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MC And Actor Riz Ahmed Embraces A New Kind Of Role In 'Sound Of Metal'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Riz Ahmed has been nominated for an Oscar for best actor in the movie "Sound Of Metal," making him the first Muslim to be nominated in the category. The film is also nominated for five other Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay. In the film, Ahmed stars as Ruben Stone, a punk metal drummer who goes deaf. Riz Ahmed won an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in the HBO series "The Night Of," making him the first South Asian man and first Muslim to win in the category. He's also been in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Jason Bourne," "Nightcrawler," "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," "Four Lions" and "The Road To Guantanamo." On the series "Girls," he was the surf instructor who unintentionally becomes the father of Hannah's child.

Riz Ahmed is also a rapper. He released an album last year called "The Long Goodbye." He started rapping as a teenager on pirate radio stations in London. At Oxford, where he went to school, he competed in rap battle competitions and recorded a track called "Post 9/11 Blues," which became popular on the Internet. Ahmed's parents emigrated to England from Pakistan in the 1970s. We're going to listen to the interview Terry recorded with him in December.

They began with the clip from "Sound Of Metal," which is streaming on Amazon Prime. Ahmed's character, Ruben, is a drummer whose half of a duo with his girlfriend, Lou. One night during a performance, Ruben starts to lose his hearing. It quickly progresses until he can't hear anything except for noise and distortion. A doctor tells him he could regain some hearing with cochlear implants, but Ruben can't afford the operation. Ruben is a recovering heroin addict, and music is his life. Without it, he has no idea who he is or what his life is about. He's referred to a deaf community for recovered addicts to get some support. With his girlfriend, Lou, he meets with Joe, who runs the facility. Joe is deaf and is a recovering alcoholic. Joe can read Ruben's lips and has voice recognition software that translates what Joe is saying into words on a screen that Ruben can read. Joe is played by Paul Raci, who speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUND OF METAL")

PAUL RACI: (As Joe) Well, I think it's important that you stay here with us right now, Ruben, learn some sign language, find some solid ground. What do you think?

RIZ AHMED: (As Ruben) Yeah, that sounds great, but we don't have a lot of money right now.

RACI: (As Joe) Well, sometimes, our church sponsors deaf people in need. And right now, you fit the bill, Ruben.

AHMED: (As Ruben) We're really not churchgoing people.

RACI: (As Joe) Ruben, I read lips. I can't - what'd you say?

AHMED: (As Ruben) We're not religious, either of us - very much not in a religion. No offense.

RACI: (As Joe) Religion plays no part in this, Ruben. The church helps people in need, not religious people. The important thing is that you want to stay here.

AHMED: (As Ruben) Yeah.

RACI: (As Joe) Lou, do you think Ruby needs help right now? You understand, if Ruben were to stay here, he'd have to do it on his own. Members live in a house separate from the outside world, no contact to the outside world, no phones. I found that in all cases, that's the way it works best.

AHMED: (As Ruben) Yo, hold up a minute, OK? Let me catch up, OK?

RACI: (As Joe) Can you help Ruben commit to that, Lou?

AHMED: (As Ruben) You want to try this for a couple days? We have our own home. We can stay in the RV.

RACI: (As Joe) Oh, I'm sorry to say that's not the way it works here, Ruben.

AHMED: (As Ruben) Well, that's a problem then.

RACI: (As Joe) Do you have anywhere you can be during this time, Lou?

AHMED: (As Ruben) Yo, that's it, man. We're done. We're done. Thanks a lot for your time, bro. Appreciate it, OK? We're out, baby. Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Riz Ahmed, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being with us.

AHMED: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: After playing someone who has lost his hearing and who hears only noise and distortion, are you noticing sound and sounds in ways that you never did before?

AHMED: Yeah, I learned American Sign Language for the role over seven months. And my sign instructor, Jeremy Stone, who's also a deaf advocate and a kind of leading light in the New York deaf community, really kind of welcomed me into his peer group and immersed me in deaf culture. And I realized that listening isn't something you just do with your ears. It's something you do with your whole body. You know, it's very much about being present, being sensitive, being open physically to the energy someone else is putting out there.

And I guess through American Sign Language, I kind of felt like I was communicating more deeply and in a more connected way than I ever could have with words because when you're communicating with sign language, you're communicating really viscerally with your whole body. And so as much as the experience of deaf culture taught me to value my auditory hearing, I feel like deaf culture, a world without hearing and without, you know, sometimes verbal communication, actually really taught me the true meaning of communication and listening.

GROSS: I don't know American Sign Language, but it's always been a marvel to me that there can be enough hand signals and body gestures that can cover all of the language. What did you learn about some of the subtleties of sign language?

AHMED: You know, in some ways, I kind of feel that sign language allowed me to communicate more fully than words did. You know, I touched on that a moment ago. But another thing that Jeremy Stone taught me was - as you can tell, he's had a big impact on the project, and they actually named the character Ruben after him and named him Ruben Stone. One of the things he said is that - well, there's this trope in the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed, and the reason for that is that they hide behind words. And I kind of like, you know, just took down the tune and kept going, but it was later when I became more fluent in ASL that I understood what he was talking about.

And when I first started communicating - you know, Jeremy and I became very close. We'd be meeting every day, speaking for several hours and signing. When I started talking about things in my life or even in Ruben's life that were emotional, I found myself really physically getting emotional, you know, tearing up at times, in a way that I would not have if I was just verbally communicating. And as I said, that's because you are inhabiting physically what you are communicating in a completely different way. You're not hiding behind words, as we sometimes can in the hearing community.

GROSS: Well, you think in words because you're - you have your hearing. So I'm wondering if you had to think in words and then translate that into sign language.

AHMED: Well, you do at the start, right? I think that's what we often do when we learn a new language. If you're learning French or Urdu or anything like that, then you kind of start off trying to swap words out from one language to the other. And as you become more fluent, you start to realize that that's not how things work. You know, there's a different way of expressing these ideas when you switch languages.

And another thing I should say is that I think - you know, I think there's been some research into this - that different sides of your personality come out when you speak in a different language. You know, it may be because, you know, one language was your mother tongue, and so it brings out your childhood self, you know? But I also think that, you know, languages have their own grammar. They have their own feel. They have their own flow. They sit in the body or the throat or, in this case, in your hands and, you know, in your core in a different way. And so I think that perhaps the way in which I communicate, the style in which I communicate would probably be different - not just the kind of the content of the signs.

In fact, I mean, my personality in sign language became very quickly apparent - sign name that I was given by the deaf community. Well, early on, I would - you know, I'd be struggling for words. And, you know, I guess I can be a bit impatient, and I want to be able to kind of do everything straight away. So I was trying to have these complex conversations with people in the deaf community, but I didn't have the vocabulary. And I didn't know the sign for thinking. You know, like when you're texting on your phone, you see those three dots coming up - I didn't know the sign for that, you know, the kind of um (ph). And there is a sign for that. There's multiple signs for that. But I would just be signing - I don't know if I can swear on this podcast. But I would be signing F up. I would just be signing - like, because I felt like I was messing up. And I knew that sign. I knew the sign for [expletive] up. So I would just be signing that every time I got stuck for words. And the visual artist Christine Sun Kim, who's a kind of leading artist within the deaf community, said, you know what? That's your sign name.

GROSS: (Laughter).

AHMED: It's like three - it's three fingers on each hand smashed together, and three fingers for R-I-Z. So my sign name is half the hand sign for F up. So - you know, I guess your personality kind of cuts through when you're signing totally differently because, as I said, you're communicating with your whole body. Your whole energy comes across. And that's where your sign name comes from. And, yeah, so that's mine.

GROSS: So, you know, this movie is really about, how do you figure out who you are when, you know, something surprising happens that changes your life and takes away the thing that you thought defined you? In this case, for him, it's the ability to play and listen to music. And you've said that there have been periods of your life when you've experienced something similar to that due to illness or a financial crisis. Can I ask you about those periods?

AHMED: For me, it was these moments in my career, both as a musician and also as an actor, where I was like, I'm not sure if I can continue doing this. And that's been for a variety of different reasons at different times. You know, at one point, I think what you're referring to was this kind of wall of exhaustion I just hit where I just was - I was just shot. My nerves were shot. I just kind of had to stop doing everything for a while. I was just - I just wrecked myself. And, you know, I'd recorded and released a couple of albums, had done a couple of movies. I was touring. I was developing a TV show that I was lead writer on. It was just a lot. That's one moment.

Another kind of moment I can think of is actually just before or around the time of doing "Nightcrawler." I was just broke, you know? I'd just - I'd done a couple of indie films that were really well regarded in the U.K. You know, I'd done the pilot of "The Night Of." But then it got dropped. They didn't want to make the series. And I just kind of had hit this roadblock in my career where I just wasn't able to make ends meet. And I was like, I'm not sure if I can continue doing this after doing it for, you know, six or seven years.

I think when you're a freelancer or, you know, you live in the creative industries - or, frankly, even now, with the pandemic, I think a lot of people can relate to this experience of suddenly having your routine, your control, your purpose taken away from you due to a crisis out of your control. And when that happens, it's like the rug has been pulled from under you. It can be very disruptive not just to your life or your income, but, as you said, like, your very sensitive - who you are.

GROSS: Did you have something to turn to when you felt that your livelihood and identity were being threatened?

AHMED: Well, hopefully it allows your identity to evolve a little bit. You know, ideally, it's a moment of realizing that these things that you do are part of who you are, but they aren't all of who you are. And hopefully, you realize it's not the core of who you are. I think, again, you know, it's strange because the arc of Ruben in "Sound Of Metal" is - mirrors so closely our collective arc as a society during this pandemic. You know, Ruben is a workaholic. We're in this workaholic, productivity, endless-growth-obsessed society, just like, you know, Ruben is as a character. And both Ruben and our society face this health crisis that has thrown them both into a kind of lockdown or purgatory where they're forced to reassess who they are.

And, yeah, I guess it can either leave you with no sense of worth or purpose or realization that the things that we thought defined us are not the core of who we are. The core of who we are is something more human, something frustratingly less quantifiable and tangible. But there's got to be something we are underneath our paychecks and our daily routines and, you know, our Instagram pages - there's just got to be. And, you know, having those things taken away can mean you're staring into the void. And it can be kind of terrifying and destabilizing. But there's something else inside that's truly who we are. And I guess, for me, those moments of crisis, I like to think, have brought me a little bit closer to that realization.

GROSS: What'd you learn about yourself during those moments?

AHMED: Well, I guess it wasn't so much about learning about myself. But I guess a big thing that I've kind of carried with me through the tougher moments is that we don't have any control. And so if you don't have any control, then maybe everything you have is a gift, you know? If you're not responsible for the bad things that happen, maybe you're not responsible for any of the good things or any of the things. And so, yeah, maybe everything is a gift. And it's just kind of, like, turned my way of looking at the world on its head from a place of entitlement and scarcity to a place of just abundance and gratitude. Of course, those kind of moments are often a bit more...

GROSS: Fleeting (laughter).

AHMED: Yeah, exactly. As soon as you get back...

GROSS: Yeah.

AHMED: ...To your normal routine, you're like, come on, yeah. I got to keep going, you know?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Riz Ahmed. He stars in the new movie "Sound Of Metal." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Riz Ahmed. He stars as a punk metal drummer who goes deaf in the new movie "Sound Of Metal." His other films include "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Jason Bourne," "Nightcrawler" and "The Road To Guantanamo." He starred in the HBO series "The Night Of."

So you're the son of Pakistani immigrants. And your early roles were very much defined by the characters you were playing being Pakistani or Muslim or, in some cases, terrorists or would-be terrorists or people mistaken as terrorists. So did it take a while before you were playing roles that weren't defined like that?

AHMED: Well, I think it's something that's happened in parallel. You know, there's been those roles earlier on in my career, like, for example, "The Road To Guantanamo" or "Britz," which took place in this post-9/11 landscape. But in amongst that, you always had films like "Shifty," for example, which - where, you know, I'm playing a lead role in a film where it wasn't about the post-9/11 circus in some way.

Now, I should say that I kind of made a commitment to myself at the very start of my career that I actually wouldn't be playing two-dimensional terrorist roles. I didn't want to help reinforce some of the negative stereotypes about people like me or people like my family. You know, when I joined this industry - in many ways, I think what motivated me to join this industry and what inspires me about the power of storytelling is the ability to subvert and overturn these unhelpful narratives that we have about marginalized groups. But more broadly, I guess, is the power that stories have to rearrange people's mental furniture, to just blow their minds, quite literally, until they realize that those categories of us and them that they use to view the world actually don't apply. There is no us and them. There's just us.

GROSS: So your first movie role in 2005 was "The Road To Guantanamo." And this is based on the true story of three British citizens of Pakistani descent who traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 and are mistakenly detained as terrorists and sent to Guantanamo. And these three young men became known as the Tipton Three. So you were traveling with the movie to the Berlin Film Festival, where it won a big award. And on your way back, you were stopped at the airport. And I want you to tell the story of what happened to you when you were stopped and questioned.

AHMED: It was a slightly bizarre experience, but one that, you know, ultimately, I was grateful for because it reminded me again of how powerful stories can be and how storytelling can be such a threat to some of the dominant narratives and toxic narratives in our culture. So this film went to the Berlin Film Festival. We won the Silver Bear award. We were coming back triumphant, you know, pinching ourselves - this tiny, low-budget movie against the odds that won this prize.

And after we'd gone through passport control, actually, when we were at baggage claim and we're through all the kind of official processing, someone kind of breathlessly ran up to us. And, actually, a group of what later emerged to be British intelligence officers kind of rounded us up, really, and said - you know, asked us to follow them, took us into unmarked rooms and, basically, engaged in what later turned out to be a completely illegal kind of harassment. They purported to be holding us under these anti-terrorism laws. They must have thought we couldn't read because the piece of papers they handed to us is - none of those conditions applied to what was going on. And they basically just started saying, you know, did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle? You know, what do you think of the Iraq War?

It was really quite, you know, worrying state of affairs, I guess, in a democracy when you have people being harassed for artistic expression. You know, this isn't, like, fringe stuff that we're throwing up on the dark web. This has just won a major prize at a European film festival. It's been on Channel 4, a national broadcaster. It's a publicly financed movie with Film Four (ph), you know, backing the movie. And I guess, you know, it's something that kind of shook me up and really frustrated me.

But, you know, in the wake of that incident, I guess I just realized a couple of things. One of them was that while I was offered to kind of, you know, go on the news and hold a press conference about what happened because it was so patently illegal, I was offered to kind of sue the government, and I kind of just felt like I actually wanted to put it into my art. I wanted to - didn't want the first time I was on TV to be as a victim around this. But I did also feel a responsibility. And so it was an experience that kind of, like, shaped a lot of my work after that. And that's what led me to write the "Post 9/11 Blues," you know, that kind of viral rap song that you mentioned at the start, which is a satire which got banned from radio, which even, you know, just kind of made me want to double down. And that's when I went and did "Four Lions." So it was an interesting thing.

DAVIES: Riz Ahmed speaking with Terry Gross. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance as a punk metal drummer who goes deaf in the movie "Sound Of Metal," which is streaming on Amazon Prime. We'll hear more after a break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN")

ABRAHAM MARDER: (Singing) Go into the rain today - wet fields of green. But, no, I don't stay long. You always find me. You say come on, on the train today. You call my name. And you wave and scream. But I can't hear anything. I can't hear anything. And you chase me down the mountain, through the city. But, oh, my country....

(SOUNDBITE OF BLANCO SONG, "PULL UP")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded in December with Riz Ahmed. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance as a punk metal drummer who goes deaf in the movie "Sound Of Metal." His other films include "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Jason Bourne," "Nightcrawler" and "The Road To Guantanamo." He also starred in the HBO series "The Night Of." Riz Ahmed is also a rapper. His latest album is called "The Long Goodbye."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So we were talking about how your kind of breakthrough recording "Post 9/11 Blues" was recorded the same year as your first movie, "The Road To Guantanamo." And this is a satirical song. It's kind of lighthearted in spite of what it's talking about. It reminds me of some, like, just like satirical, lighthearted, early rap records. So let's hear "Post 9/11 Blues." This is Riz Ahmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POST 9/11 BLUES")

AHMED: (Rapping) What can I do? I got the post-9/11 blues. On the telly, nothing but the post-9/11 news - war, Iraq, suicide bombs. Stop looking limelight and make some room for my songs. Anyway, it's all re-runs. We need a new war. Bush, go get Iran. I heard them talking about your mom. Change the channel. Watch some telly kids. But what's this? Hi kids, welcome to fun fun fundamentalists. In the breaks, Nike's advertising bomb-proof kicks. They're even showing bin Laden's cave on "Cribs." So I picked up a respectable magazine, told me about the new post-9/11 categories. Israeli fighters are soldiers. Irish are paramilitary. And darkie ones are terrorists. Howe simple can it be? But not me. My friends go, Riz is still one of us. But if I haven't shaved, they won't sit with me on the bus.

GROSS: That was Riz Ahmed and his recording "Post 9/11 Blues" that was recorded in 2006. And that became big on the Internet. It went viral. How did it go viral, do you know? Like, it was before Twitter, right?

AHMED: Yeah. This is back in the days of MySpace. I think people just started sharing it. I think, you know, usually when things start getting shared like that, you're managing to tap into or articulate something that is on many people's minds, but they haven't quite been able to express yet. And usually when you do that, it's not because you're trying to reach outwards and outside of yourself to tap into some external big-picture zeitgeist. It's actually because you're reaching inside yourself to really look honestly at what you're feeling, which isn't the easiest thing to do, to be honest, particularly if you have been implicitly told time and again that your story may not be relatable or universal, that your perspective may be considered niche. It actually takes a big leap of faith to dig into the specificity of your experience and talk about it and believe that it will be relatable and interesting to people.

GROSS: So a single that you recently released is called "Once Kings." And that - maybe I'm not hearing it right - but that seems, I think, to refer to Partition in India when, in 1947, India became primarily a Hindu country and Pakistan predominantly Muslim. And a lot of Muslims in India were were attacked and really, like, driven out. It was a very, very bloody period. And is that what it's referring to?

AHMED: Yeah. There's lots of references to Partition, both on "The Long Goodbye," when I kind of go through Britain's colonial history. Kind of the album takes you all the way from, you know, when these doomed lovers first met, you know, the subcontinent and Britain from their first one-night stand that kind of developed into this entangled relationship. So it goes from Partition all the way up to Brexit.

GROSS: How did this affect your family? I imagine it would be maybe your grandparents or great-grandparents' generation that experienced Partition. Were they driven out of India? And did they flee to Pakistan?

AHMED: Yeah. Well, it's kind of a complicated story. And I've got a big family, so different branches of the family experience different things. But my own grandfather was a student when he was asked to go into the headmaster's office and told that he was needed to go back to his home, which was - you know, his father, my great grandfather was a landowner, you know, who kind of grew crops and workers on his land. And he went back to realize that his dad had been - basically political charges had been trumped up against him in an attempt to seize his lands because he was Muslim. And he had to drop out of college to try and represent his dad in court. His dad had to go into hiding. His dad also had a newspaper, a pro-independence newspaper which was firebombed and burned down in an arson attack. So they lost their newspaper. They then lost their lands, I think either partly in the case but then also due to the kind of land reforms that took root in India directly after Partition, which was, you know, often in order to explicitly target Muslim landowners. And so he was - yeah, they lost a lot.

They went to Pakistan. They actually took a while to get to Pakistan. They went to Calcutta for many years before that. He started working for the Pakistani consulate over there. But it is a kind of strange pattern that seems to keep repeating itself. You know, when you have this memory in your body and in your stories that home is perhaps always somewhere else, it's always the next stop on the train ride. That feeling of insecurity, you know, it does stay with you, whether it's my grandfather's generation thinking, OK, where do I go, India or Pakistan? Where do I belong? Or my uncle and mom's generation going, OK, where do we go, Pakistan or England? Or whether it's me now talking you from California, the western edge of civilization with no place left to run to next, kind of looking back and going, OK, where next in these increasingly intolerant times?

GROSS: So I'm glad you mentioned a train. The part of the lyric that I want to play starts with this sickness began on a train. Is that train literal or metaphorical?

AHMED: In my family's history, I think there were some people who took the train, other people took the boat. Some people stayed in India. But train rides and train massacres were a huge and horrific feature of Partition, which is one of the largest forced migrations in history. So, yeah, I mean, when people think of Partition, they think of these ghost trains really turning up on both sides of the border full of just dead bodies. So it is a reference to that.

GROSS: So let's hear this part of "Once Kings" by my guest, Riz Ahmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONCE KINGS")

AHMED: (Rapping) Always impatient, now an in-patient. NHS serving up dal - yo, we made it. Drip on my wrist is some steroids and chemo. Yeah, the sickness more common in Asians. The sickness all come from self-hatred. The sickness began on a train where the bodies of babies are soaked in the blood from a border that cuts us in half when its blade hit. Jumping down wells from the rapists. Show us your foreskin. Check what his faith is. Neighbors you played with digging your graves. Yeah, our bodies can still keep the score, we can taste it. My DNA knows that they hunted me. I'm a thread in a rug pulled from under me. High as I fumbled these puns to my mum. She mumbles these prayers to no one her son can see. Momma, who you talking to? Hey. (Non-English language spoken). Once, we were kings. When will we be kings? No more salaam, Mo Salah we believe in. Once, we were kings. When will we be kings? No more salaam, Mo Salah we believe in. Once, we were kings. When will we be kings? No more salaam, Mo Salah we believe in. I'm told we can live if the...

GROSS: That was an excerpt of "Once Kings," a single that was released this year by my guest, Riz Ahmed, who is a rapper and an actor. And his new film is called "Sound Of Metal," and it's streaming now on Amazon Prime. Well, Riz Ahmed, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

AHMED: Thank you.

DAVIES: Riz Ahmed speaking with Terry Gross last December. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance in the film "Sound Of Metal." It's 1 of 6 nominations for the film, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. After a break, we hear from actress Kathryn Hahn, who co-stars in the Disney+ series "WandaVision." as the mysterious nosy neighbor. This is FRESH AIR.

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