“I understand it’s a dumb thing for an actor to sit around and talk about how they, like, opened a vein for a role,” he says. “It’s a joyous thing. It’s lucky to be able to do this.”
The 38-year-old British actor and rapper makes an extra effort to maintain perspective these days, choosing his words carefully throughout a call he joins from Twentynine Palms, Calif., where he traveled to shoot a sci-fi film after months in quarantine. His joy is the sort that accompanies the satisfaction of meeting a daunting challenge. An Emmy win and numerous industry accolades into his career, he evaluates prospective projects using two metrics: “Does it stretch me, and does it stretch culture, you know?”
Not only does “Sound of Metal” try to help bridge the gap between hearing and deaf cultures, he says, but it asks audiences to wrestle with what it means for someone to derive a sense of purpose from outside of themselves. This is a movie about breaking up — in the romantic sense, as Ruben checks into a sober house for deaf people and must work past a codependency on his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke), but even more so in the way trauma changes his relationship with the world and the life he once led.
It’s an experience Ahmed has gone through himself in recent months, having lost both an aunt and uncle to covid-19. In March, he released “The Long Goodbye,” a conceptual album taking on the extended metaphor of a toxic love affair between Britain and British Asians. He conceived of the record in the wake of Brexit but notes that it resonates with listeners who feel abandoned by their countries amid the raging pandemic.
“For me, actually, it’s a journey that’s very similar to the one that Ruben goes on — Ruben and our society, both workaholics suddenly sent into lockdown, a kind of purgatory, by a health crisis that forces them to reassess what really matters, and who they are, and what gives them worth,” Ahmed says. “What does really matter? Is it the things we’ve been chasing? Or is it the things that have been under our noses the whole time?”
Woven through Ahmed's diverse body of work is his ability to mine for the humanity of every character. While a supporting turn in the 2014 thriller "Nightcrawler" set him on a path to U.S. stardom — manifested, naturally, in an HBO miniseries and Star Wars movie — his surprisingly tender performance in 2010's "Four Lions," a satire about inept Englishmen who aspire to be suicide bombers, is just as compelling a testament.
Ahmed credits the specificity and texture of his previous work to an expectation that he set his own experiences aside. Born in Wembley to Pakistani parents, he grew up code-switching and says that sort of shape-shifting can be an “incredible” asset but one that “also means you have to leave part of yourself at the door every time you enter a room.”
“As someone who’s been told they are not an archetypal, relatable human,” he says, “I have to take a leap of faith to believe that my specific experience can be universal, and my pain, sadness, happiness, joy are valid colors to paint with, you know?”
He finally took the leap with “Sound of Metal,” out Friday on Amazon Prime, a project he likens to free-falling. In conveying Ruben’s devastation upon being forced to leave the tour, Ahmed channeled his distress from the period after the HBO premiere of “The Night Of,” the 2016 miniseries about a Pakistani American college student accused of murder. At the time, he overextended himself and, hitting a wall of physical exhaustion, wondered whether he would be able to keep going.
“I could relate a little bit, in a small way and a very different way, to this feeling that Ruben had of, who am I without this?” he recalls. “And, this thing I love might be taken away from me. But that’s what love is. . . . There’s always potential for heartbreak.”
Silence does the talking in “Sound of Metal,” which spends much of its two-hour run time at a sober house run by an alcoholic named Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his hearing during the Vietnam War. His goal isn’t to help Ruben reverse his hearing loss but instead to learn how to live with it. Ahmed plays Ruben’s emotions close to the vest, largely letting his hunched shoulders and averted gaze convey the character’s vulnerability.
The actor professes to be “quite verbose” and says losing that crutch for the film “opened me up in new ways.” He met a few times a week with Jeremy Lee Stone, an ASL coach who says he remembers the day Ahmed suddenly shut his textbook, overcome with emotion by the language’s boundless capacity for expression. Among the deaf cast members, Ahmed’s sign name was a variation on “f---up,” a cheeky nod to his learning curve.
It took years to find the right Ruben, according to Marder, who co-wrote the film, his directorial debut, with his brother. Based on an idea his “Place Beyond the Pines” collaborator Derek Cianfrance once had, Marder says Ruben’s journey is ultimately that of a hearing person, but the part needed the actor to develop a degree of fluency in ASL allowing for improvisation.
“It’s scary to do that with an untested director,” Marder adds. It drove some actors away. Then Ahmed’s name came up a few years ago, and the two happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time. They met up, Marder says, “and, man, I saw this guy.”
“I saw someone who was appropriately scared, and that shows me that they’re actually taking in the weight of the responsibility,” he continues. “I already knew he was talented, so that wasn’t the issue, but I saw this person who had courage.”
Marder isn’t the only director to be won over by Ahmed’s willingness to part with his ego, somewhat of a rarity in Hollywood. Dan Gilroy saw around 60 actors before casting Ahmed in “Nightcrawler” as Rick, a downtrodden assistant to Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal), a ruthless cameraman who sells crime scene footage to a local news station. Gilroy wasn’t sure at first whether Ahmed could scrub his accent and elegant demeanor to play “this Valley kid who slept on benches,” the prey animal to Lou’s predator. Then he watched Ahmed’s tape.
Gilroy points to the scene where Lou offers Rick a promotion, and Rick, mustering an ounce of courage, asks about a raise. “You pick a number,” Lou says, to which Rick, stunned by the freedom, stammers, “A hund — a hund — seventy — seventy-five dollars — a night?”
“That’s not in the script,” Gilroy says. “Riz came up with that on his own. There are many moments throughout where Riz is doing things like that, taking the character farther than is on the page. When I watched the film during screenings, I always loved that moment. The look of awe on his face, the idea of $75 a night — it’s so real. It’s so compelling.”
Ahmed doesn't love labels. Describing himself seems "unnecessarily reductive," though he acknowledges self-definition can be empowering for marginalized communities. He debates himself while working through this thought process, eventually landing on the conclusion that he would refer to himself as British over British Pakistani.
“It’s not to discount my history. It’s to stretch your idea of what ‘British’ really is,” he says. “Our ancestors built Britain before ever having step foot there. People from all over the world built Britain, often not by choice. It’s, like, yeah — this is what British looks like.”
Cultural identity has always figured into Ahmed’s music, which the Oxford graduate (with a PPE degree in philosophy, politics and economics) has released under the name Riz MC, with lyrics tonally similar to the political satire of “Four Lions.” His juvenile but scathing song “Post 9/11 Blues” was banned from British airplay for being “too politically sensitive” in 2006, a decade before he and the Punjabi American rapper Heems teamed up to release their electric album “Cashmere” as the irreverent rap duo Swet Shop Boys.
“The Long Goodbye” marks Ahmed’s first album under his full name, a touch of the personal that mirrors the work itself. His grief is filtered through the breakup metaphor — a concept he borrowed from Qawwali music and Sufi poetry, both of which are “very big” on analogies of estrangement and heartbreak — but no less palpable. In the opening track, “The Breakup (Shikwa),” he raps: “The truth is, I looked up to her and needed soothing/ I thought if she accepted me, my worth would be proven.”
Scattered throughout “The Long Goodbye” are voice memos recorded by celebrities such as Mahershala Ali and Hasan Minhaj, the latter of whom went out of his way to meet Ahmed as an avid fan of “Four Lions.” The comedian says he derives as much inspiration from Ahmed as he does Dave Chappelle, noting that he and the rapper are both the children of South Asian immigrants and share a complicated history with British colonialism.
“I love that his landing point was, it doesn’t matter what color passport you hold — really what’s most important is the value that we give ourselves,” Minhaj says. “I think for Brown diaspora kids, that’s a big deal. A lot of times, we don’t know how to classify our worth.”
Ahmed reflected on how the entertainment industry has classified him in a 2016 book of essays called “The Good Immigrant.” He described three career stages for non-White actors: first, playing two-dimensional stereotypes; then, attempting subversive portrayals of those same stereotypes; and finally, reaching “the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race.”
“Sound of Metal” falls squarely into the third category, as a film that reckons with “the idea of your identity being built on quicksand,” as Ahmed describes it, but without Ruben’s race factoring into the story. His skin color is notable only because “maybe you don’t normally see people like me in roles like this.”
Minhaj once asked Ahmed about how his life changed after he became the first Asian man to win a lead acting Emmy with “The Night Of.” Did the president of show business appear to personally congratulate him?
Ahmed compared the experience to being taken out to a restaurant and offered anything on the menu, according to Minhaj, only to learn that the restaurant serves just soup, and the president of show business “hands you a fork, like, ‘Eat up, kid.’ ”
“If there’s anyone who’s committed his life to building spoons, irrespective of the systems and the power structures that may be,” Minhaj says, “it’s someone like Riz.”