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Chicago native Paul Raci revels in breakout ‘Sound of Metal’ role, the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’

The veteran actor, the son of two deaf parents, says the current generation of deaf teens is creating awareness surrounding ableism.

Paul Raci says his breakout role in “Sound of Metal” has led to more opportunities than he can handle.
Amazon Studios

In the film/TV business, success — and steady work — comes sooner for some. For others, it’s better late than never.

Actor and Chicago native Paul Raci seems to fit the latter.

And when he was up for the role of Joe, the owner of a substance abuse treatment facility for the deaf in Amazon Studios’ “Sound of Metal,” Raci had the acting chops and the life experience to make the film whole.

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime — it was great. I loved the writing. I love the character,” said Raci, 72. “Having deaf parents shaped my whole life because back in the day there was no technology that could help them.”

Since the film’s release in November, it has received mostly favorable reviews and garnered Raci several award nominations as well as the National Society of Film Critics Award for best supporting actor. He’s considered a prime candidate for an Academy Award nomination next month.

“I’ve had a lot of addiction experience. I’ve been a sign language interpreter in many addiction programs, so I’ve seen a lot of guys like Joe over the years,” said Raci. “And it was the right fit. It was very comfortable for me to do the role; I just love the character of Joe. To have a deaf, sober house written for this movie is not a common thing but it does occur here in the States.

“Usually, [when] a deaf guy or woman has an addiction problem they go through a hearing program with everybody; they have to have an interpreter with them to get all the meetings and all the information. But if everybody’s deaf, then you’re way ahead of the game.”

Chicago native Paul Raci (left, with cast member Riz Ahmed) has garnered several award nominations for his role in the film “Sound of Metal.”
Amazon Studios

Raci, who grew up in the 2300 block of West Potomac Avenue in Humboldt Park, is also utilizing his newfound platform to speak on the nuances of ableism.

“When I was a kid in Chicago, it was looked upon as something that you had to fix — that you were broken,” said Raci. “If you’re hearing-impaired, you’re broken. Or if you’re deaf, there’s something wrong with you. The attitude has shifted in a good way — especially with young ones today. They don’t talk about themselves as being something to be fixed. They look at themselves as being whole, perfect, and complete. … I wish that my parents could have experienced this newfound empowerment that the deaf community feels today.”

Raci, a Vietnam War veteran, is often asked about filming his final scene in “Metal,” in which Joe asks Riz Ahmed’s character to leave the facility.

“[Ahmed] was intense. We got to know each other pretty well; we only shot together for three weeks,” said Raci. “It’s a goodbye scene because he’s leaving. And it was also a goodbye scene for me and him his actors because I knew I‘d never see him after this and everything was done and he’d never see me. It made the scene that we did a little bit more sad.”

Raci now receives many offers for acting gigs — more than before “Metal.”

“My phone is ringing off the hook, and I’ve been doing this so long that I would take any small, TV part just to keep working,” said Raci, whose acting credits include “Parks and Recreation” and “Baywatch.” “I want to take something that’s about the same level as ‘Sound of Metal,’ so I have to be careful because I want to keep my career going. … It’s a luxury I’ve never had as an actor.”

He also aims to record original music with Hands of Doom, his tribute band that performs Black Sabbath songs in American Sign Language.

“We’ve got a big following, but a lot of deaf people come out because they love watching the Sabbath stuff in sign language — which, if you think about it, Black Sabbath is so prolific with their lyrics.”

Paul Raci (right) signs along with the actors in a 1982 Chicago production of “The Arkansaw Bear” by the DePaul/Goodman Children’s Theater.
Sun-Times file

Even though Raci left Chicago decades ago, he credits the city for being the impetus for setting him on the path toward steady and important work in the film/TV industry.

“It’s a different world in Los Angeles because people approach acting in different ways; it’s all about movies and TV, and I was all about the theater,” said Raci. “It was all about doing theater in Chicago, and I still do some out here in Los Angeles. But there’s a difference — acting is a craft, and Chicago is where I learned that craft.”