Faces Behind the Screen: CJ Jones
CJ Jones has been an unstoppable force within Hollywood as a Deaf actor, producer, director, writer, and entrepreneur.
He’s a radiant and fearless individual who has embraced his deafness as an asset that has helped open doors for him and others within the Deaf community.
We had the pleasure of interviewing CJ and learning more about working as a Deaf actor in an industry that has only just started changing its perspective on Deafness. CJ shared insight into his role in the new blockbuster film Baby Driver, dished about his company Sign World TV, and answered a few other questions about his upbringing and personal mission as a Deaf actor.
Below is a video from our interview with CJ in which he signed his responses. The text in this story is transcribed from his interpreter’s voice:
How have you felt included or excluded in the entertainment industry as a Deaf actor?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: It comes and goes. It kind of depends on the day and the time and the situation. Things are getting better and better. There’s more awareness out there. There are Broadway plays that include Deaf actors and sign language, that provides some recognition.
Deaf people are popping up on TV more and more. So again, there’s more recognition and exposure. Baby Driver is getting a lot of recognition, so it’s opening doors. Before, the door was just open a crack. And now it’s opening where I can see everything on the other side of the door.
Speaking about Baby Driver, your role in that is really influential for the Deaf community. How do you feel that role will impact society and the Deaf?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: I don’t want to do the same role over and over again. I don’t want to be [just] a Deaf person. [For Baby Driver] I wanted to be the adoptive father and Deaf.
We happen to sign. And the audience, I want them to forget that I’m Deaf, but understand our relationship, our heart, that we love, that we feel sadness.
“I want [the audience] to forget that we’re Deaf, but understand our relationship, our heart, that we love, that we feel sadness.”
I want them to understand that. And the Deaf community is very happy how ASL was portrayed onscreen. We’re thrilled with my character’s relationship with Baby and that that’s exactly what we should have more of. We need sensitivity. We need relationships. We need romance. We need horror movies.
Whether it’s sign language, English, Russian, Spanish doesn’t matter. The point is that we’re involved, and we can use disability to show the truth within. We can use disability to throw out the disability and just see the truth of the character.
What’s a common mistake that hearing people make about Deaf people that you’ve noticed?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: I’m thinking of one workshop that we had a long time ago. It was under SAG, the Screen Actors Guild.
We were talking about if you would rather be Deaf or if you would rather be blind or if you would rather be in a wheelchair or if you would rather have any sort of cognitive or functioning disability, some sort of brain injury or brain damage. And everyone was voting. And there were several Deaf people involved with the workshop as well.
When we got to who would rather be blind, just one person picked that one. Who would rather be Deaf? A lot of people raised their hands. We asked who would rather be in a wheelchair. I think there were one or two people that voted on that. And then as for the brain injury or brain functioning problems, there was no one who voted.
“ … Many people think that Deaf people can’t read or we can’t drive or we can’t go to school or we’re not intelligent or we don’t have skills. And that really is a big myth.”
So one person who raised their hand about being blind was questioned, why did you pick blindness? And he answered that I would not want to be Deaf because I wouldn’t be able to read.
I thought, whoa, hold it right now. You can see there are some Deaf people in his workshop right now. We read scripts, so what’s the problem? So it really was a big impact at that moment to understand that many people think that Deaf people can’t read or we can’t drive or we can’t go to school or we’re not intelligent or we don’t have skills. And that really is a big myth. So that’s where we need to educate people, and it’s our duty, I think, to always be educating people.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to retire…Because I want to work as an actor, therefore I have several hats on my head. I need to be a teacher. I need to be an actor. I need to be an educator.
Definitely, and as a result, you have a very diverse repertoire. You’re an actor, you do stand-up comedy, you perform, the list goes on.
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: Yes, I do it all. I love trying all different things. I love trying out new skills. And if I’m good at it, then I’ll keep going with it. I’ll persist. I love producing, directing, acting, stand-up comedy.
I did stand-up comedy last Saturday (July 15, 2017) at Santa Barbara Community College. It was my fourth performance. They keep asking me to come back. They had a summer immersion camp there. So all the students are learning sign language and they have to turn their voices off. For the entire weekend, they were not allowed to use their voice.
I show up. I do my comedy performance. I do my routines. And everyone had a good time. Having that connection with a live audience is very satisfying. It’s very different than a TV or film production.
I loved working on the film. Baby Driver was amazing. My heart was into the role. It was exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. It was a dream come true. Working with the whole crew was great.
I had an interpreter with me the whole time. And it made it so easy to have access for everyone to work with me. It’s very important to have an interpreter with me because everything moves fast on set. We were able to do it successfully because I had access to an interpreter.
As a Deaf, Black actor, it was a huge breakthrough to act in a blockbuster film of the year, worldwide. For me, check it off of my bucket list.
Do you have any other future plans for projects similar to Baby Driver, where you’re extending the role of Deaf character possibilities?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: I just finished shooting a horror film. It’s called The Door in the Woods. I am one of the lead characters in the film.
I use my voice and sign at the same time. So it’s a little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. It was not easy signing and speaking English at the same time. It’s quite a challenge. I said, let’s go for it when I got the role.
“I really want to just get involved and work and open up those doors, so that more and more Deaf, hard of hearing, disabled actors of any sort will be able to get their foot in the door and have work in TV, film, and stage.”
In the back of my mind, I know that some Deaf people will not be happy at using the two languages at the same time because many people believe that you cannot sign and talk at the same time. You either have to turn your voice off and use sign language or you need to speak. Some people disagree with using the sign and spoken language at the same time.
But I am able to do it. I chose to do it. It’s a skill that I have. And I might be criticized for it. But, hey, I want to work. This is a skill I have. I want to go ahead and use my talent. So I did. No one can stop me from using the skills that I can contribute to the project.
…I feel like I’m breaking barriers. And I really want to just get involved and work and open up those doors, so that more and more Deaf, hard of hearing, disabled actors of any sort will be able to get their foot in the door and have work in TV, film, and stage. If that’s their passion, that’s their dream, they have the right to make their dreams come true. And I want people to be sensitive enough to include those people at the table.
Can you tell us more about Sign World TV?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: Yes. Sign World TV is my company. The goal is to get both Deaf and hearing people to work together, become more comfortable working as actors, writers, directors, producers. We have our own YouTube channel.
Right now we’re adding a lot of content. And hopefully, in the fall, we’ll release more videos. It’s very time-consuming because I’ve got a lot of different hats on. It’s overwhelming sometimes. But it’s a dream of mine.[There will be] series, documentaries, cooking shows, all sorts of things, but all in sign language.
There will be voiceover and captions as well to make it accessible to hearing people who want to watch it.
It’s exciting to run this company. Next year SWTV’s first production will be a horror film.
The second thing that’s happening that’s very exciting, is that we have a documentary film in progress. We recently finished the trailer. And it is about a Deaf, black man during the Jim Crow laws.
He was arrested and blamed for raping a white, hearing young woman. And when they found out he was Deaf, they arrested him. They put him into an asylum, into a hospital for colored people. And he was there for many years.
It’s called Unspeakable. So I’m hoping to get funding because this is an interesting movie.
So I have a lot of projects that are happening.
What do you think it is about today’s culture that seems to be more accepting of Deaf culture and putting more Deaf roles into film? What do you think’s changed? Or have you noticed a change?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: I think it’s about time. Hollywood and the industry are finally noticing that there are talented Deaf people out there. And the writers are now starting to include Deaf characters more.
That’s what makes everything work. That Deaf character pops up in one place. And then it pops up again and again and again. It’s the domino effect.
“Hollywood and the industry are just noticing that there are Deaf people out there.”
One writer may have a Deaf relative or someone who’s disabled in the family. So that gets included in a script.
So it’s just opening more and more doors now through all that exposure. 30 years ago, this would have been impossible. None of this would have happened. Everyone was closed off to opening their worlds to different cultures. But now it’s happening more and more.
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year there are 10 or 15 Deaf roles popping up on TV.
How did you know you wanted to be an actor?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: It all started with in my mother’s womb. I used to tickle my mom in her womb, and she would say, stop that. And then, after I was born, I was a little wiggly baby, I made silly expressions. I was born an actor.
I started at the age of five with my brother. He was a tap dancer, and I would do mime.
…We didn’t have much money. So we had to survive. And I started with doing mime shows. People would throw coins or money into the hat. That was my first love, making people laugh. I watched them laugh.
When I was seven, I became Deaf due to spinal meningitis. Fortunately for me, my parents were Deaf as well. They already knew sign language. And my first language was sign language. I was able to communicate with my parents. And becoming Deaf was not really a loss.
“When I was eight, I decided I wanted to be on the big screen and in theater. And I was told, wow, that’s a big dream. But you can do it.”
There was no regret or sorrow. I was used to it because I was communicating in sign language. My brothers and sisters are all hearing. They all learned sign language. We all have full communication within the house. So it was not a big deal because we all used the same language.
I was fortunate that both my parents were Deaf and had sign language and encouraged and supported me, saying that I could do whatever I wanted to do. When I was eight, I decided I wanted to be on the big screen and in theater. And my mom said, “Wow, that’s a big dream. But you can do it.”
So people believed in me.
Two weeks ago, I took my mom to see the movie. She’s 94 years old. I had been warned that my mom only has a few months left to live. Her health is declining…So I took her to see the movie. Every time I’m on the screen I would say, “Mom, look.” And my mother would respond, “You look old.” I laughed and I cried.
After the movie was over people came up to me. They took pictures. They wanted autographs. And my mother was sitting in the wheelchair by me, and she sat in amazement of all that was happening. I felt very content with what we had experienced together.
Two days later, her health declined, and they took her to the hospital. She passed away last Wednesday. I want to celebrate that my dreams came true for my mother. It was a long time coming and a lot of work, but it happened at the right time. She was able to see my success before she left us.
What is your proudest moment?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: I would say my proudest moment was when I joined the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) tour company.
NTD has been a wonderful experience for me. Then I got the role of Orin in Children of a Lesser God tour called Bus/Truck Broadway, it was some of the biggest audiences. And it was a very inspiring journey.
Producing children’s videos was certainly one of my successful moments. I co-produced six children’s video tapes with DawnSignPress.
I think Baby Driver has been the most amazing breakthrough moment of my career. I’m wondering what will happen next, what will my next inspiration be. We’ll see where this will take me. I want to keep on growing and advancing my career.
Every time I strike opportunity, I become inspired to do more and do bigger and bigger things. Excitement is what helps you grow from wherever you start. The sky’s the limit. I love the adventure.
“I want to make sure the deaf community knows to not tune out any possibilities, to be accepting, to be open to opportunities. And that allows you to grow.”
I always believe in leaving the door open. And whatever pops in, whatever comes in, you grab that opportunity. You should never slam that door. If you close that door, it means, “I’m doubting myself, that I’m fearful of myself, that I’m not sure I’ll be successful, that I’m not optimistic.”
But if I keep that door open, it’s because I know that I have something to contribute. I know that with my positive attitude, everything is possible. I want to make sure that the Deaf community knows to not tune out any possibilities, but be accepting, be open to opportunities.
Don’t be in denial. Don’t be doubtful. The dream is waiting for you to make it happen. Everything comes at the right time and at the right place.
What is the best thing about being Deaf?
CJ THROUGH INTERPRETER: That’s the most difficult question.
I am very fortunate to be who I am and to be Deaf and Black. I feel special. I’m not looking for sympathy or excuses– nada.
I don’t like being labeled Deaf. I like being called “CJ.” Being Deaf is not a weakness. It’s just a thing. Being Deaf, we all have moments, like hearing people have moments too. People get married, get divorced, lose a job. It’s something that we all share in common. We have ups and downs.
The discrimination I have faced was worse years ago. It’s getting better. Still, some hearing people discriminate. Whenever I show them pictures of what I’ve done you can see their faces in awe of what I have accomplished.
So it’s really fun to be who I am. I’m very fortunate to be able to create opportunities for myself and others as well. You have to make things happen. Because when you make things happen, opportunities will start popping up in your life. Everything will flow from there. Here’s my motto: “United we stand. Divided we fall.”
Make sure to check out CJ’s new movie Baby Driver out now and later this year catch him in Door in the Woods.
Want more inspiring stories like CJ’s? Check out our storytelling project, Faces Behind the Screen.
Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community.