With ‘Echo,’ Alaqua Cox Smashes Boundaries, and Bad Guys’ Faces

“I thought in the back of my head, There’s no way I’m going to get this.”

Alaqua Cox was in her home office in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin, recalling the moment in early 2020 when some friends forwarded her an online link to a casting call for a deaf Indigenous woman in her 20s. At the time, Cox, now 26, had been hopping from job to job — at a nursing home, at Amazon and FedEx warehouses — and had never acted outside a couple of plays in high school.

She could scarcely envision clinching any regular TV gig, let alone the role of a Marvel superhero: Maya Lopez, better known as Echo, a Marvel comic book character. But Cox did get it, and soon she found herself flipping and punching her way through the 2021 Disney+ series “Hawkeye” alongside the stars Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld.

Now, just over two years after her professional acting debut, Cox is taking the lead in the five-episode spinoff miniseries, “Echo,” which premiered Tuesday night on Disney+ and Hulu. Picking up where “Hawkeye” left off, “Echo” sees Maya transform herself into a motorcycle-revving, roundhouse-kicking, one-woman army hellbent on vengeance against her former mentor, the criminal boss known as Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), for his role in her father’s murder.

Cox, an Indigenous woman who is deaf, played a Marvel superhero with similar attributes in the Disney+ series “Hawkeye,” her first professional acting gig.Credit…Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Growing up on the Menominee Tribe reservation in Keshena, Wis., Cox, who was born deaf, couldn’t fathom the idea of seeing someone like herself onscreen. She was used to seeing deaf roles being portrayed by hearing characters — “which was such B.S.!” she said in a video call last month, aided by an American Sign Language interpreter, Ashley Change. She rarely saw Indigenous roles onscreen at all.

She wasn’t particularly attuned to the superhero genre. Long before sharing scenes with a full-fledged Avenger, Cox mainly consumed Marvel movies passively, as a means of bonding with her Marvel fanatic father, William.

“I remember watching with him, sitting on the couch, chilling on my phone,” she said. “My dad would be like: ‘No, no, look! Something cool is about to happen!’”

It was peer pressure that ultimately got Cox to submit her audition video. She recalled lying on a raft on the lake at her parents’ house when yet another friend contacted her, forwarding a screenshot of the casting call.

“I knew it was a sign for me to give it a shot,” she said. “I went: ‘Oh, fine! Let’s just try it out.’”

Cox’s self-recorded video was one of hundreds that by June 2020 had landed on the desk of Sarah Finn, who has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s main casting director going back to the 2008 film “Iron Man.” In search of the perfect fit, she had contacted Native American and deaf schools, organizations and cultural centers across the country. Cox’s tape piqued her interest.

“She has this beautiful, open, smiling face, and then she showed us her reading, which made it almost impossible to believe it was the same person,” Finn said. “She was able to switch on a dime and channel this other much more powerful and intense character.”

“I know he’s looking down on me from heaven, and he’s just cheering me on,” Cox said of her father, who died on the same week that Maya’s father’s death was portrayed in “Echo.” Credit…Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Once Finn had narrowed down her selection to Cox and a few others, she got the studio to assign Cox an acting coach, personal trainer and A.S.L. consultant, all of whom were deaf, to help her prepare for her “Hawkeye” screen test. (“It was just so nice to be able to have those one-on-one encounters with people,” Cox said, “and everything went so smoothly.”)

The investment paid off; “Hawkeye” had found its Echo — someone with, as Finn put it, the “mental emotional, physical fortitude to go through the rigors of playing a character like this.”

But there was still a lot to learn — on all sides. Of all the new experiences that came flying Cox’s way, she most enjoyed stunt training, learning five days a week how to deliver a swift kick and a powerful jab. Cox is an amputee who uses a prosthetic leg, but that had never stopped her from roughhousing, she said.

“I have a brother that’s a year older than me, and we were always rough with each other growing up,” she said. “I had to get him; I was very stubborn! He toughened me up a little bit, so it was easy for me to pick up those kinds of stunts.”

By the time Finn was casting for “Hawkeye,” there was already talk of a potential spinoff for the character, Finn said. Cox didn’t learn a new series was in the works until she was halfway through filming her “Hawkeye” scenes. The news came as a surprise, to say the least. Filming for “Echo” began in April 2022, and Cox jumped right in.

“One of the very first questions she asked when we first talked was ‘Can I do my own stunts?’” Sydney Freeland, the series showrunner, said of Cox. “I was like, ‘Yeah, go for it!’ She was down to get in there, take some lumps and take some bruises.”

“Her entire filming experience before ‘Echo’ was a few days on ‘Hawkeye,’” added Freeland, who also directed episodes. “For her to go from that small sample size to being the lead of a Marvel series, that is a tremendous ask for even the most seasoned actor.”

Cox did extensive stunt training to prepare for her role as Maya Lopez, better known as Echo, learning five days a week how to deliver a swift kick and a powerful jab.Credit…Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Whether Cox was peeling out on a motorcycle or leaping from a moving freight train (while wearing a safety harness, of course), Change or another interpreter were positioned in her sightline, ready to relay the director’s next instructions.

But Cox had another key preproduction request of Freeland and her team: Take A.S.L. classes.

“I said, ‘Be able to communicate in basic sign language with me,’” Cox said. Many of the cast members learned, taking signing classes a few times a week, she said — several characters use A.S.L. onscreen to communicate with Maya — as did many key members of the crew, including Freeland. “It was really nice when we got on set,” Cox added. “They were able to sign ‘How are you?’ and ‘Do you need to go to the bathroom?’ — those kinds of simple things.”

Freeland was reluctant to give herself too much credit: “She’s very generous to say that I learned A.S.L.,” she said. “It was probably like talking to a toddler for her. But she’s beyond gracious and beyond patient.”

“Echo” was shot in and around Atlanta, far from Cox’s tight-knit community in Wisconsin. Filming took about three months, and Cox didn’t have any family or friends in the area. It helped being surrounded by a predominantly Indigenous cast, which included Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene, Devery Jacobs and Cody Lightning. “It just felt so homey,” she said. “They were like cousins or sisters immediately.”

Cox considers it an honor to play Marvel’s first deaf Indigenous superhero, and to provide mainstream representation for amputees. But the success has been bittersweet. Her father — the ultimate fan of both Marvel and his daughter — died in 2021, the same week her character’s father (Zahn McClarnon), who is also named William, was shown meeting his untimely demise in “Hawkeye.”

“All of a sudden, these two worlds have collided,” Cox said. “And it was so heart-wrenching.”

“But he was so proud of me,” she went on, speaking of her father. “I know he’s looking down on me from heaven, and he’s just cheering me on. I absolutely know it and feel it.”

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