Riz Ahmed on his Sound of Metal role: 'Wanted to give up a whole year to learn sign language, the drums'

I’ve felt really, really privileged to be part of a film that tries to contribute something fresh and hopefully a step forward as to how deaf people are portrayed on screen, said the actor.

The New York Times March 17, 2021 15:40:45 IST
Riz Ahmed on his Sound of Metal role: 'Wanted to give up a whole year to learn sign language, the drums'

Riz Ahmed in a still from Sound of Metal. Image via Facebook/soundofmetaluk

For an actor notorious for not sleeping before shooting a new movie, Riz Ahmed sounded remarkably laid-back recounting how he’d learned on 16 March about his Best Actor Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal.

He was in bed. From which, before dawn in Northern California, he had calmly turned on YouTube, watched the results and then called his family.

And then his adrenaline started pumping.

To play Ruben, a punk-metal drummer and recovering heroin addict struggling with hearing loss, the British-born Ahmed spent nearly a year learning American Sign Language and drumming — dedication that has already earned him Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics Choice and SAG nominations. Now Sound of Metal, a high-octane, critically heralded Amazon drama, is a multiple Oscar contender.

“It feels lovely, particularly to see the film get six nominations,” he said. “For your own nomination, you feel very lucky and humbled. But for your teammates, seeing things like best editing and best picture and Paul Raci” — his co-star — “you’re punching the air and you’re jumping up and down in your bed. I feel over the moon and just so excited for the rest of the team.”

What was he going to do to celebrate?

“I’m going to go back to sleep,” he said.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

So about that air-punching.

No one was doing this [project] for the money and no one was doing this for the fun. Everyone did this film because they wanted to go further than they’d ever gone before. The sound director [and best sound nominee] Nicolas Becker wanted to innovate new techniques and spend six months doing the sound mix for a film that we had six weeks to shoot. For myself, I wanted to go deeper and give up a whole year to learn sign language and learn the drums. And the same thing with [the best supporting actor nominee] Paul Raci. He’s someone who has a lot of talent but perhaps no one had given him the platform to paint with all these cool colors and put them at his disposal as an artist. I know it can sound like a cliché, but there was a real purity of intention and a camaraderie of spirit for all of us to push ourselves. And so to get the encouragement from our peers, it’s just a wonderful feeling.

You’ve also set a couple of records for the Oscars. You’re the first Muslim nominated for best lead actor and, with Steven Yeun, this is the first time two men of Asian heritage (Ahmed is of Pakistani descent) have been nominated for best actor in the same year. Is that meaningful for you?

Yeah. And I think what’s most important is if it’s meaningful to other people. I just think the more and more people that can find themselves celebrated and included in these moments, the better. That’s what storytelling is about. It’s about trying to stretch our idea of who we are. And when we celebrate a wider range of stories, and a wider range of storytellers, it can help more and more people to find themselves in our culture. And that’s really a positive thing.

What kind of response have you gotten to your performance? Have people in the deaf world reached out?

The feedback I’ve had has been fantastic. I’ve felt really, really privileged to be part of a film that tries to contribute something fresh and hopefully a step forward as to how deaf people are portrayed on screen. And really allowing the deaf community to portray themselves on screen. You know, we were educated, guided and mentored by them on set so they could authentically be themselves and be close to the table. I feel very indebted to my mentors in the deaf community and in the drumming community and in the addiction recovery community. These are people that held me by the hand and taught me their craft and their skills, but also their values and their way of seeing the world. The film wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Kathryn Shattuck c.2021 The New York Times Company

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