In The “Profound & Universal” ‘Sound Of Metal’ Riz Ahmed Is A Drummer Facing Hearing Loss – Toronto

'Sound of Metal' star Riz Ahmed
Richard Young/Shutterstock

In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed is Ruben, a drummer who loses his hearing in the midst of a nomadic music tour with Lou (Olivia Cooke), and finds solace in the deaf community.

Before filming, Ahmed embarked on an intensive six-months of drum lessons. But still, he claims his skills are not up to scratch. “I should not play the drums at all,” he says. “Luckily the kind of genre that Ruben exists in is one that is more about passion than technical prowess. It’s very much a cathartic form of expression for him.” The physicality of it also proved a full-on workout. “Drumming is great cardio,” he says. “I’d be in a sweaty studio in Brooklyn all day, just dripping sweat.”

Riz Ahmed in 'Sound of Metal'
Toronto Film Festival

That would be enough work for some actors, but as Ruben begins to panic over his deafness, he is gripped by his addiction issues, so Ahmed also delved into researching that. “I’ve been in and around that world and seen up close what addiction can do to people,” he says. “It’s something that I’ve been intimately familiar with.”

There was a third challenge, too. Ruben ultimately embraces his deafness and finds the kinship he needs within the deaf community, so Ahmed also had to learn American Sign Language. “I was very grateful to Jeremy Stone, who was my ASL teacher,” he says. “He was someone at the heart of the deaf community in New York who really welcomed me.”

As Ahmed threw himself deep into these facets of Ruben’s life, he found himself deeply affected. “It was really immersive,” he says. “It was about respecting these cultures and sub-cultures as communities.” And the work has had a lasting takeaway: “I’m just so grateful to have experienced having made this film,” he says. “It’s one of the special experiences of my life.”

DEADLINE: Why did Sound of Metal speak to you when you read the script?

RIZ AHMED: It’s profound and universal. It’s about loss. It’s about vulnerability in a crisis. As much as we might try to insulate ourselves from our dependence on others, we’re all interdependent. I just found it to be really special. I knew at the time I got it, it’s going to be a lot of work. You’re learning how to play the drums and learning sign language, kind of getting into the punk mind. It’s one of those things where you’re all in.

I just had to do it, you know? It just felt like it was definitely going to be a big challenge and it was going to be a lot of growth on that journey for me, but also good to be a part of. The best thing about this job actually is that you have a different perspective. It was just mind expanding and heart expanding to try and step into the role, to step into this community. I just grew from it a lot.

DEADLINE: How was the day-to-day of working with Darius Marder?

AHMED: I have to say that he’s just one of the most gifted storytellers I’ve ever met, both as a screenwriter and a director. At every stage he just encouraged us to let go. The whole thing was a trust fall. We had such little time and such a low budget, everything you see is first or second take. Up to two takes, then we’d have to leave and go onto the next set-up. Visually, the film is shot really beautifully and you can only achieve that in the time you have if you just jump in and go with your gut. The whole thing really required a lot of trust.

I think Darius has brought out something really visceral in all of us. I certainly feel like I found a new way of working through this film. Really that’s to his credit as a leader and as someone who creates that safe space where you can really be vulnerable. It’s hard sometimes as a man, as an actor, to allow yourself to be vulnerable. That’s so much of what we’re talking about in the world today. And that is also Ruben’s journey—it’s accepting his vulnerability in his situation.

DEADLINE: How musical were you before this role?

AHMED: Music has always been an important part of my life, but I hadn’t been exposed very much to this kind of music or this kind of scene, so that was a beautiful education for me.

DEADLINE: How did you immerse yourself in the punk world?

AHMED: Spending time with people in that music scene, getting to know them, bonding with them, spending time with the band Surfbort, understanding what that music is about and where it comes from. Spending time with drummers, some of whom are virtuosic, and some of whom are driven more by their passion, rather than being very technically skilled, like my character.

So often that obsessive, passionate, explosive self-expression comes from pain and damage and abuse—that was something that kept rearing its head. [I was] really trying to get under the skin of what’s driving these people to express themselves in such a creative way, such a cathartic way.

DEADLINE: What was your experience of the deaf community?

AHMED: Understanding the nuances of being a deaf person, and being a child of deaf adults, for example. Or being a deaf person of color. Understanding the different deaf accents that you have within the signing community. It was just the kind of thing where you had to immerse yourself in it. I could never hope to inhabit those experiences, but you never can as an actor. What you can try to do is give it your everything, give it your heart, give it your attention. And I was really lucky to be welcomed into those communities.

DEADLINE: How did it feel to be able to sign?

AHMED: Something I found out about sign language, which was really interesting, was just how emotional it is, to express yourself in sign. The deaf community has this joke, that hearing people are emotionally repressed, because we hide behind words, [but] you can express yourself in sign language. What you do is realize that you are speaking with your whole body. You cannot hide. There’s a joke that my sign language instructor told me, which was, “Oh geez, I already told you about that part.” But it’s also, “If you want a secret to get out, tell a deaf person.” Communication is something that is so valued. The deaf community can often be very tight-knit, because of the oppression and the challenges they face, and the dominance of hearing culture. It was really interesting to explore from the perspective of a newbie, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite fit in that culture, and that’s very much what my character’s going through.

DEADLINE: What does your character experience via his acceptance into that community?

AHMED: I think what’s beautiful about this film is that we’re not presenting deafness as a disability, we’re presenting it as a culture. We’re presenting it as an identity, a community. That’s why the film is full of deaf actors and deaf non-actors. We have deaf people of color. Just showing that experience, that richness, that diversity with pride. There’s a tremendous amount of love that is present in that community. Really, I think that’s what that journey is for Ruben. It’s a journey of self-acceptance and self-love. I think that a similar journey is at the heart of an addict—a journey towards self-acceptance. It’s those classic mantras in AA: I have enough; I am enough; I do enough. That’s something that Ruben is trying to get to grips with. The idea that actually, you don’t need to be a dope drummer to have value and self-worth. You don’t need to have a great girlfriend. He’s currently someone who has this black hole inside him from his pain of growing up and his damage. He tries to fill that hole. He tried to fill it with drugs and then he tries to fill it with music. He tries to fill it with a relationship. And those are all kinds of addictions and dependencies.

DEADLINE: Ultimately, what’s this film about for you?

AHMED: It’s actually a very spiritual film. All these things get stripped away, and when all these things you think define you get stripped away, who are you really? [It’s about] actually really having to face yourself. That’s when you really have to stare into that black hole and say, ‘Wow, how am I ever going to fill this?’ And there’s only one way to fill it. You fill it with love. So, at its heart, it’s a very profound story. But our way into it is this vividly-rendered, really specific world. It’s absolutely a love story—that’s what drives us. Every love story also has to talk about self-love. That’s the only way we can give and receive love, if we love ourselves first.

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