For CODA star Marlee Matlin, this year's Oscars is a bit of a full-circle event. The actress won Best Actress in 1987 for her film debut, the adaptation of Children of a Lesser God, when she was just 21 -- making her still the youngest-ever Best Actress winner and the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award. This year, she's back, celebrating a film about the deaf experience, with three of the four main roles being played by deaf actors.
"In all honesty, I’ve been waiting for this day since Children of a Lesser God, to see a film like this being recognized in the industry," Matlin shared with ET's Lauren Zima. "And I’m more than elated that I’m part of it, and especially that I’m here with Troy [Kotsur] and the other actors that I’ve always wanted to work with for so long... It’s a wonderful honor, it really is."
For Matlin, the return to the Oscars is extra significant, as she recalled receiving her 1987 nomination while she was at the Betty Ford Clinic receiving treatment for drug abuse.
"I got nominated at Betty Ford, so that was a little strange in terms of a journey, but listen, I was helping myself and I’m still sober 35 years later, along with the anniversary of my win," she shared. "To be able to win that night... I was up against so many wonderful actresses, but I felt the sense of camaraderie and support, so it was really nice."
Matlin's CODA co-star, Troy Kotsur, is nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year -- one of the film's three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture -- and the cast is fresh off a surprise win for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at this year's SAG Awards.
"I’ve been patient," Matlin said. "I knew it was a process to get to where we are today. All these years of talking about authenticity, talking about deaf actors, talking about the fact that they exist, always wondering when someone like Troy would be able to do a movie like we just did, and many other deaf actors as well. So we are here, and that’s important and we are collaborating more than ever."
For Kotsur, who began his acting career with the National Theatre of the Deaf and Deaf West in the early '90s, he said his first-ever Oscar nomination has meant the world in terms of stepping onto a larger stage of recognition and acceptance within the industry. He shared with ET that Matlin helped fulfill a longtime dream at the Oscars luncheon, by introducing him to legendary director Steven Spielberg.
"I’ve been his biggest fan ever since I was a child," Kotsur said. "He's such a great visual storyteller, he has a beautiful eye, and just the mood of his films, even without dialogue as a deaf audience member I felt a connection to, and I really have all my life. I always wanted to meet him and I didn’t want to feel like a brown noser or a fan, I had to prove myself first and work hard as an actor. With these nominations, it was a great excuse to finally meet him, so it was such a blessing."
For Kotsur and Matlin, the celebration of CODA's success is about much more than personal recognition. They see it as a major moment for their community as a whole, about the possibilities that can exist for deaf performers.
"In today’s world, there are so many kids that come up to me," Kotsur noted, "and I looked up to Marlee when I was younger, and now I can give advice to these kids. I can pay it forward, all the work that Marlee's done, and we can have a positive influence on the world."
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Bardem and Cruz are making Oscars history of their own this year, as just the sixth married couple to be nominated in acting categories during the same year -- him for Being the Ricardos and her for Parallel Mothers. However, the couple joked with ET that their kids, 11-year-old Luna and 8-year-old Leo, "couldn't care less."
"My daughter had an important question, which was, 'Is there gonna be cake for this celebration?'" Cruz recalled with a laugh.
Family is also front of mind for first-time nominee Aunjanue Ellis, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nod for her role in the Williams family biopic, King Richard. The actress explained to ET how she plans to honor her mother with the dress she wears on Oscars night.
"I told these lovely designers, do what you do, but my mother's name has to be somewhere in there," she said, tearing up as she noted that the tribute is a consolation to not being able to celebrate with her mother in person. "I would have wanted her with me."
See more from this year's Oscar nominees luncheon in the video above.
The 2022 Oscars -- hosted by Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes -- air live on Sunday, March 27 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC. In the meantime, stay tuned to ETonline.com for complete Oscars coverage.