- Golden Globe Awards
Nominee Profile 2021: Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
Four years after his first Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Nasir Khan in the gripping mini-series The Night Of, British actor Riz Ahmed returns to the Golden Globe nominee roster. Nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama for Sound of Metal by Darius Marder, Ahmed delivers a vulnerably poignant performance as Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who rapidly loses his hearing while on tour. Nasir and Ruben have similar stories, as men thrust into devastating situations in which they have little to no control over. Where Nasir is understandably hardened by his intense experiences, Ruben softens and learns to accept his new life of silence. Ahmed’s versatility and acute talent for externally displaying Ruben’s innermost thoughts and turmoil serve as the foundation for one of the most compelling performances of the year.
Originally a student of philosophy and politics at Oxford, Ahmed trained at the University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Shortly thereafter, he landed his first few roles as Guantanamo Bay detainee Shafiq Rasul in The Road to Guantanamo, the title drug dealer in Shifty, a wannabe suicide bomber in the terrorist satire Four Lions, and a complex hotelier in Trishna. Since then, Ahmed has appeared in the 2014 neo-noir thriller Nightcrawler alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and multiple large budget franchise films, such as Jason Bourne, Rogue One, and Venom.
As his film career blossomed, Ahmed also found success in his music career as a rapper under the pseudonym Riz MC where he notably criticized the western world’s treatment of Muslims and South Asians in songs like “Post-9/11 Blues.” His lyrics are inspired by his real-life experiences of being detained and searched at airports as a man of Pakistani heritage. He describes the process of writing poetry and rap as a very cathartic and personal experience.
Ahmed was able to translate his rhythmic skills to drumming as he arduously prepared for his role in Sound of Metal, training for seven months with a drum teacher. On learning the instrument, Ahmed said, “I could speak endlessly just about my journey with the drums because if you have any relationship with the drums, you’ll know that it’s an incredibly primal and spiritual instrument. And I guess the drums taught me more about acting than almost anything ever has. You don’t play the drums; you let the drums play you.”
In addition to learning the drums, Ahmed studied American Sign Language and even wore hearing blockers at the beginning of the film’s shooting in order to fully immerse himself in deaf experience and culture. “I think maybe deaf people don’t think of deafness as a disability and rightly so, it’s a very rich culture and very rich identity. And something I’d like to say is I’ve gained so much from being immersed in that community for seven months,” the actor reminisced. “And one of the big things I gained was communicating through American Sign Language, it means you communicate through your body. And there’s this trope in the deaf community, they say that hearing people are emotionally repressed because they hide behind words whereas deaf community, the signing community they communicate with their body. And the first time I started really having deep conversations in the American Sign Language I started getting really emotional.”
As a self-described workaholic, Ahmed was able to channel his own personal journey with addiction through his character Ruben, who is seemingly on the verge of relapsing as his hearing worsens and his girlfriend Lou, played by Olivia Cooke, drops him off at the deaf rehabilitation center. He equated the ongoing COVID-19 crisis with Ruben’s own crisis, as he is a man whose whole career and life inexplicably screeched to a halt. “I think it’s that idea of surrender that is so difficult in a culture that values control and productivity, letting things happen, can feel so difficult. But I think as an actor the more and more you work, the more and more you grow as an actor, the more you realize that’s central to acting, is letting go of control,” Ahmed reflected.
Even though the 38-year-old actor finds Ruben different from any other character he has ever played before, he believes the experience of making this film was one of the most personal things he has done. “When the script came to me it was both the fact that this character felt so different to me and I knew I’d have to try and transform and learn all these skills, but there was this emotional entry point, the fear of losing the very thing that gets you up in the morning, losing the thing that you define yourself true.”
His future projects include him serving as an executive producer alongside actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for the animated documentary film, Flee, which tells the story of a refugee Amin who recounts his hidden past to his husband-to-be. He is also currently working on a film titled Invasion, which is a British sci-fi thriller where he will star alongside Octavia Spencer.