From learning American Sign Language, to mastering playing the drums, Riz Ahmed knew his role in Sound Of Metal would be a challenge. But it was an “invitation to push myself out of my comfort zone that was really appealing to me at that time”, enthuses the 38-year-old Londoner.
Now he has become the first Muslim to be nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Actor category, as a result of his incredible performance in the drama.
He plays Ruben, a musician in a heavy metal band whose life is sent into freefall after he loses his hearing. Considering how much of a wordsmith Ahmed is (he’s also a rapper and performs spoken word poems), portraying someone who has their communication almost completely taken away was understandably a big shift.
But, he explains, that helped to inform the character, because Ruben “also feels that he’s got this restlessness in him that he’s bursting to get out”.
“I also think that having verbal communication taken away from me really made me understand what true communication and true listening is – and I think the deaf community taught me that listening is something you do with your whole body,” continues the Emmy Award-winning actor, known for The Night Of, Star Wars: Rogue One and Four Lions.
“It’s not just something you do with your ears, and communication is something that often words can conceal, and the true communication is when you embody viscerally what you’re saying.”
The feature – directed by Darius Marder, who also co-wrote the script – follows Ruben and Lou (Olivia Cooke) who are not only a couple, but also make loud, frenzied and passionate music together, and are travelling gig to gig on an endless American tour.
One day Ruben is overwhelmed by a severe ringing in his ears, which quickly gives way to deafness, and he is suddenly overcome by anxiety and depression. After his past addictions begin to surface, Ruben checks himself into a home for deaf addicts run by an eccentric deaf veteran, Joe (Paul Raci). Under Joe’s tough, observant care, Ruben must confront himself more honestly than ever before, in a world of silence.
What kind of level of responsibility did Ahmed feel to the deaf community when taking on this role? “I’m certainly not representing the deaf community or representing the deaf experience,” the star responds, thoughtfully.
“I question whether anyone can represent the deaf experience. It’s one that’s very rich and has multifaceted diversity and has many different experiences within it.
“I think the deaf community and deaf characters represent themselves in the film as individuals and do so authentically – often with improvisation.
They bring a lot of things to the table and to the screen that we actually haven’t seen before on screen. So I’m privileged and proud to be a part of that.”
He notes how his character is from “hearing culture, and he experiences deaf culture for the first time in the film”. “And so in order to portray that authentically, Darius wanted to cast a hearing actor who’s from hearing culture, who is experiencing deaf culture for the first time, just in the same way as Reuben is.”
Discussing what drew her to the project, Cooke, 27, highlights how this is a story that deals with “so much more than someone losing their hearing”.
“And it’s so nuanced and delicately handled, and there’s so much heart that goes into this film and the writing,” says the Mancunian star, who has had leading roles in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and ITV drama Vanity Fair. “I read it, and I was so heartbroken.”
She admits she didn’t properly think about everything the role would involve when she first saw the scripts. Then came the realisation. “You’re like, ‘Oh god, you have to perform, learn the guitar, scream; Riz has to be on the drums; you’ve somehow got to play together, in time’.
“It comes closer and closer to the day, and you feel better – you’ve been rehearsing and in band practice together for two months. But you’re just like, ‘How do I, as Olivia Cooke from Oldham, try to transcend this?’”
Luckily, Cooke had someone to help her master the musical side of the role; experimental performer Margaret Chardiet, who has a band called Pharmakon. “I just basically stole everything off her, just her whole being,” she quips. “And so I’m very grateful to her.”
There’s a breakout star in the Sound Of Metal cast who has to be discussed: Chicago-born Paul Raci. Recognition for the charismatic veteran actor – he turns 73 in April – has been a long time coming. As he puts it himself, he has been “a journeyman actor for years”. But this moving part – which almost seems like it was made for him – has led to critical claim and sudden success; he now has Oscar and Bafta nominations for Best Supporting Actor under his belt.