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Riz Ahmed: ‘Listening Is Not Just With Your Ears’

April 6, 2021

Over the past year many people have been left with feelings of frustration, stillness, silence and loss due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For UK actor Riz Ahmed his role as a US heavy metal drummer who is going deaf in the Oscar-nominated Sound of Metal is strangely relatable to those experiences.

“You’ve got a character who is very focused on his daily grind,” Ahmed tells BBC News. “Just like we are as a culture and a society, on the treadmill – a workaholic culture.

“Then we have a health crisis that suddenly throws him into a kind of purgatory, and in that lockdown limbo he’s forced to reassess what really matters to him.

“That’s a journey that so many of us have been on right now.”

But while his character Ruben, who is also a recovering drug addict, loses his hearing and sense of control, he does however gain access to a culture and community which give him a fresh perspective.

And it was a similar experience for Ahmed himself throughout the intensely rewarding seventh-month period it took to prepare for and complete the film.

The Londoner had to re-locate to New York, learn to beat the skins for real and become fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), in order to interact fully with a number of deaf actors – many of whom were also addicts in real life.

“This whole experience taught me the true meaning of the word listening – it’s not just something you do with your ears,” says Ahmed.

“I think [ASL instructor] Jeremy [Lee Stone] and the deaf community taught me what listening means: it means you listen with your whole body, with your attention, your energy.

“In the same way that I think they taught me the true meaning of communication is something that doesn’t just happen here [in the ears].”

Preparing for the role in a Brooklyn cafe in 2018, Ahmed put his communication skills to great use by striking up a conversation with a stranger who would go on to become his wife – the best-selling author Fatima Farheen Mirza.

“We were both jostling over the same laptop plug points, like a very modern way of meeting,” he recently told The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon.

Is it fair to say then that the movie – which last month received four Bafta and six Oscar nominations, including best picture and a “well deserved” best actor nod for Ahmed, according to BBC Arts editor Will Gompertz – has changed his life?

“I hope that every movie you do changes your life in some way,” he says. “When I did Four Lions it changed my life in a way, when I did Shifty it changed my life, same with [the Emmy-winning TV mini-series] The Night Of – it always changes your life.

“Sometimes it changes it in terms of your career and people having attention on it, and in other ways it changes in terms of your creative process and your personal growth.

“I guess the thing that’s really special about this film is it’s been all of those things. Creatively it has pushed me to go further and dig deeper than before.”

‘Not faking it’

In order to get his life back on track, Ruben has to put on hold his co-dependent relationship with his girlfriend Lou [Olivia Cooke], who is also the hard-rocking vocalist of their band Blackgammon, as he checks into a rural retreat for deaf people with addictions.

The welcoming facility is run by US army veteran Joe [fellow Oscar nominee Paul Raci], who lost his hearing while serving in the Vietnam War.

As a child of deaf adults (CODA), and himself a sign language interpreter, Raci was impressed with how “respectfully” Ahmed approached the role.

“He actually immersed himself, learned what the language meant, learned what the culture means, and I could see that on the set,” he says.

“We had interpreters on the set to help facilitate communication between the deaf actors, but Riz was actually communicating without an interpreter, having relationships with people.

“He was not faking it,” adds Raci, who works with the Deaf West Theatre group and is also the lead singer/signer in a Black Sabbath tribute act for deaf audiences.

‘Better representation’

Raci feels the deaf community, who he notes need “better representation” on-screen, will find it refreshing to see a three-dimensional and flawed character who just so happens to be losing his hearing.

Deaf people, he suggests, are often portrayed as “incidental characters” or used to provide “comic relief”, so the film could change perceptions among hearing people too.

“They have the same foibles, the same desires that you and I have,” Raci continues. “There’s only one thing – they can’t hear.”

First-time feature film director Darius Marder, who is also in the running for best original screenplay at this month’s Academy Awards, stresses authenticity was key in the five-year-long casting process for the project, which was in the offing for more than a decade.

Choosing native ASL-communicator Raci to play Joe (over stars like of Robert Duvall, Marder reveals) was an acknowledgment of the fact that deafness is as much a cultural thing as it is a physical one.

When it came to casting Ruben and Lou the filmmaker met with plenty of big names, who he says could have helped to “finance the movie” but were simply not up to the challenge.

“I just tried to scare them as much as possible to see if they were up for it, and they weren’t. No-one was up for that until Riz,” says Marder, who interviewed 75 people for the role.

“I knew how talented he is and that was not hard to see, but what I didn’t know is what an artist he is: how hungry he is for this intensely physical process and to live in this role with a foundation of a character that you’re going to feel in your bones.

“That’s a very specific kind of philosophy and he was down [with it].

“It was the same story casting Olivia,” he continues. “If Lou doesn’t hit it, and their relationship doesn’t feel legit, the whole movie doesn’t work.”

Cooke, whose character has a history of self-harm, learned to thrash the guitar and scream/sing with the help of Margaret Chardiet of the NYC band Pharmakon. Like Ahmed, she embraced the holistic approach to the production.

“We shot everything chronologically so it did feel like we were going through it,” says Cooke. “And because it was low budget and we had a very limited amount of film – because film is really expensive – we had two or three takes each.

“So we did just have to be on top of it, and in the emotion [of] the characters at all times.”

‘Point of hearing’

Another “character” in the film is the bold (and similarly Oscar-nominated) sound design which toggles between Ruben’s shifting hearing and non-hearing reality, using sounds taken from his throat and elsewhere on his body.

During the filming, Ahmed had audio blockers placed in his ears and white noise pumped in for certain scenes in which his character is feeling disorientated.

Marder describes the “point of hearing” perspective as “undiscovered cinematic territory” – intended to drag the viewer inside Ruben’s psyche.

Open captions are also burned onto the film throughout.

“It has to be unsettling,” explains Marder, who previously co-wrote the screenplay for The Place Beyond the Pines.

“You have to go through the ring of fire in this movie and if you don’t, you haven’t earned it. You have to trust the audience enough to be uncomfortable.”

Out of his comfort zone is precisely where Ahmed prefers to operate, the actor/rapper recently told Grounded with Louis Theroux.

As a burgeoning young MC from a Pakistani family living in Wembley, north west London, he attended top educational establishments such as Merchant Taylors and later Oxford University.

His experiences inadvertently helped to prepare him for a career as an actor, he shared on Theroux’s podcast, due to the constant need for “code-switching” and “shape-shifting” between his “rude boy” mates, family and school – and generally feeling out of place.

He never thought he would rap or act professionally, but a freestyle rap from his youth worked its way into his other recent film, the Bifa-winning Mogul Mowgli, which he also co-wrote and produced. It’s a deeply personal account of a British-Pakistani hip-hop talent who becomes seriously ill.

Ahmed’s latest solo album, 2020’s The Long Goodbye, saw him artfully tackle xenophobia and intolerance, in a multimedia manner thanks to a powerful accompanying short film and lockdown livestreamed gig – filmed on an iPhone.

Also during lockdown, he paid tribute to his uncle, who passed away due to Covid-19, via a spoken word piece entitled I Miss You. And last week, he joked online how other members of his family had been less than impressed with his Hollywood accolades.

‘The Riz test’

Sound of Metal, amongst other things, has seen the influential Ahmed become the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor at the Oscars – a ceremony which has been criticised for its lack of diversity, leading to award rule changes.

He’s keen to play less stereotypical roles these days and it’s perhaps worth underlining that Ruben’s religion or ethnicity are never once referred to in the new movie. The protagonist would almost certainly pass The Riz Test – criteria created in the star’s honour to measure how Muslims are portrayed on film and TV.

The lesson at the heart of the drummer’s hearing loss story, Ahmed believes, is that “underneath the differences that separate us, there’s this core of humanity that we can all tap into”.

Sound of Metal is out on 12 April on Amazon Prime Video, and has a proposed UK cinema release date of 17 May.

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