Losing Control With Riz Ahmed
To call it the worst night of sleep Riz Ahmed ever had would imply that any sleep was had at all. It was the night before Ahmed began shooting “Sound of Metal” — an intense, critically acclaimed Amazon drama that has vaulted the 38-year-old into the best-actor Oscar race — and he could do little but stare at the ceiling as adrenaline coursed through his body, robbing it of rest.
This wasn’t the first time Ahmed had dealt with preshoot paranoia: Before the British actor embarked on “The Night Of,” “Four Lions” and “Nightcrawler,” he found himself similarly sleepless, with an uneasy mind that could not be soothed. Still, every time he makes a new movie, Ahmed convinces himself that it’ll be different — maybe meditation will help, or even a glass of hot milk before bed.
It’s never different. “Nothing’s going to put that animal to rest when it’s growling,” he said. “So I just don’t sleep.”
Several restless nights into shooting “Sound of Metal,” Ahmed began to overthink things. Maybe it wasn’t the nerves that were keeping him awake, or the thrilling, terrifying challenge of embodying Ruben, a punk-metal drummer in recovery from heroin addiction who struggles with the onset of hearing loss.
Maybe it was the mattress.
The more Ahmed fixated on it, the more certain he became. He ran it by his director, Darius Marder, who seemed skeptical, but during a break from shooting Ahmed still peeled off to make a purchase. “I went and I bought a new mattress, man,” he said, laughing about it now.
“We bought him two new mattresses,” Marder would tell me later.
Did things get any better? Sort of yes, sort of no. The new mattresses hardly helped, but all that sleeplessness actually paid off. “When you’re too tired to think,” Ahmed explained, “you just have to let other things take over.”
And that feeling of being so overwhelmed by a project that you’ve got to give in and allow yourself to be guided by pure instinct — well, as much as Ahmed may overthink the path that gets him there, he also knows that state is the exact thing he’s so often seeking.
“It’s when you release control that the interesting things happen,” he said. “That’s when your subconscious will start speaking in tongues, when you can’t articulate the words yourself, when your body has an intelligence and wisdom that you hand the reins over to. Creativity is more physical than we realize.”
This is the way Ahmed talks, in torrents of passionate philosophy. He offers a raft of ideas for every question he’s asked, then undergirds those answers by quoting from Tolstoy, Rumi and Pixar. When Ahmed’s big brown eyes widen and he really gets going, as he did early this month while we spoke via video, he can sound like a terrifically engaging podcast played at 1.5-x speed.
“He’s a bit of a savant, like a supercomputer,” Marder said of his Oxford-educated star. When he met with Ahmed for “Sound of Metal,” Marder regarded that fearsome intellect as both an asset to the film and a challenge to be overcome.
“I felt if he were to build such a solid foundation for this character that he could let go of that incredibly adept frontal lobe of his and just trust in his instincts,” Marder said, “then there was a performance in him that could be really transcendent.”
After a series of supporting roles in “Venom,” “The Sisters Brothers” and other movies, Ahmed was eager for an all-consuming challenge, and he recognized a kindred spirit in Marder, who had spent 13 years searching for stars who could match his full-throttle commitment to the movie.
“I basically was trying to scare actors and see if they were up for it,” Marder said. “I told one actress she had to shave her head, because I knew it was the thing she wouldn’t do.” (Though the female lead in “Sound of Metal” is played by Olivia Cooke, actors like Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson were previously attached to the project.)
Marder would dare actors to drop out, and most of them obliged. But Ahmed wanted a director who could push him out of his comfort zone. “I think we both like the intoxication of feeling overwhelmed by a creative obsession,” Ahmed said. “We like not being able to feel the bottom of the swimming pool.”
So the London-based Ahmed uprooted himself to New York in 2018 to spend eight months preparing for “Sound of Metal.” Each day, he would spend two hours learning American Sign Language, two hours on drum practice, two hours sculpting his body with a personal trainer, and the rest of the day with his acting coach.
“You prepare like an obsessive psychopath,” Ahmed said, “and then you turn up like someone who doesn’t know how to tie their shoelaces and you see what happens.”
Still, his eagerness often ran up against his tendency to overthink things. “I have to tell you, the time leading up to this shoot was so thick with fear,” Marder said. “Riz’s process was very intense. It was not a chill time.”
Marder would often refuse Ahmed’s requests for further script analysis, and the day before the shoot, as Ahmed began steeling himself for a sleepless night, Marder came to visit and said he wouldn’t allow the actor to watch dailies of his performance.
“He absolutely lost it,” Marder said. “He said, ‘This is part of my process, I have to look at dailies, I have to analyze.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re not going to.’”
The standoff was broken only when Marder said, “Riz, I’m not going to be your enabler.’” After having spent months immersed in the language of recovery, that idea made Ahmed laugh. They parted with a hug, and a tired but game Ahmed showed up on set the next day, ready to trust his instincts and give himself over to the character.
The result is a career-best performance, intimate, persuasive and heartbreaking. And for all of Ahmed’s well-practiced physical verisimilitude — you’ll believe every drum solo and signed exclamation — it’s a performance he ultimately sells with those striking, vulnerable eyes. As an actor, he doesn’t need much more.
“To Riz’s credit, he trusted me,” Marder said. “It was impulse. It was non-analytical. It was scary. But it was alive.”
I asked Marder if he had come to any conclusions about the essential tension at the heart of his leading man. What does it mean when a self-described control freak like Ahmed feels such a strong gravitational pull to projects that he hopes will overwhelm him?
Marder laughed, because something was occurring to him for the first time. “Well, I think that might actually be the definition of an artist,” he said.
HERE IS A PARTIAL INVENTORY of Riz Ahmed’s projects from his breakthrough year of 2016:
— Two television shows, “The Night Of” and “The OA”;
— Four feature films, including the blockbusters “Star Wars: Rogue One” and “Jason Bourne”;
— One essay contributed to the best-selling book “The Good Immigrant”;
— And two major musical moments, a guest appearance on the “Hamilton” mixtape and the album “Cashmere,” released by Ahmed and the rapper Heems as part of their hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys.
It was a lot, for good and for ill. In December of that year, Ahmed took to Instagram for a celebratory look back that sounded more than a little exhausted. “Only a year ago, for various reasons, I wasn’t sure I could carry on doing this,” he wrote. “I had a realisation through some really tough moments that we have no control in this life. And it got me down, but then, seeing no other way forwards, I had to embrace this helplessness.”
Over Zoom four years later, I read the caption to Ahmed, who blinked twice. “When did I write that?” he said. “I have no memory of that. Wow. Wow. I had a bit of a burnout.”
Ahmed has always been eager to pile his plate high. “Like Ruben, I rely heavily on being obsessively busy,” he said. A successful career as an actor practically demands an itinerant lifestyle and that came naturally to Ahmed, who grew up in Wembley, London, with a father who worked for the Pakistani merchant navy: “He was away from home a lot, so maybe I’ve internalized this idea that what you’re meant to do as a working man is go out of the house and cover as much ground as possible in the world.”
Or maybe, Ahmed mused, a child of immigrants will always feel an innate sense of wanderlust. “There’s a constant narrative of home being somewhere else, home’s the next place you’re going to get to,” he said. “But if home is always the next place, then you’re building a tent on quicksand. The work itself is the place you can live, maybe.”
So live there he did, working steadily then heavily, and in the process becoming the first Muslim and the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy for his transformative role as an accused murderer in “The Night Of.” But around that time, after having been pulled in so many different directions, Ahmed began to lose his center. Worse, the creative spirit that animates him had come to feel less like a wild creature and more like a circus animal.
“It was something I was willing to diligently train for the validation of others,” Ahmed said, “whether that’s the ‘bravo’ of an audience or the ‘well done’ of a director or the retweets of music fans or thinking about what the people in my community need from me.” Taking on too much had left him alienated from the things he loved doing, and guilty for even feeling that way.
“I think that’s a byproduct of a lot of things,” he said, “like feeling a bit of a burden of representation on your shoulders, and realizing that you might occupy space that many others don’t.”
In his essay for “The Good Immigrant,” Ahmed wrote about the toll of being racially profiled in airports and auditions, and the implicit instructions he felt to leave a part of himself at the door if he wanted to be waved through. “It’s being told you are not enough,” he said. “You are not the right shape, size, color, you’re not what people expect, you don’t fit into any of these archetypes.’”
But why shouldn’t he have the opportunity to give all of himself to something, instead of contorting to fit into ready-made boxes? “The thing that doesn’t exist in culture is someone like me,” Ahmed said, growing animated. “Characters like Dev Patel don’t exist, bro! Dev Patel’s a 6-foot-5 black-belt Indian dude from northwest London, and I don’t see that character on the screen.”
That’s why Ahmed found the overwhelming specificity of his “Sound of Metal” role so attractive. He knows that a man like Ruben — a deaf, heroin-addicted American with bleach-blond hair and a buff body covered in tattoos — might seem worlds away from a garrulous actor-rapper who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.
“But that’s how you stretch culture, by bringing yourself to it,” Ahmed said. And the chance to pour every part of himself into this role paid personal dividends, too: “I feel more connected to me now than I’ve ever felt by going on a journey through space and time and inhabiting another body. You leave home to return home.”
There were lessons learned from playing Ruben, as well as lessons he’ll keep having to relearn, Ahmed admitted. “Ruben is on a journey to try and learn the value of stillness and that’s something that I think I can get better at,” he said. His past year, though tempered by the pandemic, was still an eventful one: Ahmed put out a hip-hop concept album, “The Long Goodbye,” shot the film “Invasion” alongside Octavia Spencer, and married the novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza.
There’s always going to be a lot going on with Riz Ahmed — that’s just the kind of person he is. Still, Marder sensed a change in his actor on the other side of making “Sound of Metal.”
“I do think it marked this kind of crossroads in his life as an artist and as a person,” Marder said. “Maybe it’s not a mistake that he’s married now. He’s taking these big moments in life, these big changes, and giving himself to something else that is also out of his control.”
Ahmed agreed. That desire to overwhelm himself, he said, is a reminder to live less in his head and more in the moment.
“If we don’t control anything, then maybe every single thing in your life is a gift,” Ahmed said. “Wow! That’s amazing, you know?” And he wasn’t talking about the sort of gifts that awards season can bring, like the Gotham Award for best actor his “Sound of Metal” performance earned in early January.
“I mean the bird on the windowsill, dude,” Ahmed said. “Or a tree. Or this breath.” He closed his eyes and sucked in all the air he could, then smiled. “Or the way it cools my insides when it comes in,” he said.
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