'Baby Driver' Breakout: How Scene-Stealing Deaf Actor CJ Jones Wowed Edgar Wright

CJ Jones and Ansel Elgort in ‘Baby Driver’ (Sony)
CJ Jones and Ansel Elgort in ‘Baby Driver’ (Sony)

Edgar Wright had a very specific type of actor in mind when he penned the part of Joseph, the disabled foster father to Ansel Elgort’s getaway driver in the summer smash Baby Driver. “I wrote the character being 85, African American, and deaf,” Wright told Yahoo Movies. So the filmmaker tasked his casting director, Francine Maisler to find someone who fit the bill. “And she said, ‘There’s only one actor, really.'”

That actor was CJ Jones, the deaf comedian-writer-actor who, though 25 years short in terms of Joseph’s age, was primed to shine as an elderly man after a few hours in the makeup chair. And shine he does: In a film full of such bold-face names as Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm, it’s the authentic, nuanced work of Jones and the touching relationship between Baby and Joseph that drive so many of the movie’s feels.

For all the scorn Hollywood rightfully receives for under-representing people of color, actors with disabilities are even less visible onscreen. “It’s been extremely hard for me. It’s been a long time. I feel like I keep hitting closed doors,” Jones told Yahoo Movies through a translator. While the actor’s first role came in a 1991 episode of A Different World, he has had scant credits since. “It’s hard to find a black deaf role.”

Most actors you see in film and television portraying deaf characters aren’t actually deaf, typically because the studios and networks don’t want to assume the additional costs of hiring a translator, or the challenges that could be faced in communicating with the actors. “Its rare that a deaf person auditions for a deaf role and gets it,” said Jones.

CJ Jones at the London premiere of ‘Baby Driver’ (Getty)
CJ Jones at the London premiere of ‘Baby Driver’ (Getty)

Wright could’ve easily fallen into that trap. After auditioning Jones first for the part, he then tried out a handful of actors who could hear. “I saw some other actors pretend to be deaf and sitting through those auditions with actors pretending to be deaf after having seen a deaf actor play the part was very difficult,” Wright said. “I couldn’t give another actor the part when there’s a deaf actor who could play the part… But he’s incredible. I knew in my heart I was going to give him the role.”

Jones, who jokes that the ASL word for Edgar Wright is “cool,” quickly did his homework and consumed the director’s widely celebrated catalog, taking in films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The actor did not initially have an interpreter on set. “I think in some ways it made me be a better director,” Wright said. “Because you have to be a lot more direct and succinct… You’re also very aware that when someone is reading your lips, 40 percent of what you say is nonsense, so that you can actually get to the point quicker and can be more articulate in less words.”

Jones did eventually hire help for the three-month shoot, while his young costar Elgort was schooled in sign language by an on-set tutor. “I tried to help adjust his sign language and make it more authentic,” Jones said. “But I adore him, he’s fantastic.”

While Jones has led a fruitful career as a standup comic and has appeared in docs like See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary and What Are You… Deaf?, Baby Driver is opening new doors for him. Literally. He’ll next appear in the paranormal thriller Door in the Woods and was also recently cast in a major sequel that he can’t announce yet.

And of course his success in Baby Driver could inspire Hollywood to hire more deaf actors. “It’s really made a huge impact I think for all deaf actors and the deaf community,” Jones said. “They feel confident that, and I feel confident, that they could possibly get a role in TV and movies because of me being in Baby Driver. I think it really does open the door for many others… many other dreamers to be able to be an actor regardless if they’re deaf or hard of hearing.”

Baby Driver is now in theaters. Watch our Facebook Live interview with Edgar Wright and cast:

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