Daniel Durant's origins story sounds like the kind they give superheroes in comic books. He isn't a superhero (yet) but the Duluth resident is about to be a movie star.
Durant, 31, co-stars in a Sundance Film Festival prizewinner, "CODA," which opens Friday in theaters and on Apple TV Plus, playing the big brother of the female protagonist, a hearing teenager whose entire family is Deaf (the title means "Children of Deaf Adults"). Even before the film's breakout at Sundance in January, Durant had appeared on Broadway and in two TV series, all of which would have seemed very unlikely when he was born to parents who struggled with addiction and who left him on a neighbor's stoop when he was less than a year old.
"I ended up being adopted by my wonderful aunt — my two wonderful aunts — when I was 18 months old, and I've been in Duluth ever since," said Durant in a Zoom interview with the assistance of American Sign Language interpreter Brad Galloway.
Durant's aunts, Lori Durant and Mary Engel — who are also his moms — knew a bit of sign language. That was more than their son could say.
"At that time, I didn't have any language. I was using my voice to yell and point at things and my aunt decided, 'This is not going to work.' So she started teaching me sign language," Durant said. "She would have grapes and I would yell and she'd say, 'No, you can't have any until you sign it.' "
Many grapes later, Durant's gift for spinning stories began to reveal itself. At retreats for Deaf kids and their parents, where he saw lots of different signing styles and began to understand more about his culture, Durant would stand by the campfire and tell ghostly tales.
"I think that's where the acting bug kind of bit me," said Durant, who went to a mainstream grade school, Duluth's Lakewood Elementary. He was the only Deaf kid but he formed a bond with a teacher who had hearing difficulties.
"That teacher noticed I was really expressive and I liked to draw a lot so that teacher decided to write a play and directed it and gave me the lead role. That was when I had my first rehearsal experience, onstage performing in front of people. I really loved it," said Durant, who was 9 at the time. "I went up to my moms and said, 'That was great. I want to find more opportunities to do that.' "
Opportunities followed when he transferred to Minnesota Academy for the Deaf in eighth grade, becoming a full-fledged theater kid.
Durant, who had been bullied for being Deaf and for having two moms, felt at home in the Faribault school. But he was creatively stymied in college, at Rochester [N.Y.] Institute of Technology and Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. So he began making poetry and performance videos, which developed a YouTube following and attracted the attention of Los Angeles' Deaf West Theatre.
That venue has become a creative home for Durant, who played troubled teenager Moritz in the Deaf West production of "Spring Awakening" that transferred to Broadway, featuring a blend of hearing and Deaf performers. Although he now lives in Duluth, home also has been Norway, where he did theater for seven months (and learned Norwegian Sign Language), and California, where he was a recurring character on both Netflix's "You" and the ABC/Freeform series "Switched at Birth."
It also is where he first met Oscar-winning Deaf actor Marlee Matlin, who plays his straight-talking mom in "CODA."
"The first day I showed up for filming I was nervous because I knew she was going to be there," said Durant, who had been introduced to Matlin when she came backstage at a production of "Cyrano." "But everyone there was so warm and welcoming. I got closer with the rest of the cast and ever since then it's been great."
The "CODA" role came to Durant a couple of years ago, after he sent a series of audition tapes to the producers, as part of a "pretty hot competition" between Durant and another actor.
"I was so impressed, especially because hearing people don't generally know about deafness," said Durant of the screenplay by writer/director Siân Heder, who grew up in a fishing village similar to the Massachusetts one where "CODA" is set but who had to learn ASL. "It's not often you see a script with that kind of knowledge and intuition. And I really empathize with [his character, Leo], a strong Deaf guy, standing on his own two feet, wanting to make his own way in the world."
The central conflict is that Leo's sister, Ruby, wants to study music but her family, which makes its living from fishing, needs her to remain home to help them. "CODA" also is about showing moviegoers a culture they may know little about.
"I would hope this movie, 'CODA,' or anything they see on social media, would help people get a little bit of a taste of what it's like to be a Deaf person," said Durant, who doesn't consider deafness a disability but simply another language he uses.
The actor thinks stories such as "CODA" are helping move the needle, even in the years since he was in junior high.
"When I would go into a restaurant and tell them, 'Hey, I'm Deaf,' the waitress would freeze: 'Here's a Deaf person. What do I do?' It's not their fault. I'm not mad about it. But it does make you feel a little less than human," said Durant. "When I got into acting, did some traveling, every time I would come back to Duluth, I'd realize it's a good community and it's getting better. People are learning sign language way more than when I was a kid. When I go to a store now, people will sign, 'How are you?' "
As of mid-July, he hadn't been able to see "CODA" on a big screen but a friends-and-family showing is planned, which he will attend with his moms. ("I'm very single," joked Durant. "Mark me down as available.")
Making the movie and following its success from home, since Sundance was virtual this year, has strengthened his resolve to play all kinds of characters, including those whose language isn't the most important thing about them.
"I can play any character who just happens to be Deaf," Durant said.
In fact, with Marvel starting to make strides in the area of inclusivity, who knows? Maybe there is a superhero in Durant's future.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367