Riz Ahmed on his ASL-learning, punk-drumming performance in Sound of Metal
In Sound of Metal, the debut fiction feature from director Darius Marder, a recovering heroin addict and punk drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) begins to rapidly lose his hearing. He lands, reluctantly, at a sober house for deaf people, where he struggles to imagine a new future for himself and his relationship with his bandmate-girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). EW honored Ahmed and the film’s ensemble — a mix of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors that also includes Eternals’ Lauren Ridloff — when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Now the actor is gearing up for the film's long-awaited release — and the Oscar attention that may follow.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did making this movie offer any head start for coping with the isolation of COVID-19?
RIZ AHMED: It was strangely prescient — a character chasing all these things that he thought are important until an unexpected health crisis lands him in a purgatory where he’s forced to reassess what really matters... That’s pretty much what everyone’s been going through right now! I was forced to confront a version of that to play Ruben — how I might define myself through achieving things or performing. So some ground had already been broken — but I still have a ton of digging to do.
You’ve worked on projects that had long interruptions or delays, like with The Night Of, so maybe the delay here from premiering last October at TIFF to coming out the following December doesn’t seem so long on your end.
All you can do is commit to the process of making it with some integrity. If no one saw this film, I would still be so happy that we made it and made it in the way we did. I believe it has the power to change people — if someone sees it in the right headspace, it might change them.
When did you film this?
September 2018. It was a very short shoot, like five or six weeks. It was really special — for many of us, we were kind of bridging hearing culture and deaf culture. One of the most profoundly enriching gifts was to be welcomed into that community of actors, and the deaf community in New York. My sign language instructor, Jeremy, is now my friend, and so are his friends. You talk about these life-changing collaborations and relationships that people make on a film, and against the odds of financing — there’s so many things that were stacked against us.
Did performing in sign language change your approach to acting?
Jeremy would say to me that there's a saying in the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed — they hide behind words. As I started opening up and communicating in sign language, I realized communicating with your body does open you up and force you to inhabit and embody what you’re communicating. For Ruben it’s not just that he’s learning sign language — he could be learning any language — but he’s forced to own himself and inhabit what he is when all the things that he thought were his identity had been stripped away: I’m Ruben, the boyfriend to Lou; I’m Ruben the drummer. All these identity markers that get disrupted by hearing loss force him to get to grips with who Ruben really is underneath all that. I do think it really opened me up, and it was something that really opened Ruben up as well.
You improvised some scenes in sign language as well. How’s your ASL holding up?
All skills get rusty, and I feel like my ASL kind of sucks right now! I just love languages. I spent two to three hours a day for about seven months learning — speaking and conversing and just hanging out. There’s a scene where we are bantering at the dinner table — that was quite memorable. From what some of the deaf actors were telling me, dinner with a deaf family can be quite loud — you have to bang on the table to get attention. It felt like a scene that maybe hadn’t been captured before, really beautiful and joyful.
The film has hard-captioned subtitles and audio descriptions — and exquisitely mixed sound.
It’s not automatically catered to hearing audiences. The whole film is subtitled so that people who are hard of hearing and deaf people can experience the film — but all the signing is not [subtitled], which I think is quite novel. I’m excited for people to see a film where hearing people are quite often in the minority on screen, to see the diversity of the deaf experience, and to understand that deafness is a culture and not a disability for many people. I’m excited to be a small part of that — a lot of what excites me about my job is how we can all contribute in small ways to stretching culture.
Sound of Metal opens in select theaters Nov. 20, and streams on Amazon Prime Video beginning Dec. 4.
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