Newly-minted Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winner Riz Ahmed has become just as well known for his activism as for his performances in projects like “Sound of Metal” or “The Night Of.”
Now the actor, musician and producer is taking his fight one step further, by launching a multi-layered initiative for Muslim representation in media, in partnership with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund. Powered by USC Annenberg’s new study on Muslim representation in media — which found that less than 10% of top grossing films from 2017-2019 had a Muslim character on screen, with less than 2% of those characters having speaking roles — the coalition has created the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, as well as the Pillars Artist Fellowship, offering selected grantees an unrestricted award of $25,000.
The grantees will also receive mentorship from the fellowship’s advisory board, made up of Muslim artists, including Ahmed, Mahershala Ali, Ramy Youssef, Lena Khan, Sana Amanat, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab, Nida Manzoor, Jehane Noujaim and Hasan Minhaj.
The project spawned from Ahmed’s 2019 speech at CAA’s Amplify conference, where he made an impassioned plea for the entertainment industry to reevaluate its role in perpetuating negative stereotypes about Muslims and the real threats members of the community face in their everyday lives, no matter how famous they are.
“With all my privilege and profile, I often wonder if this is going to be the year they round us up, if this is the year they’re going to put Trump’s Muslim registry into action, if this is going to be the year they ship us all off,” he said. “The representation of Muslims on screen — that feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded.”
Looking back on that presentation, as well as his 2017 address to Parliament in his native England, Ahmed tells Variety, “It’s not a speech I wanted to give. No offense, but this is an interview I don’t want to have to give. This is a study none of us want to have to do.”
“But sometimes, when you’ve got a feeling anecdotally and experientially, and you’ve been gas lit, you need that data,” he explains. “You need to bring the big guns to come in, and show you that this isn’t just in your head.” [More at Source]
Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal went into 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival without a distributor. Now, a year-and-a-half on, it’s a six-time Oscar nominee and perhaps the most hard-fought of all of this year’s crop of Best Picture candidates. Joe Utichi meets Marder and stars Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci to take stock of a film that transformed its key players in ways they hadn’t expected.
They say Oscar loves a narrative, and they don’t come much more inspiring than Sound of Metal’s. Even before he got his debut feature to set, Darius Marder spent more than a decade honing his tale about a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict who loses his hearing, butting up against the many hard realities of filmmaking that told him a movie like this could not work. As he did it, he learned more and more about deaf culture, and heard moving stories about people pursuing recovery in dedicated deaf sober houses. In Riz Ahmed, he found an actor willing to immerse so fully into his lead role that he would learn to play the drums and become fluent in American Sign Language. And in Paul Raci, he found a man whose own life story reflected almost directly on the character he and his brother Abraham had written into this script.
And so, as he kept facing reasons why it shouldn’t work, it became increasingly clear to him that it had to work. With the help of producers who saw the fire burning in Marder’s belly—Sacha Ben Harroche and Bert Hamelinck of Caviar, who had made a name producing ‘shouldn’t work’ films like Chloe Zhao’s The Rider—he got the film to set and presided over a production that would have a profound effect on everyone taking part.
That might have been the end of the story. Even with the film in the can, it went into its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 without a distributor. But the spirit and impact of Sound of Metal’s tale led to a bidding war that resulted in Amazon Studios taking US distribution rights. After the ‘odyssey’—Marder’s word—that got the film there, even the global pandemic that subsequently disrupted the film’s release plans might have felt like a trifling concern. After all, it hasn’t stopped the power of Sound of Metal working on audiences and awards voters the world over.
Now, as Marder and his cast and crew make plans for an Oscar night that will reunite them for the first time since TIFF in 2019, he sits down for a moment of reflection with Ahmed and Raci, and a deep dive into the transformative experience of making Sound of Metal.
DEADLINE: This film premiered in a whole other reality, at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019. It has been on quite the journey since, but how long did it take even to get it to that point?
DARIUS MARDER: It was a real odyssey trying to get this made [laughs]. It’s been a lot of years, but I think if I went back six or seven years, to the point where I was actually taking a script and thinking about getting it financed and made, what I had to realize the hard way is that the Hollywood model is that some producers back-pocket projects. And as a director, you don’t really know that’s happening, or I didn’t realize it was happening because I hadn’t been through it before.
What I didn’t fully grasp before I began is how impossible it is to make a first movie. Not a lot of people realize that it’s easier to finance a $100 million blockbuster, because with a film like this, there are three actors in the world who can finance your movie. So, before you’ve even started, you’ve narrowed the conversation down to something that isn’t a very creative conversation. You hav e producers that are used to saying, “That’s an interesting project, I’ll put it in my back pocket,” and if you happen to get one of those three actors, they’re all in. In the meantime, though, they’ll just let the director fly all over the world meeting actors and pay for their meals and hope he lands something.
RIZ AHMED: Hey, that’s bullshit. I offered to pay for the meal.
MARDER: Wait, you’re getting ahead. Because by the time I got to you, I actually had producers that would help me out by paying for the meals. That’s true.
AHMED: By the time you got to me you were broke and I had to pay for the meal.
MARDER: I also talked to the restaurant ahead of time about getting you the limited menu.
AHMED: The kid’s menu. It was just chicken nuggets and broccoli.
MARDER: It was a move I honed over the years [laughs]. [More at Source]
Riz Ahmed made history Monday as the first Muslim nominated for the Oscar for lead actor with the recognition for his role in “Sound of Metal.”
Actor Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar when he took home the statuette for supporting actor for “Moonlight” in 2017 and won the same prize in 2019 for “Green Book.”
Ahmed previously was the first Muslim, and first Asian, to win a lead acting Emmy in 2017 when he picked up the prize for lead actor in a limited series or movie for “The Night of.” The 38-year-old British Pakistani actor also has been seen in films such as “Rogue One,” “Venom,” “The Sisters Brothers,” “Nightcrawler,” “Four Lions” and the recent “Mogul Mowgli,” which he also co-wrote. He has a career as a rapper and musician and in 2020 released the album “The Long Goodbye.”
In “Sound of Metal,” Ahmed plays Ruben, a rock-and-roll drummer and recovering addict whose life is sent into a tailspin when he loses his hearing. For the role, Ahmed has been nominated for the Golden Globe, SAG Award, Spirit Award and BAFTA for lead actor. He won the Gotham Award and numerous critics prizes. [Source]
In his latest film, Sound of Metal – in which Julie Andrews teaches some Austrian children to sing Iron Maiden (Ed: fact check?) – Riz Ahmed plays a workaholic musician, a drummer, who suddenly goes deaf on tour and joins a deaf community to learn how to adjust to his new life. The first step in this process is just sitting alone in a room and writing down his thoughts. And it’s hardest step of all.
“It’s a kind of purgatory,” says Ahmed, a workaholic artist himself. “A bit like lockdown really, so I think people will relate. These last months, a lot of us were forced to turn inward, and it’s hard when you’re used to spinning a lot of different plates.”
We’re at the James Hotel in Hollywood. He’s in town to shoot a sci fi movie, Invasion, starring Rory Cochrane and Octavia Spencer, about a father on the run with his two sons, to escape an alien threat. So, at least his lockdown his over, and movies are back in production – a semblance of normality. But earlier in the pandemic, he was stuck at home like so many of us, reflecting on What It All Means – the cracks Covid has exposed in terms of the climate, racial justice and so on, as well as the persistent need he felt to remain productive, “just to have a sense of self-worth, because that’s what we’ve been taught by this broken capitalist system.” These are things Riz can speak at length about, and in full paragraphs, citing statistics. There’s an intensity about him. He’s engaged.
But he’s also upbeat. The world may be falling apart, but for Riz, the artist, things are coming together quite nicely. “There’ something quite spurring about shit falling apart, in terms of clarifying your priorities,” he says. “And I feel really positive about where I’m at creatively. I’m working from a much more personal place, and I feel like I’m finding my voice, my language. I’m doing what I want to do now, rather than what someone else wants.”
At 38, his resume is as full and varied as any actor of his generation. A string of acclaimed independent movies (Four Lions, Road to Guantanamo, Nightcrawler), a few big studio films (Bourne, Venom, Star Wars), an Emmy winning television performance (The Night Of), and a rap career for which he’s less known, but which has been as rewarding as anything else. “My music’s not commercial,” he says, “but I know the ways it’s touched people, the depth of connection people have had. It depends on how you define success.”
In this particular period of flourishing, there are three pieces of work – two movies and an album. Sound of Metal, a small and necessarily quiet feature, which required seven months of learning the drums and learning sign language – “I never prepared so intensely for a film before.” The work was worth it though, earning him a Golden Globe nomination and Oscar chatter. It follows 2020’s Mogul Mowgli, a much louder and more personal film, electric in its energy and confrontation, that Riz co-wrote with first time director Bassam Tariq, in which he played another stricken musician, a rapper named Zed who suffers an autoimmune disorder.
It’s not easy to tell Zed and Riz apart. Like Riz, Zed is a British-Pakistani rapper – his music is taken from Riz’s latest album The Long Goodbye – who’s preoccupied with themes such as identity, ancestry, and art, an immigrant’s yearning to discover who he really is. And like Zed, Riz also suffered a health issue in recent years, which he won’t specify, but it was grave enough to serve as a wake-up call. “I had my personal little corona,” he says. “It forced me to sit with myself, think of what really matters and… just face my mortality, basically.” [More at Source]
In his performance as Ruben in Sound of Metal, a film about a drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed helped break barriers between the deaf and hearing communities—and gained critical acclaim in the process. As the British actor tells it, the most impactful part of playing this role was the lessons he learned along the way. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Ahmed discusses his immersive approach to getting into character, attending deaf poetry slams, and falling in love with the process.
Before working on Sound of Metal, did you know about the deaf community and heavy metal—these areas that you had to become an expert in?
No. One of the things that really attracted me to this role, and one of the things I like most about being an actor, is learning new skills and learning about new people in communities and cultures. And that’s what this job was. [Sound of Metal director] Darius Marder said, “Whoever is going to play this role is really going to play the drums. I love music too much to fake it. And similarly with American Sign Language—your character needs to be fluent. Then I want the actor to be able to improvise with deaf actors.”
That challenge was just what I was looking for at the time: something that would be almost overwhelming, so I would have to lose any attempt at control. And that’s when the interesting things happened. It was a seven-month process of learning to play the drums from scratch, and American Sign Language.
What was a typical day in this seven-month period like?
Ruben is a character who is very structured, so I thought I’d approach the preparation in a very structured way, to be quite immersed. I stayed in the accent and with blond hair for seven months. And, you know, there are tougher things to do for seven months than walk around blond. I would do American Sign Language with Jeremy Stone, my instructor, for a couple of hours in the morning. Then I would go and work on my script with my acting coach. And then in the afternoons for a few hours, I would drum. In the evenings, I would usually go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. At night, I would go to a gig. I was learning about multiple worlds at the same time: the punk and metal and noise scene, the deaf community, addiction circles. The way I like to work is just to immerse myself in it completely. So it was a long journey, but it was such an eye-opening one. [More at Source]
River Runs Deep: Riz Ahmed Interviewed
“I’m proud of all the work I’ve done, but’s it’s also important we evolve…”
Riz Ahmed has emerged as an unfiltered voice for the marginalised and minoritized, with totemic performances across music and film. For years, Ahmed has embraced the gift and burden of representation.
Now, he’s ready to hone in on the micro.
There’s a protracted scene at the end of The Long Goodbye short film where Riz Ahmed glowers directly into the viewer’s gaze. In spoken-word, he recites the lyrics from ‘Where You From?’; his bloodied mien a mesh of fury and anguish, eyes transmitting a hollow longing.
In preceding scenes, Ahmed and his family are partaking in the usual “ronak” – the frenzy – that characterises a typical day in a Desi household; it’s a projection of warmth, colours, aroma and familial noise. Whilst a nagging sense of foreboding pulses throughout, the violent melodrama that supervenes remains etched in the psyche long after initial viewing. “With the short film, I was asking how can you understand this wider social and political fuckery through a very first-person, subjective point of view? How can I portray this vicious invasion of our private space, this world breaking down through a portrait of one character breaking down?” Ahmed says.
Clash catches Riz Ahmed over Zoom on the promo trail; he’s currently in LA filming for the sci-fi thriller, Invasion. Our transatlantic conversation coalesces into dialled-in observations, unexpected analogies and whimsical detours through a storied career. It can feel like a breathless jaunt as Ahmed stuns you with commentary that reads like a thesis: We cover artists that soundtracked his lockdown – Tirzah, J Hus, Koffee and Jai Paul, to name a few – global politics, art over commerce, the spectre of isolation for an actor who lives out of his suitcase. Ahmed commands your attention, always. There’s no ego, no sense of elevated superiority – just a convivial demeanour.
Ahmed recalls his own history, weaving a binding thread through a career that has for the most part, abjured a mainstream blueprint. Born in Wembley, London, to an upwardly-mobile family who emigrated to the U.K from Karachi, Pakistan in the 1970s, Ahmed remains tethered to his heritage. His family still resides in London; a personal and community-based sanctum he takes with him wherever he goes. “London is home; culturally, and in terms of its demographic mix. It is one of the most colourful cities in the world,” he says with pride.
Still, Ahmed, like many children of the diaspora, is bound by a constant state of the ephemeral. A sense of unbelonging shrouds us in perpetuity – we become one with this ambiguity, and it inscribes our being like a tattoo. Ahmed’s work reconnoitres that sticky grey area, avoiding binary answers for multifarious questions. “We’re people who code-switch, we live between cultures to navigate our daily lives, implicitly and explicitly,” he shifts in his seat, “It’s impossible to bring all of yourself to this interview, this meeting room, this workplace or even a romantic relationship – you have to leave a part of yourself at the door,” he explains. [more at source]