as part of your being. It just can’t. An actor, as good as they are, can work on it for a year or two years if they want. It’s not going to be natural because you’re not using it every day. You know, deaf people are not silent or quiet all the time. That’s the misnomer. They’re very loud. Deaf people are some of the noisiest people on the face of the Earth, you know, and because I’m a CODA and I was brought up in that way, sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen, because I’m the cook in our family, and I’ll be slamming doors and drawers getting stuff out. And my wife says, hey, what are you mad about? What? I’m not mad. I’m just. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just. I’m noisy. It doesn’t faze me. In Sound of Metal when we’re around the dinner table, I love that scene where everybody’s talking. They play with the sound and then when it comes on, people are banging. Well, that’s how...if you want the salt and pepper, you want the ketchup. That’s how you do it, you know.

Jim: And all of those actors, except for you and Riz, are deaf. And they did a fantastic job. Little things you pointed out about the way some deaf people have a challenge with their balance going up stairs and the way you walk up those stairs. OK, I want to come back to Sound of Metal, of course. But we got to ask you, you are Ozzy (Osbourne)! You are the front person of Hands of Doom. There are many Black Sabbath cover bands, but you are Ozzy in the only one that does sign language when you perform the brilliant works of Sabbath.

Paul: Yes. And thank you. They are brilliant. They’re prolific.

Jim: They are brilliant, well, the best ever.

Paul: Oh, my God. Well, listen, I started getting itchy a couple of years ago to get back into music. I used to do music in Chicago with a band Rocky. We did a lot of Bowie, Aerosmith, it was a cover band. Then I came out here and I switched into acting. But I really have always been a rocker, I was itching to perform so I started auditioning for bands. So I auditioned for this Black Sabbath tribute band and wow, in sign language, the lyrics are so great, you know, nuclear war. The Devil. God. All this stuff. So one day we decided to tape one of the songs, Tomorrow’s Dream, it went viral. Here we are in this group. Well, they asked me, why don’t we do the whole set in ASL? I’m like, oh, my God. Well, all right. So we worked it up. And so now to make a long story short, we play these heavy metal clubs in L.A. And you’re right, there are about 15 tribute bands for Black Sabbath here in L.A. So we’re playing at Petie’s Place in Tarzana, 40 deaf people show up. Besides the regulars, 40 of them from the age of 21 to 60. They’re all there. And so now every gig we do, 40 to 50 deaf people show up. It’s hilarious because it’s so loud. You see the regular headbangers in there gesturing with deaf people, making it work because it’s so loud. So you can’t hear each other anyway. But people, you know, signing to each other. People doing the lyrics with me, rocking out.

Jim: Well, that’s phenomenal. I know in the metal community there are deaf fans, more so than any other genre, because you can go to a metal concert and feel the vibrations in your body, even if you have only marginal hearing, you know, you’re moved by that music. And I’ve known metal fans who are deaf.

Greg: Well, air guitar is sign language, man, everybody understands air guitar.

Jim: I’m tripping on the idea of Paul ASL-ing, you know, generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses. I’m like, woah! I mean, because it wasn’t hard enough to sound like Ozzy to begin with, because he has a voice like from Mars.

Paul: Yeah. He’s the best, he really is. But also, within the Deaf community, you’re right. There are different layers and levels of deafness all the way to being stone deaf, nothing to little versions of it, or layers of it, as I say. And so there are so many of them out there. And plus, I know a lot of musicians who have tinnitus to this day. I have a little bit of it because of what I’m doing with this rock band. And you really got to be careful. This movie, for a lot of my buddies who play guitar, even drums, it’s their worst nightmare. To lose your hearing is your worst nightmare.

Jim: Paul, what was your relationship with Riz (Ahmed) before filming? He gives such a beautiful, nuanced performance and he’s so believable as a sort of metal/punk/avant garde noise rock drummer. Were you able to share your insights with him about losing your hearing as a musician and the struggle to become sober?

Paul: No, I did not, and I’ll tell you why. When I got to the set, he had already been working on his character for a couple of weeks, and I was there for my three week shoot at this farm that they had for the deaf sober house.

Jim: It was shot chronologically, the film for the most part.

Paul: It was shot chronologically. So when I got there and met Riz, what you see on screen is how our relationship was unfolding, as two friends and actors on the set. I barely knew the guy in that first scene. He was getting to know me. I was getting to know him. There was nothing I needed to advise him on because he had already been working with Darius (Marder, the director.) They had these little ear blockers that they put in his ear deep in the canal and then turn on some white noise and he’d have to go in and deal like that. So I didn’t have to advise him that way. But the interesting thing that I did do is because of my experience with addiction, Addiction Ministries, AA, I had brought with me a book, a book this thick of all these sayings from different spiritual philosophies. And every once in a while we’d be getting made up in the trailer and right before we went to do our shoot, I’d give him a little card, you know, with one of these wise sayings, just one actor to another actor, something to think about, some AA stuff, some jargon, a spiritual notion. So that’s how I was advising him, if you want to call it that.

Jim: Well, because the recovery community has a language of its own, just like ASL is a language for deaf people.

Paul: Exactly. So what I would do is give him some recovery jargon. And it wasn’t till the end of the shoot that he told me how much he appreciated that. But as far as we were getting to know each other and the last scene we did together, that was our goodbye. Yeah. Not only as characters, but as men, you know, as actors. So he’s just a fantastic actor, a fantastic man. And I just enjoyed him so much.

Greg: Your parents, you know, with their issues with deafness, I think it’s instructive for the way the movie was handled, because I have to say the first five minutes of the movie, Paul, I thought it was like a horror movie. It was stunning to me to watch that and to see. And I was kind of like, what’s happening to this guy? And you can see the look on his face was, you know, the sound is not there anymore and it’s going in and out. And there’s different ways of handling this, you lose something that’s so precious and then what do you do next? How do you handle this issue? And there’s a great line in the movie. You know, deafness is not something you fix or something along those lines, which I really resonated with. But your parents had different experiences with it, in the way they were able to process it.

Paul: Yes. Yeah. My dad, as I said, at six months of age, he had spinal meningitis, lost his hearing, so he never remembered it. My mom was five. Next time you see a five-year-old child, think about that. You’re going to take that away from them. They’re already speaking, enjoying music, enjoying life. And then, it’s a whole other way. So when the cochlear implants first came out in Chicago many years ago, my parents were still alive. We went to a presentation where they had this guy who had these implants done and they were trying to sell it to the Deaf community. So I’m in the audience with my dad and my mom and we’re watching this presentation. And on stage, they’re having all these technical difficulties. And it was just a nightmare. And we’re watching this thing. And then finally, it worked for a couple of seconds. And I looked at my dad and I said, do you want one of those things? He goes, no. I’m happy the way I am. Don’t touch me. And my mom just sat there and looked over and she just was watching it. Didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to comment, you know. So I could tell that there was something about it that was intriguing to her, you know, but my dad was like, no. And so then you cut to today in today’s world, and I’ve said this before, deaf people that I know out here in L.A. are refreshingly, they’ll just say, no, don’t touch me, I’m perfect. Whole, complete as I am. If you want to speak to me, you’re the one who’s deficit. You don’t know American Sign Language, so they just turn it back over to you. But not to say that the cochlear implant is bad and that the Deaf community shuns it. They don’t. Everything shifts, isn’t that interesting. So even the Deaf community shifts awareness, expands, shifts, and so it’s more accepted. Before it was don’t touch me, don’t put me under that knife. And now, it’s more of an acceptable thing. And yet with other people, it’s not. So, you know, the Deaf community is not a monolith. Everybody’s got their own opinion. Everybody’s got something to say about something. It’s a personal journey, isn’t it? That’s what it is. You just can’t tell people what to do but let them make their own decision. That’s why it’s so painful when Joe (Raci’s character) has to tell Ruben (Riz Ahmed’s character) it’s not so much the cochlear implant that he put in. He broke the rules of the House. He broke the rules. And it’s very painful to send him away like that.

Greg: The idea of losing your hearing and you being a rocker and, you know, tinnitus. It’s been an issue with a lot of people in this community. I’ve lost hearing because I’ve been at two thousand plus rock shows. And I loved the volume and I love to get hit in the chest with that sound. And I wanted the full volume and I refused to wear earplugs because I said it diminishes the experience. And then I think what a dummy you were for years, you know, doing that. What is your advice to somebody who loves to go to shows and rock and wants that volume? And that your hearing is one of the most valuable things we’ve been given as human beings. What would you tell some nineteen-year-old kid that says I just want to stand in front of that speaker and get my head blown off by my favorite band.

Paul: So wrong. Listen, I can only say my own experience, when I got back from Nam (Vietnam) and I got back into rock and roll right away, I suffered from tinnitus a lot. And so that was the reason I really started doing a lot of weird ass drugs to get me down, some to get me up. I couldn’t sleep. And so that was not worth it. The journey that set me on after that was not worth it. And so they’ve got these things, these little ear plugs you can get. I don’t know if I should give the company a plug, but they’re Eargasms, and they’re perfect. Dude. That’s all you got to do. You can still hear the music. Yeah. You can still hear, you can feel it. That’s good. But please, you know, I remember coming back and my brother and sister took me to my first concerts, Robin Trower, Peter Frampton and the speakers, you got your head in the speakers, I was doing it. Yeah. It’s not worth it. It really isn’t.

Jim: And the hip hop kids do it and the electronic dance music kids do. I mean, it’s not genre specific.

Paul: And that’s even worse. That is not worth it. Because if you plan on living a couple more years, which, you know, hopefully, it’s going to be trouble. And I recently had my ears tested and I’ve lost some hearing in my right side, and it changes your behavior, changes everything about you, please protect your ears. That’s why I’m begging you, please protect yours if you really want to save yourself a lot of heartache.

Jim: Well, you know, you’re as eloquent talking about the process of recovery as you are about the Deaf community. And I was just wondering, you know, it’s rare that we’ve had somebody who has been a counselor on the show. Yet, it’s epidemic in substance abuse and music. Right. I mean, you know, you play Ozzy on stage. You are Ozzy and wow, did that guy have some troubles, you know? It took him a long time to find some peace and healthiness. By all means, he should be dead (from drugs and alcohol.) What are your observations about that?

Paul: Yeah, when I got back from Vietnam and got into this band that I was doing with my brother, he was the bass player. There was this thing, I was very angry at the time. All I remember is in the middle of a song, I’d be surrounded by this deafening music. All I could hear was the music, all I could feel was the music. And I remember telling somebody at the time, because I wanted to be Mick Jagger, if I can’t do this, I don’t want to live. And then it got to the point where I could see I wasn’t going to live because of the lifestyle that I had chosen. So I stopped and I became an actor. I stopped music. I was deathly afraid of it. And then years later, when that urge was in me, I’d already worked it out that, you know, you don’t really have to be high to play music, because I was always high playing music. I thought it was part and parcel of the act, of the show. I think that’s where Ozzy was and was part and parcel of what he was doing, the people around him. And listen, people would come up to me in the middle of a club and hand me a vial of cocaine. Here you go, buddy. Love you. And what am I going to do? You know, I just, I would do it. I’d come back on stage, and my throat was all tightened up. I couldn’t sing anymore because I was an idiot. So I think I just had to grow up. I had to find meditation. I had to find that path to spirituality and my own meditative practice. And that is going into the stillness. If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I’d be rocking today. So that’s the difference between young Paul at the age of 20, 21, 25, coming back and now at the age of 70. I wouldn’t be able to, at the age of 72, you know. Do you think I could actually in the middle of a set, do a shot of Jack Daniels and smoke a joint? It’s just not going to work. Listen to an old man here man. Take my advice. If you want to rock, you want to keep on rocking, that’s one thing you got to give up. I’d advise giving that up a little bit earlier. You got to get yourself right, man. Here I go, getting preachy, but you know.

Jim: No, no, we asked you. It’s fair. I mean, you know, it breaks our heart to see so many talented musicians that are trapped in this myth of I have to destroy myself to become an artist.

Paul: Exactly. Rock and roll martyr. You know, that is a myth. If you enjoy what you’re doing, and God, I love it now more than ever. I love it so much.

Jim: Well, the music’s a drug.

Paul: It is, that’s strong enough. Healthy. When it’s on and when it’s cooking and people are there, which is what I miss the most because of COVID/the pandemic. But we’re coming back, hopefully coming back soon. But who knew you can get high on life? What is that about?

Jim: We have been talking to Paul Raci, born and raised in Chicago, fantastic actor, Sound of Metal. Paul, we could just hang with you on Sound Opinions forever. Thanks for doing this.

Paul: I could talk to you guys forever. I love Chicago.

Jim: Well, you know, not that awards matter for any of us. They shouldn’t. But every accolade that comes your way, you certainly deserve. I mean, that movie’s incredible.

Greg: Yeah, it was great.

Paul: I appreciate you guys, man.

Greg: Thank you, Paul.

Jim: That wraps up our conversation with Paul Raci, and as always, you can share your thoughts with us in our Sound Opinions discussion group on Facebook, on our Patreon page. Or, you can leave a voice message at our website, soundopinions.org. And while you’re visiting the website, you can also check out the transcript of our conversation with Paul.

Guy Clark

movie

The hosts talk with director Tamara Saviano about her documentary Without Getting Killed or Caught about country singer-songwriter Guy Clark. The film also centers on his relationships with his wife Susanna Clark and close friend Townes Van Zandt.

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