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]
Impostor syndrome: Everybody feels it, even Hollywood’s most seasoned stars. In a conversation recorded last month, actors Delroy Lindo, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Gary Oldman and George Clooney copped to the pangs of self-doubt they’ve experienced in their careers and the “jet fuel” that’s helped them power through.
“This idea of the impostor syndrome, it’s real with every actor,” said Clooney, who directed himself as a lone astronomer left on a dying Earth in the sci-fi adaptation “The Midnight Sky.” “Because to be successful at any level in this industry means that you’re beating such huge odds.”
Seeing that a performance can make a lasting impact and even meaningful change is a persuasive counterweight, said Ahmed, who plays Ruben, a drummer losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” “It’s a tremendous jet fuel to know that your work might help stretch culture in some way.”
“I think it’s very healthy, this impostor syndrome,” added “Mank” star Oldman, who portrays “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in the period biopic. “If someone said to me, ‘What do you think is your best work?’ I’d like to say, ‘Next year. The best work is the next one.’”
Beaming in remotely for the annual Envelope Oscar Roundtable, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the quintet vowed to raise a glass when it’s safe to do so. They shared stories and laughs, as well as the sentiment that’s been on their minds now more than ever — gratitude.
Yeun, who stars as a family man chasing his American dream in “Minari,” described the sensation of panic — then faith — that overcame him while in the shower two days before filming. “I was in my hotel room freaking out. I was like, ‘I’m going to do a terrible job. Every Korean American kid is going to hate me because I represented this poorly.’ I was in the shower and I just started sobbing. And the feelings that overwhelmed me were fear, awe, gratitude and submission. It all came together into this feeling of just faith,” he said.
Meanwhile, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone around the globe, including our panelists. Lindo revealed that he’d battled the virus back in March — only months before drawing acclaim from audiences and critics alike for his turn as the tormented Vietnam War veteran Paul in “Da 5 Bloods.”
“I was very sick,” he said. “But the fact that I recovered from that is a consistent wake-up call and a consistent reminder to be grateful. Because the alternative could have been very different for me.”
The five actors also took time to remember the late Chadwick Boseman, who died in August after starring with Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” and filming his final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“It’s a crappy year, and we don’t get to be in the same room together,” Clooney said. “And if we were sitting in a room right now, all of us together, there’d be an empty chair for Chadwick Boseman.”
Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity. [More at Source]
Variety and PBS SoCal announced today the actor lineup and schedule for the thirteenth season of their three-time Emmy Award-winning series Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.
The new season was filmed entirely from the actors’ homes and includes exclusive one-on-one conversations between top acting talent from potential contending movies in this year’s Academy Awards race. The episodes will premiere on PBS SoCal on Friday, March 5 at 8:00 pm, 8:30 pm, 9:00 pm and 9:30 pm. All episodes will stream on pbssocal.org and on the free PBS Video app following their premieres.
Variety’s Actors on Actors issue will hit newsstands on Jan. 20 with clips appearing on Variety.com starting Jan. 19. All Variety.com Actors on Actors videos will be presented by Amazon Studios. This season’s featured conversations are:
Jodie Foster (“The Mauritanian”) with Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”)
Ben Affleck (“The Way Back”) with Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”) with Michelle Pfeiffer (“French Exit”)
Tom Holland (“Cherry”) with Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) with Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”)
Jamie Dornan (“Wild Mountain Thyme”) with Eddie Redmayne (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) with Pete Davidson (“The King of Staten Island”)
Jared Leto (“The Little Things”) with John David Washington (“Malcolm & Marie”)
Zendaya (“Malcolm & Marie”) with Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)
Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) with Steven Yeun (“Minari”)
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) with Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”) [Source]
With his buzzy performance in ‘Sound of Metal’ — which required him to learn sign language and drumming — plus a new wife and a booming company, the soft-spoken actor and rapper is having his loudest year yet.
Back in summer 2018, Riz Ahmed was preparing for a classroom scene for his latest film, Sound of Metal, and his American Sign Language coach, Jeremy Lee Stone, was becoming increasingly annoyed. Stone had worked with the actor for the better part of a year, teaching him ASL for the role of Ruben, a rock drummer whose life begins to spiral out of control when he loses his hearing. This, however, was his first day on the Massachusetts set, and he hadn’t seen his star pupil in months. Stone made a “voices off” sign, and Ahmed was expected to reciprocate with an identical sign. But Ahmed sat defiantly, refusing to sign, and “it boiled my blood,” Stone recalls. After all, the actor was well beyond fluent in ASL by that point. And then it hit Stone. Ruben the character was not yet fluent. “I realized, in that moment, I’m not speaking to Riz,” Stone recalls. “There was no Riz. He was fully Ruben in that moment.”
Ahmed’s deeply immersive performance in Sound of Metal, which Amazon debuted Nov. 20, has garnered some of the best reviews of a trailblazing career that has brought the British-born phenom American stardom — if not quite universal recognition: On a sunny January day in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park, as the 38-year-old actor is logging on to a video call with The Hollywood Reporter, a stranger calls out to him. “Is that Hardy?” she asks. Ahmed is confused. “Your name is Hardy?” the woman presses. “No it’s not, no, no sorry,” he says, looking puzzled before switching his focus back to the call. “I wonder if she meant Tom Hardy? Or Laurel and Hardy? Or am I a Hadid?”
Since 2016, Ahmed has flirted with a don’t-confuse-me-with-Tom-Hardy kind of celebrity by starring in the Star Wars stand-alone Rogue One, a $1 billion-plus earner that became that year’s second-highest-grossing film domestically, followed by Spider-Man spinoff Venom (which starred Hardy) two years later. In between, he made history as the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy for his role in HBO’s The Night Of, besting Robert De Niro, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Geoffrey Rush and his Night Of co-star John Turturro in the outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie category.
But instead of harnessing that momentum and becoming a tentpole-only player, Ahmed signed on for the riskiest role of his career with Sound of Metal, a film that would require nearly a year of intense preparation with Stone as well as a drum instructor and a trainer. Underscoring the gamble, the film paired him with a first-time narrative feature director in Darius Marder, who had been trying to get the project off the ground for nearly a decade.
” ‘Why are you doing this when you could go off and get paid, finally?’ ” Ahmed remembers asking himself. “There was an opportunity to do bigger, more commercial projects and make money and buy a home and all these things. But I thought, ‘Here’s your chance.’ My gut feeling about it was so strong. And for whatever reason, I felt really hungry for something like that, to go all in and just fucking go there.” [More at Source]
RIZ arrives at the agreed location for our interview, a two-storey house on a quiet residential street in north London. It is a grey Saturday evening. We enter through the front door but quickly make our way to the small backyard, a request he’s made with Covid-19 concerns in mind. The global film industry is just starting up again but not without strict health and safety regulations amid fears around the potential for delayed shoots and cancelled projects.
PAUL: What does the rest of the weekend hold for you?
RIZ: I’m flying to America, hopefully on Monday, to start a shoot. The project is one of the few things that’s able to shoot because of Covid. So, there’s all of that new protocol to run through.
Is insuring films much harder because of the pandemic?
It’s lawyers’ letters, all of that kind of stuff.
Were you in London for the entire lockdown? Is it still home?
So, I’ve spent a week in your company, going back through the full RIZ AHMED archive of film and music.
Thank you, man. You’ve been helping my YouTube views? Gently shifting the Netflix algorithm incrementally in my favour? The cheque’s in the post.
It has been a good place to be. The first time I noticed the muscular intimacy of RIZ AHMED’s acting was on a late-night UK Channel 4 screening of the 2008 low-budget thriller about petty drugdealers, ‘Shifty’. In the last scene of the film, his character turns to his old friend, played by British character actor DANIEL MAYS, and they laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation they’ve found themselves in. It’s a scene shot from behind, which consolidates the film’s undercurrent of fraternal tenderness and tension. The next film I saw him in, the terrorism-heist tragicomedy ‘Four Lions’, I still consider to be satirical writer and director CHRIS MORRIS’s masterwork. To be revisiting all these works and more has been a pleasure.
Have you been able to take a moment during the last few months of stillness to look back over the choices you’ve made? Do you allow yourself pride in them?
I think often most of us – actors, artists, anyone really – tend to look forwards rather than stop and look back. Particularly with the pandemic. As to how I want the future to be different? How do I want it to be the same? We’ve all been reassessing the future we want to carve out for ourselves and for everybody, collectively. What patterns do I spot in my past that I want to continue? What do I want to fix? [More at Source]