There’s something about Sound of Metal star Riz Ahmed’s soulful, sparkling eyes that ground his performances in truth even as he shimmers chameleon-like from one very different role to another.
He can play the action hero in arguably the best Star Wars film since the originals, Rogue One, and a nefarious villain in marvel spin-off Venom. He’s the unfortunate sidekick to Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic ambulance chaser in ferocious news satire Nightcrawler, an idealistic prospector in French director Jacques Audiard’s intriguing Western, The Sisters Brothers, and then drives dark comedy to its very edge as a would-be terrorist in Four Lions.
We meet on an overcast but glaring, sticky September day by the pool of rooftop bar Lavelle during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Ahmed stands out in black and white pants and a mustard shirt. He suggests the code-switching he learned as a young lad growing up as the son of Pakistani immigrants in ’80s London helped set him on the path to performance. But it’s complicated.
"The reason I probably became an actor is because I grew up making and moulding these different masks to inhabit these different world"
“When you don’t belong neatly in any one given box, when you’re not British or Pakistani, when you’re not posh or poor, you kind of fall between the cracks,” he says. “You stretch culture just by existing in these multiples spaces, inhabiting the multiplicities of who you are. You become quite a good contortionist. You’ve got quite a flexible spine.”
But at some stage, he snapped back. “I’m wondering, actually, whether the way to really stretch culture is to no longer be a contortionist, but see if you can get your flexible spine to stand up straight and just be yourself,” he says. “It occurred to me, the reason I probably became an actor is because I grew up making and moulding these different masks to inhabit these different worlds. So I am adept at that, but perhaps the toughest thing to do is to take off the mask.”
So it stands to reason Ahmed has drawn on his successful sideline as rapper Riz MC in not one, but two recent movies about a musician undergoing a transformative health issue. He lent songs from his latest album ‘The Long Goodbye’ to Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli (screened at the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival). While it shares similarities, plot-wise, with Darius Marder’s staggering Sound of Metal, in truth, both roles are quite different, not least because the latter required whole new skillsets (plus some serious gym-crunching, fake tattoos and a platinum blond do).
He plays punk-metal drummer Ruben, who ignores his doctor’s warnings that unless he gives up thrashing with lover and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), he could lose his hearing for good. When the worst case occurs, he fixates on expensive cochlear implants while falling back into an old drug habit that drives Lou away. Retreating to her father’s home in Paris (a fantastic cameo by Mathieu Amalric), she leaves Ruben in the care of a Vietnam vet who runs a rural rehab facility for deaf people, where the film takes on a spiritual journey of sorts.
“When you sit in the silence, in a void, you have to face yourself,” Ahmed says. “This guy can’t face himself, and maybe there’s an element of that growing up code-switching, shifting your sense of self so much that that question of ‘who am I?’ is maybe an unsettled one.”
Venom co-star Tom Hardy offered sage advice. “He said to me, ‘you know, the journey of the actor, ideally, is to go from having no sense of self, to having a universal sense of self,’ which I think is a beautiful idea,” Ahmed says. “Wondering who you are when there’s no one else around. I think that’s something that as an actor I can relate to, or if someone’s like a bit of a social mongrel. And Ruben’s going on that journey.”
Becoming Ruben required practical and emotional preparation. “And they always overlap in ways you don’t expect,” Ahmed says. He spent seven and a half months learning the drums and American Sign Language (the film is subtitled and close-captioned for inclusivity) before the four-week shoot in 2018.
“You can’t really think your way into playing the drums or signing, you have to let your body take over, and that’s an act of surrender and trust, embracing viscerality and spontaneity. The British approach, that kind of a legacy of theatre, is often very text-based, analytical and cerebral. Actually being engaged in the act of doing for such a long period of time opened up different parts of me.”
He chuckles, accusing himself of sounding, “highfalutin,” but it’s clearly a role that’s left a mark on Ahmed. Marder cannot praise his star highly enough. The director, also joining us in Toronto, stresses he focused on leaving the audience stunned, listening to the sound of their breath. He knew he was creating an endurance test in both Ruben’s journey and the intense sound design that attempts to recreate failing hearing. He wasn’t in a hurry to get to the finish line.
“Whenever anyone asks, ‘Could your movie be shorter?’ anybody who says no is full of shit,” Marder says. “There’s a million ways to cut every film, but I didn’t want to rush that emotional journey. I’m always amazed what people will sit through. Give me two hours and 40 minutes of fucking Marvel shit and I’m bored out of my skull, but I would watch Riz as Ruben all day long.”
For Ahmed’s part, the stillness stuck. “I think I have a pretty good relationship with silence now,” he grins. “We’re going steady and seeing what’s up. It’s like, you know, we’re kind of enjoying it for now. Let’s see where it goes.”
Sound of Metal is in cinemas now, with a limited release. Watch the trailer here:
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