Riz Ahmed Learned How to Play the Drums in 7 Months for Sound of Metal: I Had to 'Surrender'
"I think it kind of opened me up in new ways," the actor tells PEOPLE of his training for the new Amazon Studios film
Riz Ahmed's latest role required months of rigorous training, some of which was noisy but also quietly profound.
In Amazon Studios' new acclaimed drama Sound of Metal, available now to stream on Amazon Prime Video, the Emmy-winning actor, 37, plays Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who is forced to reassess his life when he begins to lose his hearing abilities. To pull off the high octane rock scenes, Ahmed learned his way around a drum set — and performed in front of real-life crowds.
"As soon as I met Darius Marder, the director, he told me: 'Listen, we're going to do this all for real. When you're drumming onscreen, you're going to be drumming for real. And when you're playing a gig, we're gonna play in a real night club in front of a real audience,' " Ahmed tells PEOPLE.
The Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor says he studied the percussion instrument for seven-plus months, practicing several hours a day with a "patient" drum instructor. It was "scary but also very exciting," he says of performing live in scenes alongside costar Olivia Cooke, who plays Ruben's girlfriend and band mate Lou in the film.
"It was actually a very psychological thing, playing the drums," says Ahmed. "You can't think your way through playing the drums, you have to kind of surrender; you have to let them play you almost. You have to trust. I think it kind of opened me up in new ways."
The extent of Ahmed's preparation for the role extended beyond only picking up a new instrument. To simulate deafness during scenes when Ruben can no longer hear, Ahmed wore "modified hearing aids placed deep into my ear canal" that played white noise, to the point he "couldn't even hear myself speak."
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Later in the movie, as his character begins to come to terms with adapting to his new normal, Ahmed was tasked with learning American Sign Language (ASL) and becoming fluent enough to improvise using the communication method. He says communicating through ASL proved to be more emotional for him than speaking audibly.
"The first time I started having complete conversations in ASL, I found myself getting much more emotional than I would have done if I just said those same words," Ahmed says. "... When you communicate in sign language, you communicate with your whole body and you have to be more facially expressive. You're embodying and connecting physically with what you’re communicating."
"It definitely taught me the true meaning of the word communication," adds the actor.
Using creative sound design techniques throughout the film, Sound of Metal immerses audiences into what Ruben is hearing and feeling.
Speaking on the need for more mainstream representation for the deaf community, Ahmed notes that neither he nor his character are representatives for those who live with deafness.
"Ruben kind of exists in another world between the hearing and deaf cultures: He no longer can be part of hearing culture in the way he used to be, and he is unwilling to kind of embed himself and enter deaf culture," says Ahmed. "He kind of exists in a no-man's land where he's not sure where he belongs, and that's something that I could tap into with my experiences culturally."
"But in terms of the deaf community’s representation, I think, they can only represent themselves. ... We were guests in that community. Just as Ruben is welcomed into this community and given an opportunity to catch a glimpse of some of its richness and diversity, it's our hope that this small window into that world will become big windows. And soon we won't be looking at anything through a window and we can all be in the same space together."
Sound of Metal is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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