When Riz Ahmed first showed up in the 2014 thriller “Nightcrawler,” it was the sort of big-screen baptism that makes you sit up and say, “Who’s that guy?” Playing a hard-up hopeful who finds cheap work assisting a bug-eyed Los Angeles crime videographer (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ahmed capitalized on his youthfulness to infuse the role with a frenzied naiveté. The London-born actor was so alive on-screen that his career prospects already seemed blessed.
And indeed they were. Between 2016 and 2018, he appeared in “The Night Of,” “Jason Bourne,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Girls,” “The Sisters Brothers” and “Venom,” all while continuing the hip-hop pursuits he’d begun as a teenager. Now, 38-year-old Ahmed has submitted his richest performance to date, portraying a sober drummer who abruptly loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” which premiered last week on Amazon Prime Video.
Becoming Ruben Stone, one-half of the fictional punk-metal duo Blackgammon, was a tall order. Ahmed spent seven months learning to play the drums and use American sign language. That “daunting” process comprised the most preparation he’s ever done for a role, Ahmed said in a recent phone interview, but he still barely had enough time to master either skill.
When the movie begins, Ruben and his bandmate-girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are on tour, living out of a shared RV and seeking sanctuary from their troubled pasts. Without warning, Ruben’s auditory faculties falter, potentially robbing him of his passion. Worried the stress might push Ruben back to using heroin, Lou insists he spend some time at a home for deaf former addicts run by a gentle but strict Vietnam War veteran (Paul Raci). There, Ruben digests his reality.
To immerse viewers in his protagonist’s new world, director Darius Marder plunges “Sound of Metal” in and out of near-total silence. In many scenes, tonalities sputter and hum, becoming fuzzier as Ruben’s sense deteriorates. Ahmed sometimes used a custom-made hearing aid that simulated white noise so that, like Ruben, he couldn’t even detect his own speech. Actors learning a skill for a project is nothing new, but shutting down a natural ability requires a whole other technique. Ahmed had to train himself to respond to visual cues instead of aural ones, which helped him discover — alongside Ruben — that deafness is simply another way of being.
“Darius and I would communicate on a notepad because once [the hearing aids] are deep in your ear, they are in for the day,” Ahmed recalled. “That was very disorienting, but for the section of the film where Ruben stops thinking of deafness as a loss, we didn’t use those auditory blockers. And for those sections when we were making the film, we were communicating, both on and off camera, through sign language because we had a lot of deaf cast. I think the character being at different places emotionally demanded a different approach. Sometimes it was really paying attention. Other times it was actually having the disorientation of the white noise in your head because of what the character was going through.”
Also pivotal to Ahmed’s prep was Ruben’s appearance. He knew the character would be toned — a reflection of his physical discipline — and heavily tattooed with stick-and-poke ink. But what really allowed Ahmed to step into Ruben’s psyche was the peroxide that turned his hair a messy bleach blond. In observing punk musicians, he came to understand the importance of self-customization. Ruben uses an unconventional presentation to substitute for the drugs that used to help distance him from so-called normalcy.
“It’s a really forthright attempt for people to kind of reclaim their identity,” Ahmed said. “I think there’s a visceral energy and a defiance to that genre of music, to pushing back against something. These are people who’ve often had tough experiences, emotionally and physically, and are remaking and rebuilding who they are.”
Born to Pakistani emigrants, raised in England and now living in California, Ahmed has always possessed a multiculturalism. After dyeing his hair for “Metal,” he noticed that people seemed to pay more attention to him on the street, which he interpreted as curiosity about his ethnicity. He felt like more of a “question mark” to others. (Of course, Ahmed is a celebrity already primed to attract strangers’ wandering eyes. And several other Hollywood men, like Chris Messina and Zac Efron, were also going blond at the time, which Ahmed apparently wasn’t aware of.) But just like the hearing aid and fresh skill sets, his new mane — dark roots and all — illuminated his connection to Ruben.
“It kind of rendered me a bit more ambiguous in terms of what my own identity or heritage might be,” Ahmed said. “I think that’s something that Ruben actually really thrives on — not being able to be pinned down. He’s someone who isn’t really aware of what his own heritage is. He isn’t in touch with his family or his background, so being able to kind of slip between the cracks of people’s preconception is something that’s important to him. I was really not thinking much about how me, Riz the actor, might be perceived doing this and trying to think more from a character point of view.”
Ahmed, who appears in nearly every frame of “Metal,” has a number of big, dramatic scenes that require him to be just as feverish as he was in “Nightcrawler.” But he resists showboating, instead channeling Ruben’s disenchantment through flickers of deep-seated pain. Marder’s film is ultimately about finding peace, which required a careful calibration on Ahmed’s part. Now, his performance is earning much-deserved Oscar buzz.
Despite such a thorough outer transformation, the actor learned something valuable about his craft in playing Ruben: Everything comes from within.
“You’re always kind of taking some of it home with you and you’re always bringing some of yourself to work,” he said. “If you create those hard borders between your life and the character’s life, I think that — how can I put this? I think that the best work is the most personal work. And I think that you can transform and become another character sometimes who is very different to you most effectively when you go to the most personal place, because you’re not reaching outside of yourself to become someone else. You’re reaching within yourself to find common ground between yourself and them. Once you have that anchor of a common emotional ground that comes from a real place, you can grow that out.”
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Amazon Studios.