Watching Sound of Metal, it's hard not to recognise that there is a little bit of Ruben in all of us. A heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, Ruben now has to grapple with what this shift in identity means for him – and how, or if, he can 'fix' it. It may not be an exact mirror to your, or our, experiences but it is one that we can relate to.
It's what Riz Ahmed, whose role as Ruben in Sound of Metal granted him a Best Actor nomination at this year's Oscars, sees in every character. "Every time you take on a character, you kind of go in thinking about all the ways in which you need to change, and all the ways in which they might be different from you. And where you end up is always realising, 'Oh my God, this is me'."
With Sound of Metal, Ahmed started off with "I don't know how to play drums. I was never a heroin addict. I never lived in an RV trailer. I don't know anything about punk music. I didn't grow up in the military. I don't speak sign language.
"And then hopefully by taking some steps towards learning some of that, it brings you a little bit closer to realising where the overlaps are. And hopefully, that's a similar journey to the one that the audience goes on. In fact, it is the same journey that the audience goes on."
Lauded as it was, it's clear that Sound of Metal does what Ahmed says it does. "I think that's what the point of stories is – it's to kind of take you on a journey quite far from your point of origin, and seemingly far away from yourself, only to find that emotionally and empathically you arrive back at yourself."
While we aren't talking about representation, it is an obvious thread that exists in Sound of Metal, which is a film that portrays a unique and specific part of the deaf community through Deaf actors. But Ahmed is quick to point out: "The film isn't about the deaf community. In a way, you can't make a film that's hoping to summarise such a diverse and rich and varied and multifaceted group of people."
[Note: as per the deaf health charity Signhealth, "deaf" refers to people who have a severe hearing problem, while "Deaf" refers to those who were born deaf or are otherwise pre-lingually deaf.]
Ahmed's co-star Paul Raci, for example, is a hearing child of Deaf adults, and brought with him to the role a real understanding of what it means to be a bridge between both the hearing and Deaf communities. Ahmed's Ruben is on the other side of that bridge; hearing loss is the catalyst of the story and Ruben's development, more than Sound of Metal is about a deaf character's life.
"It's a good way of putting it," Ahmed agrees, and this distinction is something he brings to his work. "I think our personalities are quite context and situation-dependent, and different things, as you say, can catalyse different elements of how we might behave, and so I never try to pin down, 'Right, this is what Ruben's character is. It's like this shape, and I'm going to colour within those lines.' I like to leave all possibilities open.
"We all have the different colours of the rainbow within us. It's just that some people's life experiences might mean that they paint more in red and orange, and other people paint more in blue and green. But we all have those different possibilities within us, if that makes sense?"
It does make sense. But it begs the question, are there colours that Ahmed himself struggles to access as he paints each character? "I think that, funnily enough, the shape that my life has taken, that my career has taken, is one of often being asked and expected to shape-shift quite a lot.
"Growing up, I would often be changing between my costume, and the language I'm speaking, and the register I speak in, because I'd be switching a lot between different classes and cultures – growing up in a working-class, immigrant neighbourhood; being schooled in kind of upper-class private schools; skipping class to go and hang out with my boys who are part of a hybrid, Brit Asian street culture.
"And so I found myself bouncing around between worlds, and changing day to day. So I've always found it second nature to shape-shift between different extremes and edges of the colour spectrum.
"The thing that I found more challenging is allowing myself to bring all the colours to the table, because I guess implicitly and explicitly, in the industry and my life, often people like me with quite complex identities get asked to leave part of themselves at the door when they enter a room.
"You're very rarely asked to bring it all to the table. And so I think the thing that I'm trying to access more, and allow myself more, as an artist and as a human being, is to bring all the colour spectrums – at least have them on the table – if I go into a meeting, if I go into a social interaction and to a family setting, or into a character."
The character of Ruben allowed him to do this, and Ahmed accessed a more "raw spontaneity" for the role. "I always believe that, you know, characters are 90% context and circumstance. I guess one of the core, spiritual truths that underpins the whole pursuit of acting and the possibility of drama is this idea that we're all the same – we're just in different circumstances.
"That's why I can play a character like Ruben, and you can relate to a character like Ruben, because you recognise it in different circumstances. You and Ruben end up the same.
"So I think less in terms of 'this is inherently what this character is like in any given situation' and more about how different situations bring out different elements of a character. It just so happens that at different times with Ruben, he does deal with his deafness in different ways."
This internal tension is overtly clear in Ruben, and also subtly present with the choice moments Ruben defines himself vocally as deaf, choosing to use that label in moments of desperation. "It's a really great point. It's deployed almost as a weapon."
A weapon or a tactic, and Ahmed jumps in to finish my thought. "To keep Lou, or to sell the RV. Although I like to think that that moment with Lou isn't consciously manipulative. It's more about him expressing..."
Fear, perhaps? Using a word that encompasses so much that he doesn't really understand? "Yeah, for sure. I guess it's someone who doesn't quite understand what it is he's saying, almost."
This is the kind of nitty-gritty craft conversation Ahmed revels in, and though his approach is about seeking, deploying, and creating universal empathy, it's hard not to also talk about the necessity of specificity in representation with a film like Sound of Metal. Ahmed, unsurprisingly, begins his answer with the broad stroke.
"The role of stories," he begins, "is to remind us that there's no us and them. There's just us. You're able to find and recognise and meet the other, and accept the other, and love the other, until you realise that there is no other. You recognise yourself in the other.
"In an ideal world, I don't have to talk about representation. In an ideal world, I can just talk about my craft, and my creative curiosity, and getting to do these interesting chats about when the character uses a word like 'deaf' and all that kind of stuff.
"And in some ways, it does sometimes feel a bit tiresome and burdensome as an artist of colour to have to get into those conversations, but until we're at a point where we have sufficient opportunities to just let the work do the talking, we're also going to have to talk about the work.
"I guess a film like Sound of Metal is so clearly – I don't know – doing something different to most films, and portraying different types of life and one we not often get to see in films, and shining a light on different communities than we usually see; hopefully, it does the talking for itself."
Sound of Metal is available to watch now on Amazon Prime Video and released in UK cinemas from May 17.
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