Awards Daily talks to Sound of Metal’s Riz Ahmed about masks and the deaf community, Ruben and Lou’s final moment, and what playing a deaf drummer taught him about relying on other senses as an actor.
In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed delivers one of the best performances of the year as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer going deaf while also dealing with addiction.
“There was a learning experience for Ruben,” said Ahmed over the phone. “There was a learning experience for me as well.”
The film pushes new boundaries in its content, portraying members of the deaf community as also dealing with addiction, but also in its inclusivity and challenge to Hollywood to represent more of these underrepresented communities.
“You really do not see deaf dinnertime on screen, and you realize how loud it is. There are lots of things that were eye-opening in the process.”
I had the pleasure of chatting with Ahmed about his work on the film, including what wearing masks in a pandemic means to lip readers, how the film changed him as an actor, and what he thinks happens to Ruben in that final scene.
AD: You had to learn a lot for this film, and you also transformed your body. What was hardest: learning the drums, learning ASL, or getting completely ripped?
RA: (Laughs) I feel like the drums are a form of cardio. The drums part was challenging, since I’m not as coordinated. ASL was a joy to learn. I would encourage anyone to learn it. It taught me the true meaning of listening and communicating.
AD: You filmed this before the pandemic. With masks being worn by (god willing) everyone now, has that made you think more about the deaf community, especially lip readers, and how some communities get left out in disasters like COVID?
RA: Yeah. That’s why we worked to donate to foundations like Off-The-Grid Missions, who are trying to seek out deaf people who need help in times of disasters and emergencies. And yeah, you’re right. With COVID and the face mask issue, it’s very difficult for someone who relies on reading lips as part of how they communicate. There are all kinds of ways in which we overlook the deaf community, and I hope this film is a step toward putting a deaf experience and a number of amazing deaf actors on people’s radars.
AD: We don’t get much of a backstory about Ruben, but what do you imagine his family being like? His background?
RA: In the script, there are jumping off points for you as an actor to try to fill in and try to make as specific as possible. I guess I wouldn’t want to fill in the gaps for the audience as well, because part of that is for the audience to imagine what the character’s backstory might be. I think a lot about how your past is in your present. Your past is something you carry with you that affects how you relate to people. Just as much as you can work out—how should I react right now as an actor by looking into a character’s past?—sometimes you can piece together the backstory emotionally. I guess I try to work backwards.
AD: I loved your final scene with Olivia Cooke. After seeing her new life, do you think he wanted to end things? Or was he trying to end things with her before she had the chance to, to avoid that rejection?
RA: Yeah, that’s interesting isn’t it? Because on the one hand, it’s a fear of the situation, but it’s also a fear of how people might respond to your situation, how you might lose your connection or lose some of the love of you life. I do think there’s certainly a tiny bit of that in their relationship. It’s a co-dependent one. In many ways, it’s an addiction. Ruben was dealing with one kind of addiction in his past and swaps it out for another, his music and creative obsession. With any addiction, it’s an attempt to try to take some kind of control and also an attempt not to have to sit with your feelings, which is so understandable. We think of addiction in such a narrow way, but I think this film broadened that out a little bit.
AD: The production designer Jeremy Woodward described you playing the room in the farmhouse like an instrument. As an actor, what kind of other senses did you rely on when trying to rely less on your hearing? Did it change the way you act?
RA: I think do think every time you take on a character, there’s a change in some kind of way. A big shift for me was when we used audio blockers for some of the scenes, where Ruben’s first losing his hearing and is feeling disconnect from the people around him—we used audio blockers there. I couldn’t hear the sound of my own voice, and we had them on set in my ear canal. That was something Darius could actually turn up and turn down during moments in the scene during the day. It taught me having a fully attentive body; it’s not just about your ears. It taught me what listening really means, about holding space with someone. I think it did change me in a way in that it put me more into my body and I think that’s just one of the many, many, many things deaf people and the deaf community can teach us. I learned so much from my time with the community. There’s so much more we can gain connectively from having a more inclusive culture in the industry.
AD: What do you think Ruben does at the end? Do you see it as a positive ending? Or a sad one?
RA: Hopefully, it’s not as simple as being a positive or sad ending. It’s bittersweet, it’s complicated. I think I lean toward acceptance in some way.
AD: I thought that, too. I talked to Paul Raci about the film, and he thinks that Ruben doesn’t go back to the deaf community at the end. Do you think that, too?
RA: I’m not sure. I think the most important thing is that he moves toward acceptance. What happens next is going to be the right choice as long as it comes out of accepting what’s happening to him right now.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon.