Riz Ahmed: ‘Being with the deaf community taught me what listening really means’

The actor dived in the deep end to play a newly deaf drummer in Sound of Metal

At 38, Riz Ahmed is an accomplished actor, admired rapper, committed activist – and a metric. In 2018, inspired by Ahmed's often colour-blind roles, academics Dr Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry constructed the Riz Test, the Muslim equivalent of the Bechdel test.

Ahmed was not involved at the conceptual level of the procedure, which ticks such boxes as “superstitious”, “irrationally angry” and “perpetrator of terrorism”, but the test does echo sentiments expressed by the British-Pakistani star in his essay for The Good Immigrant, a 2016 collection of BAME writings.

By Ahmed’s account, the non-white actor should expect three career stages: “one is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on ‘ethnic’ terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.”

Ahmed’s Oscar-nominated turn as Ruben, a metal drummer who loses his hearing in the powerful new drama Sound of Metal, fits neatly into the “might even be Dave” category.


I think some hearing audiences won't be aware of this larger culture, and I hope that the film changes that

As the film opens, Ruben has already lost a significant proportion of his hearing and is informed by a doctor that his condition can only worsen. It’s a huge blow for a drummer, especially one whose career is bound up with his romantic life: Ruben’s girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) is the band’s frontwoman. His careful, healthy routine, we learn, is rooted in former addiction. A concerned Lou checks her vulnerable partner into a specialised rehab for the deaf, hoping to prevent a relapse. The house is run by a former alcoholic and Vietnam veteran (Paul Raci), who wants Ruben to focus on adapting to his condition rather than chasing a cure.

“That’s a big part of the film,” says Ahmed, speaking via Zoom from northern California. “The idea that deafness isn’t a disability; it’s a culture. And, like any culture, there are many different facets to it. There are people who want cochlear implants and hearing aids and there are people who don’t. There are people who sign and people that don’t. There are people who were born deaf, others who are made deaf. and there are children of deaf adults.

"Paul Raci was a child of deaf parents. American sign language is his mother tongue; he didn't speak English until he went to school. I think some hearing audiences won't be aware of this larger culture, and I hope that the film changes that."

Ten years ago, Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine, conceived Sound of Metal as Metalhead, a documentary hybrid about a heavy-metal drummer with ruptured eardrums. The project withered and fell to Darius Marder, Cianfrance's co-writer on The Place Beyond the Pines, who spent years tweaking the script alongside his brother Abraham.

Casting proved to be an equally lengthy process, as Marder was reluctant to give the role to someone unconnected to deaf culture. Ahmed changed his mind, but left the actor with a lot of catching up to do. He spent seven months learning how to drum with his "very patient teacher", Guy Licata, and longer still learning how to sign.

"American sign language was frustrating at times," says Ahmed, who became fluent enough to improvise on set. "That's how I ended up with my sign. It's half of the sign for 'f**ked up'. Because when I screwed up my words, I just kept swearing. But learning was inherently a very sociable process. It was about making connections and submerging myself in this beautiful culture; going to deaf poetry slams and making friends with Jeremy Lee Stone, my coach.

“American sign language and being with the deaf community taught me what listening really means. It’s not something that just happens with your ears. It’s to do with your attention and your whole body.”

Much has been made of Ahmed’s method approach, but that level of commitment is both enjoyable and necessary, he nsists.

“That’s what I love about the job: learning new skills and meeting new people. And whenever I take on a role, I’m aware of the fact that there are people who have really lived this experience. I want to get it right. I want to do it justice. Acting is an opportunity for me to get paid and get nice reviews. But it’s also an opportunity to serve people who feel the need for others to understand their experience better. That sense of responsibility and curiosity leaves me wanting to do a lot of homework.”

When you leave everything that you had behind, your culture is the one thing that no one can take away. It's how you are rich. It surrounds you

To familiarise himself with deafness, Ahmed wore modified hearing aids that played white noise in his ear canal so that he couldn't hear himself speak. That dedication is carried into the film's sound design. Nicholas Becker, who previously worked on Gravity, incorporates fluctuating frequencies, distortion and non-stereo sounds to reflect research from the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, a French school for the deaf. The closed-caption subtitles, additionally, become a scene partner for Ahmed.

The interaction between performance and text is all the more remarkable when one considers that it wasn’t planned.

“Darius didn’t make that decision until after the film was completed,” says Ahmed. “There was a realisation afterward that the film is a journey invited into deaf culture, whether or not the main character is ready to accept that culture. And that mirrored our own journey into deaf culture during the process of making the film.”

Ahmed, born in Wembley to Pakistani parents, graduated from Oxford (with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics) before transferring to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

“There’s a stereotype about immigrant parents pushing the kids to find more stable jobs,” he says. “And that’s understandable for economic reasons. But those same immigrant households are often the ones that are most richly imbued with culture, song and dance, and stories. When you leave everything that you had behind, that’s often the only thing that you bring with you. Your culture is the one thing that no one can take away. It’s how you are rich. It surrounds you.”

Aged 23, Ahmed made a splash with his biting debut single, Post 9/11 Blues, which was initially banned from British airwaves for such salty sentiments as: “Shave your beard if you’re brown, and you best salute the crown/ Or they’ll do you like Brazilians and shoot your arse down.” That same year he played Shafiq Rasul, a member of the Tipton Three, in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo. He was detained and racially abused at Luton Airport upon returning from the film’s premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Ahmed’s most recent album, The Long Goodbye, released last year, continues to probe Britain’s relationship with its south Asian and British-Asian communities.

“I would describe my identity as rich and multifaceted,” he says. “But it’s one that can create complications for people who may not see it the same way. It’s the same for most women or most LGBT people or most differently abled people. You find yourself having to inhabit different sides of your personality every day. I think that’s something that everyone can relate to, to some extent. You’re different with your mum than you are with your girlfriend or boyfriend.

“I definitely had some experience of crossing between different classes and cultures in the ’80s and ’90s. And that allowed me to develop certain muscles and step into different characters within myself. But I also think that, for me, the next period of growth as an artist and a person is not having to concern myself too much with roles and social situations and what others think. It’s about bringing all of myself to the table every time. It’s a long process giving yourself permission to do that, actually.”

According to the Riz Ahmed metric, Riz Ahmed is doing very nicely. Acclaim for early British roles in Chris Morris's suicide-bomber comedy Four Lions and Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been parlayed into a Hollywood career in Jason Bourne, Star Wars: Rogue One, and Nightcrawler. In 2016 he became the first Asian man to win an Emmy with The Night Of, a HBO miniseries about a Pakistani-American college student accused of murder. His corporate villain was the best thing about 2018's Venom.

"I don't think change is linear," he says. "Omar Sharif was an Egyptian film star in mainstream Hollywood playing characters that could have been played by white actors decades ago. Sometimes when we think about what progress has been made, it can feel like we are going around in circles: that we might have taken 100 steps back just to take 10 forward. I don't think it's about getting to a place where every character I play has nothing to do with my cultural background. I think it's just about having opportunities and having multiple ways of expressing yourself.

“There are ways to express yourself inside cultural specifics, like with Four Lions and Road to Guantanamo. It’s never about trying to leave one kind of story behind. It’s about finding more avenues ahead.”

Sound of Metal is on Amazon Prime from April 16th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic