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Riz Ahmed on 'Sound of Metal' Oscar buzz and exploring diverse roles

Riz Ahmed could be the first actor of Pakistani descent to be nominated in the lead actor category. "I don't take it for granted at all," he said.
Riz Ahmed
Riz Ahmed.Chris Young / Canadian Press via AP file

In a crucial scene from indie drama “Sound of Metal,” drummer Ruben Stone, played by Riz Ahmed, breaks down in the isolation of the room’s washed-out white walls, struggling to cope with the silence that has followed his sudden hearing impairment.

It’s a showcase of Ruben’s unraveling and Ahmed’s immersive performance, which film critics have hailed as worthy of an Academy Award. It would make Ahmed the first actor of Pakistani descent to be nominated in the lead actor category.

Ahmed, whose credits include films like “Nightcrawler” and “Venom,” was the breakout star of HBO’s “The Night Of.” In 2017, he became the first South Asian actor to win an Emmy for his leading role in the miniseries.

“It’s always encouraging and I don’t take it for granted at all,” Ahmed told NBC Asian America, adding that he also doesn’t want to get caught up in labels or firsts, which he said can sometimes be distracting.

The 37-year-old actor said that his journey has led him to a moment of realization that he wants to play characters that pique his creative curiosity — not only with regard to race and identity but also related to other diverse, lesser-known experiences.

“Sound of Metal” is a journey of Ruben’s self-discovery as he battles sudden deafness and struggles to maintain sobriety. The movie also stars Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci.

Directed by Darius Marder, it will get a limited theatrical release on Friday before its streaming premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 4.

The film puts the spotlight on Ruben’s spiraling emotions as he deals with the heartbreak of losing his hearing, his music and his girlfriend.

Ahmed said that the role was challenging but it forced him to push himself. “The best way to approach it was from a personal place,” he said.

The role is unlike Ahmed’s previous works from earlier this year, which directly confront identity issues like exploring multicultural identity. He said that he doesn’t want to second guess what is expected of him as a British Pakistani, knowing that the Muslim community is not a monolith and there are multiple ways to address representation.

Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal"
Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."Amazon Studios

“But I do also think of what’s going to stretch our culture and if I can rearrange people’s mental furniture enough to incrementally make a little contribution towards stretching their perception of that culture.”

He did tackle this through “Mogul Mowgli,” a film he co-wrote and stars in as a rapper suffering from an autoimmune disease who visits Pakistan to reconnect with his roots and family. It was released in the U.K. in October.

Ahmed — who also goes by his rapper name Riz MC and is part of the musical duo Swet Shop Boys — also released his first solo album, “The Long Goodbye,” in March, in which he mulls over breaking up with England.

“I’ve spent 15 or so years in this industry, and I’ve had to become good at wearing masks and making molds for myself. It’s what actors do,” Ahmed said. “I grew up between cultures and classes, and I now know that I can contribute by taking that mask off and bringing my element and my truth, especially if it’s one that’s not seen or heard much before.”

For “Sound of Metal,” which first premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Ahmed spent months learning how to play the drums and use American Sign Language. He also had to tap into intense feelings to live out Ruben’s trauma on the screen.

Now that his efforts have paid off, Ahmed doesn’t want to let the Oscar buzz engulf him. He said that after recently listening to a talk between Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, he connected with what she said in it, "that when you start believing your own publicity, you’ll be finished as an artist."

While the Oscar chatter looms over his performance in “Sound of Metal,” Ahmed is relieved to have survived yet another movie. “I’m just going to focus on what’s next and how I can continue to develop for myself and my culture,” he said.