Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Riz Ahmed on identity, hearing loss, and Sound Of Metal

Riz Ahmed has been thinking a lot about identity lately. The British actor and rapper has been doing a lot of press for his new movie Sound Of Metal (streaming now on Amazon Prime), and while a lot of the attention has been focused—understandably—on his character’s struggle with both addiction and sudden hearing loss, there’s also a big part of the story that’s about loss of identity. What happens to someone when everything they identify as—drummer, boyfriend, touring musician, hearing person—is taken away from them almost overnight?

That’s actually a question that’s fairly prescient now, with millions of people unemployed, separated from their families, and struggling to figure out where they belong in the world. The A.V. Club talked to Ahmed about that very issue, and his thoughts—as well as his thoughts on the intersection of noise and metal—are in the video above, as well as in the transcript below. For those more interested in the interview in podcast form, you can check that out on our awards-related podcast, Push The Envelope.

The A.V. Club: This movie is about hearing loss, but it’s also about your character Ruben’s sudden loss of identity. He thinks he’s a drummer and a boyfriend, and that’s taken away from him almost overnight. Who do you think Ruben really is, having spent some time with him as a character? Where does his emotional core lie?

Riz Ahmed: You know, that’s such a great question, because I don’t I know if we ever arrive at definitive answer about who we really are. I think we take steps closer and closer to stripping away the external things that we think define us, stripping away our attachment to them. And in that way, Ruben thinks, as you said, “I’m in a relationship. I live in a mobile home, and I play the drums. That’s me. I’m not a deaf person living in a sober house who’s single. That’s the opposite of who I am.” And yet, over the course of going through that journey, he arguably gets more in touch with his views.

Sometimes the things that we cling onto to give us an identity are actually getting in the way of who we really are. I think that there are a lot of wounds in Ruben that he’s been papering over with the Band-Aids of a relationship and an obsessive focus on drumming, just as he had an obsessive drug addiction in the past. And I think that’s it actually. Staying busy and doing and having purpose is just another way of running away from self, so it’s actually sitting in the silence, facing the void where you face yourself. I’m not sure if he can put into words or I can put into words who he really is, but I like to think that at our core, we’re all pretty much the same, underneath it all. There’s a core of humanity that we all share.

AVC: It’s interesting because, while Ruben does go through a pretty singular experience, there are some parallels with what’s been happening lately, in terms of the pandemic. People think, “I hang out with my friends. I go to bars. I have my job. That’s me,” and a lot of that was taken away from people fairly quickly, and now everyone’s struggling to figure out who they are. That’s why all the therapists are so busy right now.

RA: Yes. 100%. I was thinking that myself. It’s kind of wild in a way, but I think people will be able to relate to that journey. If the things I thought gave me worth ended and have been stripped away, now who am I? That’s really challenging and that’s really tragic. Real loss comes in and in that kind of change of circumstance, there can also be a gift hidden inside it if we are able to embrace it and move past those challenges.

I know it’s so hard for people who have lost their loved ones. I don’t mean to suggest that, like, “Oh, great. This is like an enforced spirituality retreat for everyone.” No. This is real and it has destroyed families, communities, and livelihoods. But I guess on a macro level as a society, I hope it’s an opportunity for us all to think about, “All right, what are we doing? What really matters?” And that’s what happens when you face a crisis. That’s what happens in times of uncertainty. You’re forced to reassess what you’re doing with your life. And I hope that that’s partly what we’ve been forced to do, or that’s what our society does. I hope in a small way that people who watch this film also walk away asking some questions about “what really matters to me,” especially if it all changes. What really mattered to me, if that all changed, you know.

AVC: Something that’s really staggering in the movie was actually hearing what someone with a cochlear implant would hear. We see these videos of babies hearing the sound of their moms for the first time, and they make the technology seem magical, and in some sense it is, but it’s not the quality of sound that we might think if we’ve never actually heard it.

In terms of hearing loss, what was surprising for you to learn when you were preparing for this movie?  

RA: I did learn a lot, and I’m grateful to everyone who taught me a lot.

I remember sitting next to someone on the plane with a cochlear implant and I just got into a two-hour conversation with him. He told me about how getting his implant was the worst day of his life because of what he was expecting. We had been speaking to other people who said, “It was the best day of my life.” There is no one deaf experience. There’s no one deaf community. I just had to try and hone in on some of the research and some of the stories and some of the experiences that I was able to immerse myself in and then just try and be honest about where Ruben’s head would be with all of this stuff. He’s someone who’s always looking for a quick fix, looking for more, looking to do, and I’m not sure anything would be enough for him.

Cochlear implants are important, and for many people, it works. For many people it doesn’t. It’s a very controversial issue within the deaf community.

More than anything for me, if I’m honest, it was just a tremendous learning experience, learning about the richness and expansiveness and variety of this culture that has so much to offer us in the hearing community, if only we would stop living in such a segregated way with deaf people.

AVC: Even in the movie, the community of deaf people and the school for deaf children seem set so far out in the sticks. There’s no interaction.

RA: Yeah, there’s very little interaction there between the deaf community and the hearing community.

AVC: As you mentioned, Ruben is always busy, doing, working. Do you have that quality? Are you always busy, and if so, did this movie make you slow down at all?

RA: Certainly that was something that really drew me to the character. I recognize this dude. He finds himself through his work. He’s always on the go. I’ve also experienced those moments of being forced to stop for various reasons, personal reasons, health reasons, financial reasons, thinking, “Can I continue doing the thing I love?” Those moments were terrifying because they make you think, “Well, then who am I?” And I was like, “I recognize that feeling and I want to go deeper into it at the end of this,” I guess.

The process of making this film led me to something that I feel now, which is that I’m trying to realize that constantly running towards the goal is just a way of running away from yourself. I’m trying to stay out of goal oriented doing, meaning, “This performance has to be like this. I want this song to perform like that.” I’m thinking more about, “How can I tap into where I’m at right now and just share a bit of that?” I’m trying to be a bit more connected, but doing that isn’t always easy and some days are better than others. But I feel like when I do manage to tap into that, things are just better.

AVC: Speaking of songs: In the movie, your band is called Blackgammon, and people have described it as a metal band, but I’m not sure if that’s strictly an accurate description. Are they The Locust, or are they Lightning Bolt? Did they give you a playlist of Blackgammon’s influences?

RA: Yeah, we are kind of amongst ourselves a little bit in that scene.

So, Olivia Cooke was mentored by Pharmakon, who’s an amazing noise artist. I was mentored by Sean Powell, the drummer from Surfbort, which is a punk band. I interviewed a bunch of other kinds of metal bands and experimental noise bands and hung out with them, too. Kill Alters is a band that I was very much into. I thought they were cool template for us, but mixed with Surfbort and Pharmakon. In some way, that’s where our band existed.

It was similar to being immersed in the deaf community, being immersed in the music community. It was such a gift just meeting those incredibly creative, sensitive souls. And again, the idea of tribe can separate us so much from people. I’m like a person of color from a city setting in London who raps and I don’t know anything about this experience of noise bands and punk. I hadn’t been around that, but to connect with people in that scene was just joyous. It just teaches me the lesson that Ruben learns that I think all of us need to learn right now, which is that we like to think we’re all so different that we get wrapped up in our identities and our identity politics. And it’s kind of bullshit, you know. We’re all the same.

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.