This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with Emmy-winning actor Riz Ahmed, whose newest role is a drummer who struggles with losing his hearing in the film “Sound of Metal.” Ahmed won an Emmy for his lead role in HBO’s series “The Night Of” and also appeared in the film “Nightcrawler.” Ahmed talks about how the physical preparation--learning the drums and American Sign Language--for his role in “Sound of Metal” deeply informed his performance. He also says that growing up code switching between his different identities within his traditional Pakistani family, a posh private school in England, and his friends, helped prepare him to transform for roles as an actor. And he discusses why shooting his latest film on a very tight budget that only allowed for a few takes, was actually a gift.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is the actor and rapper, Riz Ahmed. We know him from his physical posture in roles; you can think of his wily turn in the film "Nightcrawler," or his Emmy-winning role in the HBO miniseries "The Night Of." His newest role in "Sound of Metal" really demands a lot physically. You play Ruben, the drummer who suffers a catastrophic loss of hearing. We can see how open he is the very beginning of the movie. In fact, we first meet him sitting behind that drum kit; you can see his pride, his physical pride in being there. Talk about the way you formed this character physically.
Riz Ahmed: Being forced to communicate non-verbally does affect you physically. When I took on the role, Darius Marder, our incredible writer-director, said, I want it all to be for real. I want you to really play the drums when you're playing the drums on screen. I want it to be in a real music venue with a real audience and to be a real gig. And so that meant I went on a seven and a half month journey of learning how to play the drums, just spending two, three hours a day with a drum teacher practicing at home. And similarly spending that amount of time learning American Sign Language, with my instructor, Jeremy Stone, who is also in the film. When you do that, it does change you because they're both nonverbal forms of communication. Playing the drums is very physical, and American Sign Language is also very physical.
I'm someone who usually uses words; I'm a rapper, a spoken word artist. So having the crutch of words taken away from me forced me to be in my body and connect with and inhabit what I'm communicating differently, more viscerally, more physically. And so I wasn't really in control or conscious of exactly how it was shifting my body, but I was very much aware that it was opening me up physically in new ways, opening me up to the character. And so much of the character Ruben is a nonverbal performance in many ways. He doesn't speak a lot. So I think that the process of learning the drums, of channeling that aggression and that pain, physically and then communicating through ASL, inhabiting your feelings without voicing them, I think it really did inform the character and the performance in ways that I hadn't anticipated.
KCRW: Thinking about your character in "Nightcrawler" and how he's constantly taking everything in because he has to, because he's working with somebody who's probably a sociopath, so he's got to be aware all the time. And with Ruben in that opening scene, he knows he's the center of attention. And he starts by going to the crash right away, which is basically a big sign of drama. As a drummer, when you go straight to the crash, you're saying, I'm really here, pay attention to me.
Ahmed: Yeah, it's partly the style of music; their music is very front footed. With his appearance, you know, his blond hair, and his tattoos or his music, the music that he makes, Ruben likes to catch people off guard, really, and be front footed. But one thing he's not as good at is being caught off guard himself; he doesn't like that. And I think that life catches him off guard in this film, and it puts him on the backfoot for the first time in a long time. And that's partly what the story is: what happens when you lose control? What happens when you lose your idea of who you think you are? What happens when life starts telling you who you are, you're not telling the world who you are? So it's definitely an adjustment.
But, I think that we often hide behind the things that we do that we think give us worth: I'm an actor, I'm a musician. I'm a guy with tattoos. All this stuff, we think can be used to hide our vulnerability, and all that stuff gets taken off. All his bandaids get ripped off, and you can just see all the cracks underneath in Rubin. And so, the film is really a journey of him having to face his vulnerability, facing a loss of control. And I think that's something that a lot of us can relate to in this context of this pandemic. For a lot of us the things that gave us meaning, worth, purpose, routine have been taken from us and like Ruben, we've been confronted with a health crisis that's taken it away and has forced us into a kind of lockdown or a purgatory. We're forced to reassess who we are.
KCRW: You're talking about a health crisis. When he's confronted with the cost of getting implants and told that his insurance won't pay for it, that's really almost a moment out of a horror movie.
Ahmed: It is and yet, it's the kind of thing that happens every day to different people. Life has a way of kind of changing plans, of letting you know you're not in control. And, I think for many of us, for most of us, that's a very tough lesson to accept. We will cling to the illusion of control. It's such a profound power in relinquishing control.
You know, for much of the film, Rubin, thinks of deafness as a loss, as a lack, as a disability. It's only when he progresses in his journey, he starts to realize that deafness is not a disability, or a lack or a loss. It's a culture, it's a way of being, it's actually an invitation for him to connect to himself and others more than he ever has before.
KCRW: As a rapper, you know what it's like to be on stage and Ruben is in a very specific kind of group. They're just the two pieces, only his girlfriend, who's a guitarist, vocalist and himself, so that's a really direct way to communicate with the audience, and you don't have other band members to hide behind. In fact, he's kind of the earth to her sky. Talk a little bit about that approach to music; it's almost a post punk thing that they're doing, using noise in the way that a punk band would.
Ahmed: It's noise. It's confrontation; it's noise to cover up silence. It's noise to put you in the eye of the storm. The scariest thing is silence and stillness. In silence and stillness you're forced to face yourself. And when you have demons, when you come from a background of abuse, or addiction, or whatever it is, for most of us, sitting with ourselves, facing ourselves, in the stillness and the silence is terrifying. It's not raging against the machine, it's raging against the silence. That is what characterizes Ruben and Lou's music.
You know, I didn't know a lot about this music scene. And I was just so grateful to spend time with some amazing musicians like Pharmakon. She's a phenomenal noise artist in New York, who mentored Olivia Cooke to play the role of Lou. And for myself, it was Surfbort, the punk band. Sean Powell just was so generous, sharing his approach to music, sharing his experiences. What I saw, which is true of most artists is there's usually some pain underneath that. You know, it's like what Carrie Fisher said: take your broken heart and make it art. You take that pain; you name the pain that made you and in naming it, you heal others.
KCRW: That music has, in the way that that kind of noise music does, almost a primal scream aspect to it. And we really feel that he has to fill space a lot. He's chattering away all the time. There's a road montage sequence at the beginning of the movie, where he's talking a lot; we can see he's kind of filling spaces through talking and not really dealing with what's going on in front of him by either playing the drums or talking.
Ahmed: Yeah, exactly. Again, it's that fear of silence. But also, I think, to put a less kind of cynical slant on it, it's just about the depth of their connection, you know? It's just that they are best friends and bandmates and lovers. I think we just really mourn the loss of that relationship, and we understand the closeness at its heart.
KCRW: I think of you as a physical actor because I think about the way Nasir was kind of remote and trying to puzzle out what's going on around him in "The Night Of." When you take these roles on, do you start thinking, well, how does this guy live? How does he move?
Ahmed: I don't start from a physical place. I start from an emotional place, and I find that often has physical repercussions. Having said that, with something like "Sound of Metal," the very physical nature of some of the preparation, like learning the drums and American Sign Language, was perhaps a more directly physical form of preparation that helped mold the performance to some extent.
It is really funny you're saying this because it's something I've been thinking about a lot. I feel like earlier on in my career, I used to come from a much more intellectual, heady place. I used to focus a lot more on knowing everything about that subject area, almost being quite academic, and being researched up to the eyeballs, and really breaking down the script. I still think research is really important. I always take it very seriously, particularly immersing myself in the deaf community, or the punk community or learning these skills. I guess maybe the British approach is very kind of text oriented. So I'll always continue to break down the script.
But I feel more and more in my work, I want to embrace a physicality, I want to move beyond thinking. And what was interesting about "Sound of Metal" is, because Darius is such a risk taker; he decided to shoot on film, we couldn't afford much film, and we didn't have much time or much money. So what that meant is we've got two takes for everything. It means you can't think, you can't go, let me try a little bit of doing it this way, and then I'll do it that way, and we'll do more takes. You have to go from your gut. And so something I've been trying to work more into my process is working physically, rather than working intellectually.
KCRW: I do see there's a cerebral aspect to the way you work because one of the things that comes across in the characters you play is they're all aware of the way they're regarded, or the way people see them.
Ahmed: A planet is held in its orbit because of its relationship to other planets. The way something moves is determined by the things around it, and I guess that's something I always think about. It's not about you generating internally, some kind of forcefield or energy that means that you're propelled through the world in this way or that way. You're pulled and pushed by the world based on your relationship to things. The way that my character looks up at Jake Gyllenhaal is less consciously about what my character is feeling internally. It's more about the effect that Jake is having on him. Relationships are what define us, the baggage we bring to relationships, but I feel like in different times in my creative life, I think I've got too bogged down in getting caught up in your own head and your own homework rather than being open to the world around you and letting the world and the characters around you shape you and how you move.
KCRW: Is that what informed the move to take these characters in physically more, break that thing of being too maybe self-aware and getting to feel the characters more, feel the ground beneath the character's feet?
Ahmed: Something kind of interesting happened for me working on "Sound of Metal." I guess I'd always been quite hesitant to bring all of myself to a role. I somehow internalized this idea; it's probably from growing up and bouncing between different cultures and classes. I couldn't bring all of myself to anywhere. I could bring my British side to one place or Pakistani side to another place, or my scholarship to private school part to one place. You always leave a part of yourself at the door, and then always survive by shape shifting and code switching.
What I found early on in my career was I was being asked to play lots of different kinds of characters. And I wanted to play a range of different roles. Because of that, I would think much more about transforming into the character rather than bringing myself to the character. And with "Sound of Metal," I think I really decided to allow myself to bring more of myself to the role. And the thing that allowed me to do that was getting past thinking about what I should do, or what the characters should feel, or look or behave like, or the director might want, is getting past thinking, and getting to the body, getting to the truth of what your body is feeling that day. So I think part of why I want to work more physically is because it also allows me to work in a more personal way. I can imagine myself to a million different places. But I can only feel what I'm feeling in my body right now. Working from the truth of that allows you to bring something really honest and raw to the table, as opposed to something very clever and imaginative. And you know, ideally, you want to try and combine things in different contexts. But for "Sound of Metal," I was kind of done with acrobatics and mental gymnastics and research and cleverness and imagination. I wanted to just come in really raw and just be like, this is what I'm feeling right now, so this is what the character is feeling right now.
KCRW: Was some of what drew you to acting, the idea of acting being transformative?
Ahmed: Like I said, I was just code switching so much. I directed a short film called "Daytimer" a few years ago, and it kind of sums up the way I grew up. Okay, I'm speaking Urdu at home and I'm wearing a school uniform, going to a posh predominantly white upper class school. That's like an hour and a half away from where I grew up. And then I'm skipping class to go and hang out with my boys at the mall or on the street corners with another third change of clothes, speaking British-Asian slang, and then going to raves. It was just like costume changes, character transformations were part of my daily life.
To go back to your question about Ruben's transformation, I think it is interesting that this is a character that has tried to transform himself in a very forthright way. He's tried to adorn or reclaim or define his appearance with tattoos and dyed hair. He defines who he is. And I think it's interesting that by the end of the film, those tattoos are all covered up and the blonde hair isn't there anymore. And in a way, this experience has brought him closer to himself. And you know, guess what? His true self is maybe something very different than what he thought it would be.
I just think that's an interesting story to tell in our current moment, where identity politics are so pronounced and rightly, to some extent, can be emboldening and empowering for particular marginalized groups to wear their identity proudly. And yet, I do also worry that we're in a very entrenched moment of us and them. And I think what's really interesting about Ruben as a character is his fundamental identity just totally shifts by the end of the film. The people he thought were them and not us are the people he ends up becoming, and I just think it's interesting for us to be reminded of how circumstantial and incidental the things are, that we think define us, how our identity is always up for grabs, something that I learned very early in my life, as I said, because of how I grew up, but it's something that Ruben portrays as a character really beautifully.
KCRW: You've been in a few things where there's a lot happening in a compressed period of time. And I wonder if that kind of velocity is something you respond to as an actor.
Ahmed: Oh, yeah. 100%. I've always had a restlessness and an impatience in me, a desire to cram everything in, to the extent where Darius Marder gave me a nickname of "The Gobbler," because I just gobble everything in my path. You want me to learn the drums? I'll do it. Sign language as well? I'll throw myself into it. It can be a good thing, in many ways, but it certainly also has its pitfalls.
"The Night Of" was tricky for me, because it was such a long process of eight months, and I just had so many times where I overthought everything. But with "Sound of Metal,” the challenge of learning the drums and sign language became a gift in informing and shaping the character and working physically but also the challenge of Darius deciding we're going to shoot on film, and we're only going to get two takes for everything basically, because of time and money. That was a real gift. It just meant you just kind of were going from the gut.
KCRW: I find myself thinking about what it is about rap, which is also about shaping ideas quickly and getting across fast and I almost thought about Reuben in that way because what's interesting about him is what a fast learner he is in physical terms. But in terms of being an emotional student, he doesn't learn as nearly as quickly as he should.
Ahmed: He's a survivor, for sure. And you can see that from the way he lives. He's very self sufficient, and that's a big part of what Ruben is about. It's about being self-sufficient, self-contained, not relying on anyone or having to depend on anyone. He lives in his RV with his girlfriend in a self-contained bubble. They earn a living from touring constantly. I guess the scariest thing for someone like Ruben is being vulnerable and needing people because you get the sense he's been let down in the past; he's been abandoned, and so the hardest thing for someone like Ruben is to let go of control, let people in and to ask for help. And these are all the things that he's forced to do. You realize that all that resilience and toughness masks his true vulnerability and his inability to really accept himself. The unmasking is the experience deafness gives him.
You know, it's interesting, because I think Ruben can really get with deafness as a culture, as someone who himself is from this kind of subculture of punk noise scene. I think being initiated into a subculture is something that he responds to quite well. Accepting his own deafness as a biological fact is something that he doesn't do as well with. But it's interesting for Ruben to learn, and I think for audiences to understand that deafness isn't a disability; it's a culture, and deaf pride is real.
There are moments in the film when Ruben thinks of deafness as a lack or a loss. And for those moments, I actually used auditory blockers and put these hearing aids in my ear canal and set them to white noise so I couldn't hear myself speak, because it cut me off and disoriented me from people. But there are moments in the journey when Ruben realizes deafness is a culture; it's an invitation to connect more with himself and others. On set, and on and off camera, we were all communicating in sign language at that point, because it was a large cast of deaf actors. So, we tried to mirror my process, the shifting relationship to deafness, whether it's a personal loss, or it's a culture gained.