An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Riz Ahmed Charts The Journey Of A Deaf Drummer In 'Sound Of Metal'


What would happen if, suddenly, your entire world went silent?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ruben's whole life revolves around music - very loud music. He's a drummer in a punk rock band. His girlfriend, Lou, is the band singer. They live together in an RV, sleeping in parking lots in between gigs. Then, suddenly, all of that slips away.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ruben begins to lose his hearing fast, and as he struggles to adapt to this new reality, his sobriety and sense of self hang by a thread. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben in the movie "Sound Of Metal." Ahmed, who is also a spoken word artist and a rapper, released an album this year called "The Long Goodbye," and I asked him how he, as a musician, related to Ruben's journey.

RIZ AHMED: I don't play the drums. I rap. And I've worked out very quickly that playing the drums is a lot harder than rapping, for me at least. My drum teacher, Gilie Carter (ph), was very patient with me. And, you know, the journey of learning to play them took, you know, a very long time - over several months or so. And I guess I left that process with an incredible admiration for drummers and an awe for, really, the art form of drumming as something that's just so primal, you know? Having said that, I can absolutely relate to that feeling of having something in your life that feels so central to who you are, so central to how you express yourself, how you process things - and having that kind of almost processing space taken away from you does, you know, lead to all kinds of things bubbling up. If I haven't written anything - you know, a piece of spoken word or a rap or a song in a while, I feel the knots all kind of gathering in my chest. And I need to get that stuff off my chest. So I have been in positions in the past where I've wondered whether I could continue either acting or doing music for a variety of different reasons. And staring into that void has been terrifying. So I could relate, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about the sort of soundscape of this film because viewers are embedded in Ruben's experience through the use of sound design. The film starts with sort of all the sounds of daily life but in extreme close-up, if you will so that when the sound gets turned off inside Ruben's head, the audience can really feel it. How much were you a part of that process and the creation of that sort of auditory journey?

AHMED: It was really a kind of unique, one-of-a-kind sound design process. And its director, Darius Marder, began the sound design process with Nicolas Becker, who's an incredible sound designer, I think, a couple of years, almost, before they started the movie - before they'd cast the role. And it was something that was very unique. So to give you an example of the kind of thing that would happen, in this film, after every scene, Nicolas would come up to me with a strange kind of object from the future - some kind of, like, hexagonal orb that he had 3D printed, put it against my chest and say, blink. And now swallow. Now lick your lips. Now breathe. Now hold your breath, so I can just hear your heartbeat. And the entire sound design of the film largely is made up from inside Ruben's head. So it's a deeply subjective auditory experience, and one that mirrors the experience of hearing loss to some extent. When people lose some of their external hearing, they kind of - their vibrational hearing that comes through their bodily processes goes up in the mix. So it's something that really places you in this kind of first-person experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, it really is. How much exposure did you have to the deaf community before making this film?

AHMED: Not a great deal, unfortunately. You know, something that I've really taken away from the making of this film is how crazy it is that we live such a segregated life between hearing culture and deaf culture. And it was a privilege, really, an honor to be welcomed into the deaf community in New York and in Boston by primarily my sign instructor and now my good friend, Jeremy Stone. It just feels bizarre that we're missing out on so many friendships, so many connections, so much talent - and not talent and potential despite people's deafness, because of their deafness - because of the richness and specificity of that experience. I'll give you an example. There's this trope within the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed. And the reason for that is because we hide behind words. And whereas when you communicate with sign, you're inhabiting what you're saying within your body in a different way. It's very visceral. And I found myself often getting very emotional talking about things in sign that I wouldn't have gotten emotional about just using words. So that kind of opened me up in new ways as a person and, you know, as an actor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, this movie has been praised for its sort of accessibility to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. There are subtitles and closed captioning. But then there are moments when conversations in American Sign Language are not translated or captioned. I guess that must have been intentional.

AHMED: Yeah, very much so. Again, it's kind of a film that is, in many ways, trying to put you in Ruben's shoes. So earlier on, when he doesn't understand American Sign Language, you may also miss bits of signed conversation. Later on, when he does, some of those conversations are captioned. But I think it's also just kind of trying to honor the fact that, for much of the film, deaf actors outnumber hearing actors on screen, you know? For - probably overall in the film they do. And so I guess it's just a way of kind of giving hearing people a bit of the experience that deaf people might have in going to the theater. That's also why I think, you know, in that same vein, the entire - every print of the movie is captioned so that actually, you know, deaf audiences can go and enjoy this film alongside hearing audiences. And, hopefully, some of that segregation - that cultural segregation we have can be bridged, at least in the theaters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that this film also impacted you because it made you think about identity in a different way. You've talked about your identities as British, Pakistani and Muslim and how that has shaped you. Did this film make you walk away with a new sense of your identities?

AHMED: Yeah. You know, it's funny, isn't it? Identity's such a hard thing to pin down. Even as you say British, Pakistani and Muslim, I think, wow, how limited and limiting is that, you know? I'm so many other things. I'm a son of a musician. I'm the class clown. You know, I'm a stern uncle. I'm all these things. In this age particularly of identity politics, we all seem to define ourselves. In times of uncertainty, we tend to cling to these ideas of who we are. And that's understandable and in many, you know, occasions for marginalized people is essentially really empowering and important. But those are just constructs. And a character like Ruben, over the course of this film - over the course of two hours, his identity transforms fundamentally - radically. You know, he goes from, you know, Lou's boyfriend, a drummer who, you know, lives in an RV and is a musician to someone who no longer makes music, someone who's not in a relationship, someone who lives in a sober - rural sobriety kind of house. But more than anything, he goes from being a hearing person to beginning to accept that he's a deaf person. And that is a big jump. And it just occurs to me that, you know, our identities evolve. They continually evolve.

You know, even if you were to look at my identity, someone of my ethnic origin in the U.K. in the 1980s would have been considered Black, you know, within the context of the political Blackness that you had in the '70s and '80s. Then in the '90s, I'm British Pakistani. Post-9/11, I'm British Muslim. Now I just say I'm just - I'm British because this is what British looks like. So identity evolves. And it just occurs to me that, you know, as empowering as some of these kind of coats of armor are of these labels, they can also kind of prevent us from embracing the true fluidity of our identity, you know, as we evolve as people. And so I just thought, in this day and age, it would be quite interesting to kind of take on a character that portrays that - that reminds us that, underneath these labels and these contingencies, there's a core of humanity, and that's who we really are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Riz Ahmed stars in the new movie "Sound Of Metal." It's out now in select theaters and will be available on Amazon Prime next month. Thank you very much.

AHMED: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.