In his performance as Ruben in Sound of Metal, a film about a drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed helped break barriers between the deaf and hearing communities—and gained critical acclaim in the process. As the British actor tells it, the most impactful part of playing this role was the lessons he learned along the way. For W's annual Best Performances issue, Ahmed discusses his immersive approach to getting into character, attending deaf poetry slams, and falling in love with the process.
Before working on Sound of Metal, did you know about the deaf community and heavy metal—these areas that you had to become an expert in?
No. One of the things that really attracted me to this role, and one of the things I like most about being an actor, is learning new skills and learning about new people in communities and cultures. And that's what this job was. [Sound of Metal director] Darius Marder said, "Whoever is going to play this role is really going to play the drums. I love music too much to fake it. And similarly with American Sign Language—your character needs to be fluent. Then I want the actor to be able to improvise with deaf actors."
That challenge was just what I was looking for at the time: something that would be almost overwhelming, so I would have to lose any attempt at control. And that's when the interesting things happened. It was a seven-month process of learning to play the drums from scratch, and American Sign Language.
What was a typical day in this seven-month period like?
Ruben is a character who is very structured, so I thought I'd approach the preparation in a very structured way, to be quite immersed. I stayed in the accent and with blond hair for seven months. And, you know, there are tougher things to do for seven months than walk around blond. I would do American Sign Language with Jeremy Stone, my instructor, for a couple of hours in the morning. Then I would go and work on my script with my acting coach. And then in the afternoons for a few hours, I would drum. In the evenings, I would usually go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. At night, I would go to a gig. I was learning about multiple worlds at the same time: the punk and metal and noise scene, the deaf community, addiction circles. The way I like to work is just to immerse myself in it completely. So it was a long journey, but it was such an eye-opening one.
Did you ever go out into the world as if you were deaf and try to sign with people?
The lines of a role always blur between you and real life. In the preparation process, I was immersed often in the deaf community with my instructor. I would be at his wedding, or go to deaf poetry slam competitions, or just hang out and socialize. One of the things I learned is that deafness isn't a disability for many people. For many deaf people, it's a rich and diverse culture. There are even different deaf accents. People in Harlem will sign differently to someone from Brooklyn, who'll sign differently to someone in L.A. It just gives you an idea of the elegance, the inventiveness, the creativity of American Sign Language and deaf culture, to be able to encapsulate all of that in a gesture. I say to people that I feel like the deaf community taught me the true meaning of listening. It's not just something you do with your ears. It's something to do with your whole body, with your attention. And they taught me the true meaning of communication as well. Because Jeremy, my instructor and my good friend now, said, "Hearing people are emotionally repressed. And the reason for that is because we hide behind words." I didn't know what he meant until I became more fluent. As I was speaking in ASL, I realized that I was getting a lot more emotional. I felt myself getting very moved talking about certain things in ASL that I wouldn't have if I was just speaking. When you're communicating with your whole body, you're connecting viscerally, in a different way. I always say the deaf community didn't just teach me sign language. It taught me how to communicate and how to listen.
Whenever you do a film, I feel like what the character learns is something that you also end up learning, something that you needed to learn. That's why the role found you. Not to sound like too much of a hippie, but I do believe that things come together for a reason. I feel like what Ruben learns in this film as a character is partly what I learned during the process of preparation: Challenges can be the gifts.
Did you shoot the film in sequence?
Yeah. For people who will see this film, they won't believe this is Darius’s first film, because it has such a precise vision to it. Everything from the really ambitious sound design, which is made up from microphoning the inside of my throat, and my mouth, and my stomach—you're really inside Ruben's head all the way through—to the way it's shot. And that also applied to the preparation process and the filming process. He had a very distinctive vision. He was adamant that we shoot in order chronologically. And when you do that, it might sound like an obvious choice to make, but it's usually one that is very expensive and time-consuming.
Darius set things up in a way that really dared you to live in the process, to stay in character, which we did. But then also to try things that would make it as real as possible. An example of that is when Ruben thinks of deafness as something disorienting and a loss, we used audio blockers. We took hearing aids and switched them into a white-noise setting and placed them in my ear canal quite far in; they block out all noise, including the sound of your own voice. Darius could suddenly activate them and turn the volume on that white noise up and down. And in those sections of the film where Ruben stopped seeing deafness as a loss and more as a culture, a gateway to connection in his life, we didn't use those audio blockers.
Because you're so good at learning things, did you develop any new talents during lockdown?
One thing I got into a little bit, which I think has become a bit of a lockdown cliché, is plants: getting plants, watering plants, growing plants at home in London. I used to not understand the appeal. But in this time of lockdown, to just nurture life and see how resilient it is, and recognize what it means to nurture a little bit every day—it's an amazing practice. And it teaches you something about how we can maybe deal with each other and ourselves a bit better as well.