An unexpected candidate may be making waves in 2020’s volatile Best Actor race. As potential nominees push out of the qualifying period or lose steam as a nominee, one contender is looking more and more worthy, “Sound of Metal’s” Riz Ahmed. Although at this point, like everyone else who worked on the film, the Emmy winner is just excited the general public is getting to see it.
Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, “Sound of Metal” first debuted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s played at numerous festivals since, including Zurich and AFI Fest, where it screened virtually a year after its world premiere (almost unheard of). Acquired by Amazon Studios, Ahmed’s performance has already earned him a Gotham Award nomination for Best Actor with, potentially, more critics group and other kudos on the way.
“Metal” finds Ahmed playing Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer whose band Blackgammon, with singer, guitarist, and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), has a small, but loyal following on the road. Likely triggered by the loud venues, genetics, or a combination of both, Stone begins to experience serious hearing loss. His shock over the situation soon finds himself at a crossroads where his newfound deafness is playing with his carefully calibrated sobriety. Looking to avoid a worst-case scenario, Ruben’s sponsor and Lou convince him to join a small deaf community to learn ASL (American Sign Language) while she heads to Paris, in theory, to wait for him. Eventually, Ruben must decide how far he’ll go to not only restore his hearing, but to save a relationship that borders on the obsessive.
Ahmed jumped on the phone last week to discuss the tremendous amount of work he went through to learn not only ASL but the drums for the project. The Brit also updates one of his upcoming films, “Invasion,” which just also happens to be an Amazon Studios production.
[Note: There are some minor spoilers ahead.]
The Playlist: Congratulations on the movie. I know this has been a long road since you first shot it in 2018. How excited are you that it’s finally coming out so that people can see it?
Man, I’m so excited, dude. Honestly, this was really a labor of love. Certain films are, right. They’re something that you pull together and make against the odds, with very little money and time. And you just don’t know if people will really connect with it or see it. And there’s so much amazing stuff out there. To see how people have been connecting with it in both the hearing community and the deaf community has been really, really moving. So, I’m just really excited to share.
How did it come your way?
I just read the script blind, knowing very little about it, and found it just deeply moving, just amazing writing. And at that time, I didn’t realize Darius was half of the genius behind “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” as a writer with Derek Cianfrance. Those films had a raw authenticity, and were just really emotionally grounded, and character-driven, like this. And I met Darius, and just fell in love with him. I just thought he is this most amazing inspirational figure. And he really leads by example as a risk-taker. And when we first met, he said, “I want this to be for real. I want you to be really playing the drums, and really speaking in sign language.” And, I don’t know, I’m just really excited by challenges like that, as scary as it was. And so yeah, we just embarked on this seven-month journey of learning the drums and American Sign Language every day, and was lucky to have such patient and amazing teachers. And yeah, I guess it was just the prospect of such an emotionally gutting script, with such an intense learning challenge of these technical skills. I just relished that challenge.
Listen, you’re a musician, you’re an artist, you just had another album, “The Long Goodbye,” come out this year. But you’re known as a rapper. Had you learned an instrument or had any physical musical training before this?
Oh, dude, I wish. I wish I had some background like that. I was starting very much from scratch. I don’t play any instruments. I rap. And so I have some sense of rhythm and time. But it’s very different spitting bars, and as opposed to keeping that rhythm, and creating that rhythm with your whole body, with all four limbs. And very quickly, I realized that I had gone into the deep end. I didn’t really fully realize what I let myself in for. But my drum teacher was incredibly patient, and yeah, they just guided me through all the different ups and downs of this crazy journey. For a long time, we weren’t sure if I should be drumming left-handed or right-handed, because I do things with both. Let’s say we hit certain roadblocks, and you thought you wouldn’t overcome them, and then all of a sudden, you have a breakthrough. It was a really intense psychological experience, knowing there was this ticking clock, and that we’d be, within the first week of shooting, film this real gig, in a real nightclub, with a real audience.
And it was terrifying. But I think, in the end, it was a real gift. And I think that’s something that my character, Ruben, realizes as well, and the same thing that I realize in the making of this film is that it’s the challenges that end up being gifts. And for me, the challenge of being forced to communicate non-verbally, through drums or ASL, opened me up in new ways as a person, and as an actor, and in ways that I hadn’t expected, because I normally communicate so much with words, as a spoken word artist and a rapper. Taking that crutch away from me forced me to connect, and inhabit what I’m saying physically, in a different way.
What was more difficult, learning the drums or sign language?
I think the drums were more of a solitary experience in a way. And there’s me and [my teacher] just smashing these drums together, and maddeningly trying to get through these blocks I had in my brain’s wiring. And I think with ASL, because it was a more social thing, I just felt so privileged to be welcomed into the deaf community by my instructor, Jeremy Stone, who became a close friend. Actually named my character after him, changed his name to Ruben Stone. And Jeremy, the deaf community, and artists like Christine Sun Kim, and just so many people within that community that were just so welcoming, and loving. As challenging as ASL was, it was just a joy. And I think again; I realized something that I think Ruben realizes in the film, which is that deafness isn’t a lack or a loss; it’s a culture, it’s an identity, it’s a way of being, it’s an invitation to connect to a whole community of people that are criminally overlooked by the hearing culture that we inhabit.
And so I wouldn’t describe it as difficult. I would describe it as a challenge. But it was a very, very enriching one. And again, that opened me up in new ways. Jeremy told me that deaf people often think that hearing people are emotionally repressed because we hide behind words. And I found that to be true. When I communicated more with ASL, I found myself getting much more emotional than I would be if I were speaking about something. Moved to tears at some times, surprised at how moved I was. And he said, “It’s because you are inhabiting what you are saying with your whole body.” So in a way, Jeremy and the deaf community in New York, taught me the true meaning of the word communication when I had words taken away from me.
Did Darius tell you what his inspiration was for this story?
In terms of what inspired him, I think he actually started [working on] “Metalhead,” a project with Derek Cianfrance, about a band called Jucifer, that was based on the drummer in that band, who is losing his hearing. And that was really a decade ago that he started this documentary. And then, from there, he created this fictional account of it. And then it evolved into its own thing and its own characters. And I think Darius put a lot of himself into the character of Ruben and invited me to bring a lot of myself into it.
It started from a kernel of something grounded in reality, that then evolved from there. But outside of it being about the specificity of a drummer losing his hearing, I think it’s about someone who is forced to reimagine who they are. And I think that that’s something that a lot of us can relate to in the context of this pandemic. Many of us are being forced to reconsider what really matters to us, and who we are because a lot of the things we would normally do have been taken from us. Many of the things that we think gave us worth, or define us, have been shifted. And so, in a way, it’s a film about identity. And I think it’s fascinating to go on a journey with a character whose fundamental identity transforms over the course of the film, from a musician to someone who’s deaf, and doesn’t play music. From someone in a relationship to someone who’s not. Someone who lives in a camper van, touring the country, to someone who lives in a rural, deaf, sober community and school. It forces us to realize that underneath these labels of hearing or deaf, musician or not, gay or straight, or whatever, there’s something else, and that’s who we really are. These other labels of identity might shift, but there’s something else at our core.
In the film, Ruben is obsessed with getting implants that he thinks will restore his hearing. And when he gets them, he’s frustrated, he’s upset because it’s not what he thought it was going to be. Although, any rational person watching the movie knows that the doctors must have told him it wasn’t going to be the same. It’s almost a tragedy in some ways, that he did this.
It’s complex. So, cochlear implants are a controversial innovation within the deaf community. Deafness, for many people, is not a loss, or a disability; it’s a culture, it’s identity. Deaf pride is real. And it’s a wonderful thing. And so cochlear implants, for so many people, this idea of fixing your identity is deeply repugnant to them. For other people, they found it, within the deaf community, they found it to be a lifeline, and something that they very much can rely on, and their identity is tied to it. So in my research, speaking to people, reading, and meeting people, there’s this real diversity of reactions to cochlear implants, and diversity of reactions amongst people who even went ahead and got them. And I think it’s right that the film explores that nuance rather than ever presenting deafness as an illness to be cured. As Joe [played by Paul Raci] says to Ruben in the film, “We’re looking for a solution to something spiritual,” i.e., our ability to accept our circumstances. We’re not looking for a cure to our hearing within this deaf community that Joe invites Ruben into. I hope [the film] gives us a glimpse into many other aspects of deaf culture that maybe the hearing community is not aware of.
I know you have been shooting “Invasion,” can you just say quickly about what made you want to take on that project?
I just really wanted to work with Michael Pearce. I think he’s a phenomenal new talent. I thought his debut feature, “Beast,” was just incredibly accomplished and assured. And I found it to be a really deeply moving script. And then, of course, Octavia Spencer coming on board. Yeah, I mean, there wasn’t any reason not to do it, really. I was just excited by the role, the director, the co-stars, and the opportunity to work with this incredible young talent. There’s an 11-year-old and an eight-year-old in the movie with me. And I think working with actors that age, just keeps you honest. It just keeps you grounded. They teach you. You don’t teach them. And I’m always looking to learn. So, I think sometimes; there’s no better teacher than that freshness and honesty of youth.
“Sound of Metal” is now available on Amazon Prime Video.