Daniel Durant watched the Academy Award nominations in early February at his family's home in Duluth. He was in front of several screens, one of which was pointed at him.
"CODA", about a hearing girl and her deaf family, had just been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Durant plays the girl's older brother.
Then Durant's on-screen father and off-screen mentor Troy Kotsur received a nod for Best Supporting Actor, making history as the first deaf male actor to be nominated for an Oscar.
Durant's family responded with tears of glee, then regained their composure to wait for the big one.
Durant watched closely, his eyes darting between the TV and laptop screens and his mom, who was signing the nominees as they were announced. When "CODA" was nominated for Best Picture, he sprung from his chair, jumping wildly. He posted his reaction on Instagram — and got plenty of responses.
"My favorite video of the day!!!!!" wrote Marlee Matlin, his on-screen mom and the first deaf performer to win an Academy Award for her role in the 1986 film "Children of a Lesser God." She added the American Sign Language emoji for "I love you." Four of them.
"This is the absolute best!" wrote CODA director and writer Sian Heder. "I wish I had been there to hug you!"
"CODA" — and Durant — are having their moment.
The film first got some buzz a year ago when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for a record $25 million by Apple. In recent weeks it has earned nods from the Golden Globes, the Critics' Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild — where the team took home the high-profile award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast on Sunday night.
It's a win that boosts the film's profile going into the Oscars. Durant joined his film family on stage for the emotional win, a moment that had actors like Meryl Streep signing "I love you" back to the cast.
Durant's big Hollywood break is happening while he is based in Duluth.
He moved back to his hometown to live with his moms, Lori Durant and Mary Engels, early in the pandemic. He's been teaching ASL, working at a local restaurant and occasionally presenting at colleges.
Every once in a while, a private car sent by Apple TV+ shows up at his door, takes him on the 12-minute ride to the Duluth airport, and he jets off to join his castmates for awards panels, photo shoots and publicity gigs. The cast is on billboards and he, Matlin and Kotsur graced the cover of the Hollywood Reporter with the headline, "We're not deaf actors. We're actors. Period."
A lifelong storyteller
Language came late for Durant, 32, who was born to parents who struggled with addiction. As a toddler, he was adopted by his aunt-turned-mom Lori Durant. She taught him sign language, which he used to tell tales of fire engines and police cars.
Durant was the star of his first play, an original piece by a teacher who saw his fondness for stories. When he faced a live audience from the stage at the Duluth Playhouse Family Theatre, he learned something about himself.
"It's something that was innate in me, a talent," he said.
Lori Durant said that she remembered thinking that if everybody knew ASL, they would be awed by her son's acting ability.
"As his parents, we always felt like 'If only they could see this,' " she said. "If only he could get that recognition and not be treated as less-than — wouldn't that be something?' "
Durant became a YouTuber, where he was discovered by Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, a company that combines ASL and spoken English in its productions. He was cast in "Cyrano" in 2012 along with Kotsur, who was in the title role.
"I could not believe his use of language," Durant said of the way Kotsur signed. "It was so beautiful and so clear how he expressed himself. And the emotion was there, and the way he was able to take on a character's role."
Durant also became part of the Tony Award-winning cast of a revival of "Spring Awakening," which played on Broadway, and had a recurring role on the Freeform TV series "Switched at Birth" alongside Matlin.
The Oscar nomination, though, has been his "crowning achievement," he said. "It's thrilling to be a part of that. To be honored. To be part of history in the deaf community."
'A magical connection'
"CODA" is the story of a family of commercial fishermen who are deaf — except for high school senior Ruby Rossi, the Child of Deaf Adult (CODA) referenced in the movie's title. Ruby (played by Emilia Jones) is the bridge for her family in the community. Her secret: She's a soulful singer who doesn't dare picture life beyond Gloucester, Mass. — until she finally does.
"It's about a family's relationship, the struggles they go through, their bonds together," Durant said. "That's why it resonates with so many people."
Durant spent two months in 2019 filming in the small East Coast town where he and his castmates had hands-on tutorials on a local fishing boat. They spent weekends watching football and eating at Matlin's home in Boston. They also explained their inside-ASL jokes to Jones, who can hear.
"That's where we developed our family connection," Durant said. "It was a magical connection."
'I was born ready'
Durant doesn't know if he'll be in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards. They have been watching the other nominees for Best Picture, sizing up the competition.
Lori Durant said its hard to wrap her head around the idea that their son — who takes on snow shoveling duties at their home — is in a movie that is up against big names like Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio.
"We're just hoping [Academy voters] have seen enough Will Smith movies," she said.
Durant said he is feeling a shift — both in Duluth, where far more people know sign language than when he was a kid, and in Hollywood, where doors are opening. He's seeing more deaf actors in superhero movies and feature films like "The Quiet Place."
And he's hopeful that another big role is coming his way.
"I have a belief that there's something out there," he said. "There's a role out there that is going to work out. I continue with that, and it keeps me going.
"I was born ready."