Riz Ahmed (‘Sound of Metal’) on how playing Ruben ‘opened me up as a performer’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Riz Ahmed is collecting numerous accolades for his performance in “Sound of Metal,” where he plays a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing. He recently won the National Board of Review for Best Actor and earned a nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards.

Ahmed recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about the prep work he put into “Sound of Metal,” working alongside actors like Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci and how being in the film has changed him. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: We’ve seen a lot of stories and films about people who are coping with disability or trying to overcome something, and sometimes that can fall into cliches, whereas I think this movie rises above those kinds of classic stereotypes in a lot of ways. So was there an element to the script or just how the story was being presented that really appealed to you in that way? 

Riz Ahmed: It was just the script was incredible, really. That was all I knew about it when I first came to the project. I didn’t know Darius [Marder]. I wasn’t even aware before I met him of his past credits and how he worked on some of my favorite films, like “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” So it was really just the quality of the writing itself, which spoke for itself. It was just deeply moving and so specific and unique. Then, when I met Darius, we really connected. We both have a similar relish for throwing ourselves in the deep end with things that may be bit scary or challenging and he threw down his gauntlet of, “Whoever’s going to play this role, I want them to be really drumming when they’re drumming onscreen,” which I found scary, but also really exciting, that possibility of trying to learn the new language alongside also learning American Sign Language for the role. So at that point, after I met him, I was kind of like, “Listen, I’ve gotta find a way to do this and make this happen.”

GD: Yeah, like you said, you learned drums, you learned ASL, you’re also speaking in an American accent. I feel like there’s a lot of challenges on top of everything and I don’t know what your typical process is when it comes to approaching roles, but it feels like you really went above and beyond to prepare for this part, maybe more than others that you’ve played. So what was it about this role in particular that really drove you to really want to play it authentically? 

RA: Well, I hope I’m always driven to try and play roles authentically. I guess it was just that in this film there are these technical skills that I had to learn and what I wanted to do for real. There’s always a lot of research, I guess, that goes into anything I do. So for “The Night Of,” I’d visit prisons and speak to people who served time there, with public defenders, go to courtrooms, interview people. With “Sisters Brothers,” something historical, I was learning a lot about the frontier in the West and the gold rush at that time and the kind of proto-socialist commune movements around that time. With this, it was a different kind of research just because you gotta learn these skills and you gotta perform them on camera. So to that extent, I guess there was nothing different about the process. It was just going to take a lot longer because I needed to learn to play this instrument and I needed to become fluent in this new language and that just takes a lot of time. But what I realized in the process of learning these skills is that they were preparation not just for the skills, but for the character. I think they really influenced me as a person and influence the performance in that they’re both forms of non-verbal communication and with Ruben not being the most chatty kind of character, spending seven months nonverbally communicating I think just opened me up as a performer in different ways. 

GD: Yeah, speaking to that, was there something about Ruben that maybe even came more naturally, something about his personality, his love of music that you felt like you could identify with? 

RA: Yeah, for sure. I think you always try and look for those overlaps between yourself and the character. Like Ruben, I’m someone who’s obsessed with their work and derives a lot of their joy and sense of self from their creative expression and so, I guess I could tap into that feeling of what it’s like to have that potentially taken away from you. I’ve certainly experienced versions of that at different moments as an actor and a musician thinking, “Man, can I continue doing this? I’m broke. Can I continue doing this? What’s the point? I’m not getting anywhere,” or, “Should I continue doing this? I’m exhausted. I’m burnt out.” I think the creative life can present these different challenges and so I guess I tried to tap into that alongside also just spending a lot of time talking to people and understanding their experience just on an emotional level even if I haven’t lived it. 

GD: Well, something that I noticed in your performance is that I think you had a lot of opportunities to go big and you still are able to express a lot of emotion, but it feels like it’s so much more internalized than you might expect from a character who’s going through this intense personal trauma and I think that kind of helps Ruben feel more real and three-dimensional. So how much of that was your own choices as an actor, or was it always just the intention from Darius Marder, the director, to have you play it in that way? 

RA: It’s interesting you say that, thank you. That’s really kind of you to say as well. It’s funny because when you’re playing a character, or at least when I’m playing a character, I try not to make any big-picture decisions like that, “He’s generally going to be an internal character or a really expressive character.” In a way, I don’t want to be able to draw a clean line around the characters I play and know upfront how they might drink a glass of water or walk across the room or how they might react in a situation. I just try and put all the ingredients in the pot and stir them and see what bubbles up in that moment.

I guess maybe what you’re referring to is Ruben’s attempt to kind of tough it out and be self-reliant and not show weakness and to some extent, his alienation from his vulnerability. His sudden hearing loss puts him in touch with his vulnerability and he’s fighting, kicking and screaming all the way through to not come face to face with his vulnerability but it is something that he is confronted with. So I guess it’s always going to be a bit of a struggle getting him to take off the armor because he is a character who’s so self-reliant and has had to survive and is a caretaker. He’s taken care of Lou for a long time as well and she’s taking care of him.

So yeah, there weren’t any kind of big decisions like that made by myself or Darius. I guess you just kind of surrender to what felt right in that moment. Now, having said that, I think that there were many moments when Ruben is maybe more explosive and expressive and sometimes it’s not what he expects it, but it’s also on the drums. I think that is the way that he metabolizes his difficult feelings. That is his catharsis. That’s his expression. So with that taken away, it’s not just his job, his girlfriend, his sense of self. It’s also his coping mechanism, almost, is taken away from him. One thing that we did talk about is that when he’s on the drums, he’s his fullest self. 

GD: Yeah, and you mention Lou. You work alongside Olivia Cooke in the beginning and then in the end of the film, playing Ruben’s girlfriend. I’m wondering how much work the two of you put into building that relationship to feel like it had a sense of history to it. 

RA: Man, Olivia is amazing. She’s incredible and I’d already been preparing the drums and ASL for five months when she joined the project and we had two months to go and then she jumped in with learning the guitar and loop pedals, a very particular kind of noise band brand of screaming that is very, very draining, and so our main interaction was through rehearsals in the run-up to the film. In the last couple of weeks, in the run up to making the film we’d do band rehearsals and those band rehearsals were intense and scary. We were like, “Man, are we going to be able to pull this together?” Because Darius wanted us to play in a real nightclub with a real audience and play a real gig. So it was pretty nerve-wracking. But in that kind of panic of those last few weeks, I think we really bonded and became quite close and I guess it felt very quickly that we were almost living that experience together in that little trailer. I think just the nature of the script, the way that Darius likes to shoot, feeling very observational and the fact that we did very few takes on each scene and the fact that we shot chronologically meant that we were living that relationship a little bit and living into it as we were shooting. So I think a lot of that was down to the kind of conditions that Darius created around the shoot, allowing us to really lock into something. 

GD: And I think some of the best scenes in the movie come from Ruben’s experience at this sober house for the deaf and your scenes with Paul Raci as the leader of the community are very compelling, as are all the scenes with him interacting with the younger kids at the house. What was it like working with that group, that environment? 

RA: It was incredible. It was a tremendous privilege. I just, like most hearing people, had not interacted very much with people in the deaf community, sadly, and to be welcomed into that community to understand more about their culture and learn the language was just an amazing gift and I learned a lot as an actor about embodied communication, really inhabiting what you’re expressing with your body, because my sign instructor, Jeremy, would often tell me that there’s a trope in the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed because we hide behind words, and I found that to be actually quite true in the sense that when I was able to become more fluid in ASL and express things that I wouldn’t have got super emotional about if I was talking about it — it might have been an emotional subject — but when I was speaking in ASL, I was getting really emotional, physically. Jeremy explained that’s because you’re inhabiting and embodying what you’re saying with your whole physical being when you’re communicating like that.

What I found working with those actors from the deaf community was just the most grounded, embodied, present kind of communication. We talk a lot about listening as actors. You don’t just listen with your ears. You listen with your whole body. It’s about being present and I found them to be some of the most, present and embodied actors I’ve ever worked with. Paul Raci is an incredible treasure that I can’t wait for the whole world to see what he can do. He’s been working for like 35, 40 years and as he said, he would come in and do one day on a project. He described himself as a career day-player. His talent had been overlooked so long, but all the talent also in the wider deaf community that have been just overlooked in film and I’m just excited about some of this talent having a platform and I hope we see more actors from the deaf community in film. 

GD: Well, I was curious, how has the response been from what you’ve seen from those in the deaf community and what they’ve thought of the film? 

RA: So far, touch wood, so good. I see people online and hear people at Q&As and read articles where I think some people in the deaf community that I’ve seen have described it as a kind of game-changing film for many reasons. One is because you don’t normally get to see deafness portrayed as anything other than a disability, and for Ruben, he might be under the misapprehension that it is that but for the film, it’s pretty clear that deafness is a culture. It’s an invitation to connect to people you might not have otherwise connected with when you step into deaf culture. Also for Ruben, as I found as an actor learning ASL is an opportunity to connect more to yourself, stepping into deaf culture. I think it’s also just the fact that deaf actors outnumber hearing actors in this film, I think, probably, and also the fact that the entire film is closed-captioned so that deaf and hearing people will be having a very similar experience of watching this film, which is not always the case, although actually there’s sequences with American Sign Language that aren’t captioned for hearing audiences, so it’s catering more to deaf audiences in that sense. So for all those reasons, I’m really proud to say that so far the response I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly positive and people seem to be quite moved to be seen in this way. 

GD: Yeah, I liked that choice artistically to have the closed-captioning kind of burnt in. You mentioned “The Night Of” earlier. Since we’re an awards website, I wanted to congratulate you also on getting a nomination from the Gotham Awards for your performance here and I also wanted to go back to a few years ago when you won your Emmy for “The Night Of.” Can you talk about any memories of that night and whether that project and that character has just stayed with you in the years since you’ve played him? 

RA: Yeah, I think whenever you step in to play a character, I guess part of that experience stays with you and for me, I just think a lot about my time in Queens working with South Asian Youth Action, which is an amazing kind of nonprofit, working with young Asian youth in Queens, working with the Innocence Project that overturn wrongful convictions using new DNA evidence. I just think about the public defenders and all the people that I met there and I think those experiences, those interactions really stay with you.

In terms of that night, of winning that award, it just felt so surreal. It always does. You work on something for ages and then it’s a long time before people even see it and it’s a long time after that something like being at an awards show might happen, and it kind of feels strangely so disconnected from the process of making it that it feels quite surreal. It’s like, “Well done on eating this apple. We’re going to give you a goat.” It’s like, “What is that? These two things seem to have nothing to do with each other on some level.” And yet, of course, it does and it kind of brings it all home. So it’s always a kind of surreal moment of time travel when you’re reminded of work that you were so engrossed in years ago, kind of snaps you right back to that experience, which is beautiful. It’s a beautiful way of being asked to look back and remember and walk that journey again in your mind and to feel grateful. I just remember feeling so grateful to be there, for people to have connected with it. 

GD: Going to the future now, in this final minute or so, is there anything I’m sure there is — that you’ll take with you from your experience of playing Ruben that you feel even has changed you on a personal level or professionally, just with even the way you might approach roles in the future? 

RA: Yeah, I think so. I think on a personal level, it opened me to the subcultures of the punk scene and to deaf culture and the relationships in that and learning the drums, learning ASL. I think, as I said, it opened me up as a performer in a more physical way and I’d like to move forward with that in what I’m doing and working more physically and just thinking about that and I guess as a person as well, just being aware of the cultures that I might not have already stepped into and seeking them out, seeking out roles that can continue to allow me to learn. I think that the best, most creatively fulfilling work is also often the scariest work where you feel like you’re in over your head, you’re overwhelmed or you’re out of your depth. So I guess the experience of making “Sound of Metal” makes me think more and more about creatively going in that direction, where there’s more learning, there’s more growth, but also maybe more fear, because if you’re not fully in control, then I think you’re forced to kind of let go, and that’s when interesting things can happen.

More News from GoldDerby