I was excited to learn that the Deaf character in the summer hit Baby Driver is actually played by a Deaf actor. This may signal a positive shift in Hollywood. Historically, most of the disabled characters in films were played by non-disabled actors, and a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 95% of disabled characters on television are played by non-disabled actors. This is called cripface, like blackface, and needs to stop. When filmmaker Edgar Wright searched for an actor to play Joseph, the Deaf father of the main character in Baby Driver, he discovered CJ Jones. Jones is a highly talented actor with extensive experience in film and television. He’s also Deaf, offering a wealth of insights into Deaf culture and American Sign Language. Impressed by Jones’ talent, Wright cast Jones to play Joseph. Jones became the first black Deaf actor in a major movie.
Jones graciously took time from his busy schedule to talk to me about his career. Jones generally conducts calls through video, allowing him to communicate visually through American Sign Language. Because I’m Deafblind and can’t see video, we held the interview over text. Below is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Haben: Film is very visual. Deaf culture and American Sign Language are very visual, too. Do you think being Deaf gives you an advantage over hearing actors?
CJ: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, Haben, it is not about being hearing or Deaf, it is not about being black or white, it is not about labels. It’s about talent, integrity, uniqueness, and passion. I got the role because I demonstrated that I have the talent the director was looking for. I fit his vision. He was very happy that he made the right decision hiring an authentic Deaf actor.
Haben: He made a very smart move hiring you!
CJ: YES THAT’S RIGHT.
Haben: If you were to describe it, what’s your talent?
CJ: I’m a multi-talented actor. I can act as a comedian or play a serious character. I’m also a producer, director, comedian, inspirational speaker, musician, writer, teacher and I play good basketball. Haha.
Haben: I read that you acted in several films, including Door in the Woods, Unbreakable, and The Ride. You wrote and directed classic children’s fairytales called Once Upon a Sign. You performed at comedy shows, and you started Sign World TV.
CJ: Yes! And proud of it. I’m working on Sign World TV to develop video shorts and a horror film to be produced next year. The goal is to produce high quality films on our own channel. Everything will be carefully produced to bring hearing signers and Deaf signers to work together.
Haben: Fantastic! That will teach more hearing people about Deaf culture and ASL. There is this huge problem in Hollywood where deaf characters are played by hearing actors. Why do you think filmmakers keep casting hearing actors to play deaf characters?
CJ: Numerous reasons: lack of understanding about a Deaf actor’s ability to act, directors not wanting to pay for interpreters, and most of all, ignorance.
Haben: Ignorance is a big one.
CJ: Very few talent agents will go out of their way to educate casting people about their client. The agent has to convince casting people to bring Deaf actors to auditions.
Haben: Did you have interpreters on set for Baby Driver?
CJ: Oh, yes. 110%. That’s why the film was a huge success!
Haben: YAY! I’m so glad you had full access on set.
CJ: My big goal is to educate young filmmakers, from high school to college, through film competitions. That’s where the awareness and experience working with Deaf actors, directors, crews, writers, etc., will take place. It’s important that we actors go out and meet them so they become educated and write roles for Deaf actors. United we stand, divided we fall!
Haben: I am wondering: do you think part of the reason Deaf actors don’t get more roles is because many Deaf actors don’t have good talent agents who advocate for them to get roles?
CJ: There you go! Yes, that’s right. At the moment I am looking for a new top agent to represent me. There are many talented Deaf actors who are looking for new agents. Talent agents often do not look at talent first. They just look at the disability first. This has to change. Because of Baby Driver, I think they will start to LOOK at talent first. That’s my hope.
Haben: I hope so! Maybe someone will reach out after this interview.
CJ: 👍🏾👏🏾 Thank you. I’m sure there will be more roles for Deaf and hard of hearing actors. I will have better opportunities than ever before. I am looking forward to audition for TV sitcoms and movies this year and beyond. There’s also the possibility of winning an award for supporting actor. I’m looking at Baby Driver!
Visit CJ Jones’ website to learn more about his work.