tv & movies

Riz Ahmed on 'Sound of Metal', acting and unmasking himself

After the world premiere at TIFF, the the actor-rapper-activist says his latest movie has changed the way he perceives acting

Riz Ahmed reminds me of those quintessential commuters on the London Tube who appear too engrossed in a book to notice anyone else, but would have, in fact, stealthily taken note of and weighed in on everyone around them. On a day out with the press at Lavelle Rooftop in Toronto, on the sidelines of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the 36-year-old British actor, rapper and activist, dressed in black checked trousers, white tee, mustard jacket and multi-coloured shoes, seems too deeply lost within himself, but has actually been attentive enough to discern the pronounced Scottish accent of a journalist from Glasgow.

A conversation that begins with a query, about whether his latest role — of a heavy metal drummer facing hearing loss found him at his most vulnerable, is initially negated, only for him to thoughtfully round off the interview later with how it perhaps was all about vulnerability in a tangential way. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal had its world premiere at TIFF and opened to a strong critical response, specially for Ahmed’s effective, forceful performance — which takes him full circle, from denial to rage, anxiety, depression to reconciliation and finding peace with his condition. Some describe it as his best yet. Riding on the positive word of mouth, Sound of Metal’s US rights have been bagged by Amazon.

Riz Ahmed on 'Sound of Metal', acting and unmasking himself

Existing in multiple spaces

Ahmed, with offbeats like The Road to Guantánamo (2006), Four Lions (2010), Trishna (2011) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013) behind him, came into his own with Nightcrawler (2014). Then the HBO miniseries, The Night Of (2016), won him the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, making him the first Muslim and South Asian to win a lead acting Emmy. The only previous South Asian to win an acting Emmy is Archie Panjabi, for a supporting role in 2010 for The Good Wife.

From actioners like Jason Bourne (2016), Rogue One (2016) and Venom (2018) to a western like The Sisters Brother (2018), it has been as much about traversing diverse genres for Ahmed as about going beyond the confines of ethnicity. He sees more of himself in Sound of Metal than any of his other performances, not so much for the vulnerability but as a decisive step forward in what he’s been trying to do as an actor over the years — stretching culture in a small way through his hyphenated identity.

Ahmed was born in Wembley in 1982, his parents having moved to England from Karachi in the ’70s. “When you don’t belong neatly in any one given box, when you are not British or Pakistani, when you fall between the cracks, which is how I grew up, you end up actually stretching yourself. You stretch culture just by existing in these multiple spaces, just by inhabiting the multiplicities,” he says. He looks back at his younger self as a “good contortionist”, one with a “flexible spine”.

But now, at a different juncture in his life, and with the world around him also changing rapidly, “it is no longer about being a contortionist, but seeing if you can get your flexible spine to stand up straight and just be yourself, to really mine yourself, because within each of us are these multiple selves”.

Riz Ahmed on 'Sound of Metal', acting and unmasking himself

Politics and a point of view

Ahmed says the reason he probably became an actor was because he grew up making and moulding different masks to inhabit different worlds. “But the toughest thing, or potentially the most subversive thing for someone like me to do is to take off that mask. I think the way to stretch culture is to turn my back on mask making and mask wearing, and turn my attention more to unmasking.” He admits, a trifle amused, that it may all sound highfalutin, but Sound of Metal shifted the whole way he’d been thinking about acting. It is now all about immersion within himself and spending more time looking inwards. “In a nutshell, it is recognising your own experience as valid and drawing on it,” he says.

This is the font of his politics and world-view as well. Just as we go to press, he has pulled out of an event in the US, hosted by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to receive the Global Goalkeeper award for Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Though Ahmed hasn’t issued a statement yet, speculation is that it could have to do with the Indian government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir.

A full calendar

  • After the spiritual journey of Sound of Metal, Ahmed is doing Mughal Mowgli, which he co-wrote with Sundance prize-winner, Bassam Tariq. He also has a slate of projects that he has developed himself, including starring in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Netflix.

Politics has been part of his art, forever and always. Be it his work, social media, red carpets or a speech in the House of Commons, the outspoken Ahmed has talked about multi-culturalism and diversity (or the lack of it) in entertainment. His 2006 song ‘Post 9/11 Blues’ made satirical references to 9/11, terrorism, the post 9/11 scenario, et al. Ahmed has spoken out about Islamophobia and the lack of accurate representation of Muslims in the arts. As an activist, he has been involved in raising funds for the Syrian refugee children and Myanmar’s displaced Rohingyas. In 2017, he was included in the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.

While philanthropy comes to him spontaneously, acting asks for more. In Sound of Metal, it involved seven-and-a-half months of practical as well as emotional preparation, leading on to four weeks of shooting. He learnt to play the drums with New York-based drummer Guy Licata, every day for two-and-a-half hours, and sign language from Jeremy Stone (artistic director of American Sign Language) for one-and-a-half hours. He hung out with the “noise, punk kind of metal community” and the deaf community. “It is to find out ways in which you may overlap with the character, go deeper into that. In the process you stretch what was your initial idea of the character and also stretch what was your initial idea of yourself,” he says.

Riz Ahmed on 'Sound of Metal', acting and unmasking himself

Finding himself in silence

How did a film about wordless communication transform his response to silence? Ahmed admits having been scared of silence. “I would rarely listen to CDs when I was growing up. I used to listen to the radio because I knew other people were listening. I didn’t have a concept of aloneness; only thought of it as loneliness. I can relate to his [the character, Ruben Stone’s] journey to face that silence. When you sit in silence, you sit in a void. You have to face yourself. Ruben went on that journey and he dragged me along with him. Now I think I have a pretty good relationship with silence.”

Jeff Goldblum lookalike?

  • The actor is often compared to Jeff Goldblum (famous for films like Jurassic Park, Igby Goes Down, Into the Night) on social media and in person. And Ahmed is happy. “I love Goldblum. If people were to compare me to him the rest of my life I will die happy. He is a very interesting guy, if you think about it. He doesn’t fit into any box. He has played leading men, comedians, he is ethnically ambiguous. He is stylish, authentic, flamboyant. He seems like someone who unapologetically embraces all the sides of who he is.”

He looks back at the film as an intensive, enriching and joyous experience. “You find yourself in unexpected places. You find yourself in a deaf kid, in a heavy metal drummer, in a Vietnam war veteran,” he says, adding the motley crew from diverse background was a privilege to work with. “Something amazing happens when you bond with people you are told you have nothing in common with.” Ultimately, it is what co-actor and friend Tom Hardy once told him: “The journey of an actor is ideally to go from having no sense of self to having a universal sense of self.”

Despite the enriching experience it has been shooting it, the film itself is about something that is just the opposite — unanticipated loss, and how it makes you crumble but could also transform you and help you gain in unseen ways. What are you scared of losing, I ask Ahmed. He takes a long pause. “I’m scared of losing connection with myself, with people… It is a strange paradox, but it is something a lot of spiritual traditions speak about. Sufism, Buddhism always have this idea that when something breaks, light can enter,” he says, and then comes back to the question of vulnerability that we began with. “When you are at your most vulnerable, you find strength and it is not just your own strength but also of those around you. It is one of life’s great tragi-comic ironies … When it all [goes belly up] is when you realise the abundance of life.”

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