Sound of Metal: Riz Ahmed on Ending Racial Stereotyping and Promoting Understanding of Deaf Culture

As a Star Wars hero, Emmy-winning actor and chart-topping rapper, Riz Ahmed has broken new ground for British-Asian artists. But even with two films out this autumn plus a new album, he says there’s much more he’d like to see happen. Starting with the end of Hollywood racial stereotyping.

Riz Ahmed, 37
Riz Ahmed, 37
It’s amazing how far Riz Ahmed has come over the past decade or so. Born in Wembley to Pakistani immigrants, the actor and rapper topped the Billboard 200 in 2016 along with other artists on The Hamilton Mixtape.  In 2017, featured in the annual Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and also became the first Asian male to win a leading acting Emmy.

Many hearing people don’t understand or have never experienced what it’s like to be deaf.

Ahmed’s new movie, Sound of Metal, aims to fill that gap.

“This film is told from a hearing perspective, and that’s obviously my world as a hearing person,” director and co-writer Darius Marder has said. “It’s an invitation into deaf culture and a celebration of an aspect of deaf culture.”

Having lost his hearing, his livelihood and his bandmate-lover (Olivia Cooke) but begins to find his way at a halfway house for deaf drug addicts run by a man (Paul Raci) who takes a special interest in his plight.

The film uses closed captioning throughout in order to make the viewer experience Ruben’s hearing loss.Riz Ahmed stars as a drummer who experiences a sudden loss of hearing in "Sound of Metal."

Ahmed, who learned American Sign Language as well as how to drum for the role, emphasizes that Sound of Metal explored someone who has to reimagine his identity because it’s “something that is constantly shifting and evolving, either because we evolve or because the labels project onto us evolve.”

The British-Pakistani actor thinks he “would have been considered Black in the U.K” in the 1980s, because it was a “political term,” while today “the label strung around is British Muslim.”

“As much as identity can root us, it can also trap us,” he added. “These labels can prevent us from making new connections, from walking across bridges and reimagining what our social circle or friendships or identity can be. In an era of identity politics, it’s fascinating to tell the story of a character where you realize how identity itself is a kind of vapor.”

Raci, a hearing son of deaf parents, said there’s a big discussion going on in the deaf community about deaf actors and how they should be represented on film.

Watching Julianne Moore play a deaf woman in 2017’s “Wonderstruck” was “a direct insult to the deaf community when there are so many talented deaf actors and actresses out there who are capable. But Hollywood again thumbs its nose at the deaf community, as well as wheelchair-bound people or blind people.

Shaheem Sanchez and Chelsea Lee are two deaf actors who co-star in Sound of Metal. Signing through an interpreter, Lee said she hopes it’ll create more opportunities but “not to just represent deaf folks just because they’re good actors. If we’re looking at auditions, for example, we assume that they’re looking for a white, able-bodied, straight, cis person. … I’m hoping the takeaways from this are truly intersectional.”

Ahmed said the talent out there among deaf actors is “mind-blowing” and found them “to be embodied in a different way” than hearing performers. “It unlocked something in me and I’m sure it would unlock something in audiences to see talent like this on the screen.”