BAZ BAMIGBOYE: How Riz Ahmed became a real whiz on the drumsticks

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It was a shock to see Riz Ahmed on my Zoom screen. He looked so … normal.

He was wearing glasses. And his attitude was thoughtful and polite (we have known each other since the earliest days of his career, when Michael Winterbottom’s explosive film The Road To Guantanamo erupted from the Berlin Film Festival in 2006).

The confusion about his appearance came from his blistering performance in director Darius Marder’s Sound Of Metal that had seared my head since I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival last year (which I attended from home).

In the film – Marder’s feature film debut – Ahmed Ruben Stone, a punk-metal drummer with Blackgammon, plays a duo with a fine Olivia Cooke as lead singer Lou.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a punk-metal drummer with Blackgammon, in director Darius Marder's Sound Of Metal

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a punk-metal drummer with Blackgammon, in director Darius Marder’s Sound Of Metal

Ruben has bleached blond hair. In one scene he performs in front of a real audience, without a shirt; his body covered in tattoos, including one that says ‘please kill me’.

It acts on a Brando-esque scale, so it’s no wonder it has Oscar (and BAFTA) Best Actor nominations alongside Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Anthony Hopkins for The Father, Gary Oldman for Mank, and Steven Yeun in Minari. .

Ahmed agreed that “it is amazing” to be nominated; and that he is ‘personally satisfied’. But he would rather be credited with the film itself, which garnered six nominations, including one for best picture.

The small, indie effort tells Ruben’s slow realization that his heavy drumming – and equally heavy drug addiction – has resulted in him losing his hearing.

When I mention the word ‘d’ – ‘handicap’ – Ahmed rebukes me softly. “One of the main takeaways for me in making this movie is that deafness is not a handicap,” he said. After seven months of research and preparation, he began to see the deaf community as “a rich and vibrant culture, from which many people could learn.”

For the film, he learned to play drums, worked with a trainer to “ give me a body, ” and attended addiction recovery meetings. He also devoted two hours a day to proficiency in American Sign Language (ASL).

His instructor told him that “deaf people will say hearing people are oppressed because we hide behind words.”

In one scene he performs in front of a real audience, without a shirt;  his body covered in tattoos, including one that says 'please kill me'

In one scene he performs in front of a real audience, without a shirt;  his body covered in tattoos, including one that says 'please kill me'

In one scene he performs in front of a real audience, without a shirt; his body covered in tattoos, including one that says ‘please kill me’

It acts on a Brando-esque scale, so it's no wonder it has Oscar (and BAFTA) Best Actor nominations

It acts on a Brando-esque scale, so it's no wonder it has Oscar (and BAFTA) Best Actor nominations

It acts on a Brando-esque scale, so it’s no wonder it has Oscar (and BAFTA) Best Actor nominations

The deaf community taught him the “true meaning of listening,” he added. ‘You don’t just listen with your ears. It’s something your whole body pays attention to. ‘

The 38-year-old Wembley actor, who now lives with his California novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza, said he was “ looking for a challenge ” when Marder offered him Ruben.

His work on big budget projects such as the Star Wars movies Rogue One and Jason Bourne stretched him out and earned him widespread recognition; but also left him ‘restless’.

“I felt like I was used to a certain way of working, and I had to pull the carpet out from under myself,” he said.

Go back to the kind of budget movies he made a name for: photos like Shifty, Four Lions and Rage. “If you’re not in full control, if you find your feet, then you dance best,” he said. “When you almost fall over.”

And it was that urge not to play it safe that brought him to Marder.

The way Sound Of Metal takes you into the world that Ruben experiences is a miracle. Sound designer Nicolas Becker (whose team was also nominated for an Oscar) used innovative techniques to build the film’s soundscape.

Ahmed agreed that “it is amazing” to be nominated; and that he is ‘personally satisfied’

After each shot, Becker approached Ahmed ‘and placed a microphone against my chest, recording my heartbeat; or ask me to lick my lips, or swallow, or even blink – so that the whole soundscape puts you in Ruben’s experience. ‘

In addition, audio blockers were placed deep in his ear canal.

“They activated them, so I couldn’t hear anything – including the sound of my own voice,” he said. And that’s disorienting. But it makes you listen with your body. ‘

The film is a remarkable achievement – not least because “it’s amazing it was made, man,” as Riz put it.

“We lost all our funding the night before the shoot started,” he told me. Marder made some phone calls and pulled the strings a lot. “It was a story against the odds,” the actor said respectfully. Fortunately, some people with money heard their screams.

Amazon Prime will release Sound Of Metal on April 12th. But UK distributor Vertigo is also keen to show it in cinemas – where we used to sit together in the dark and stare at a giant screen. Remember that ?! – hopefully from May 17th.

Welsh wonders to reopen National

Celebrated Welsh stars Michael Sheen and Sian Phillips will be leading the National Theater with a packed production of Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece Under Milk Wood.

Award-winning director Lyndsey Turner of Olivier, an employee of the NT, will stage Thomas’s play for voices at the Olivier Theater.

The National’s hierarchy had considered reopening its South Bank complex with a new work, a move that some seemed more appropriate for the occasion.

Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen

Sian Phillips

Sian Phillips

Welsh stars Michael Sheen (left) and Sian Phillips (right) will lead the National Theater out of lockdown with a packed production of Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece Under Milk Wood

However, they were convinced by Turner’s seemingly ‘visionary’ ideas about staging Under Milk Wood, which took Thomas nearly 20 torturous years to finally complete.

(The first full version of the radio play aired in 1954 from the 92nd Street Y Cultural and Community Center in Manhattan.)

Work is scheduled to begin with previews in the NT from June 16, with an official opening night on June 26.

Both Sheen and Phillips are taking shape with Under Milk Wood. They took part in a commemorative release of the BBC Wales, to celebrate the centenary of the poet’s birth in 2014; and have been associated with several other productions. Sheen also directed a lecture, on the 92Y stage where the piece made its debut.

Set in the fictional Welsh fishing village of Llareggub (bugger-all, backwards), the scabious play charts a day in the life of the area’s colorful residents who are ‘lulled to sleep and dumbfounded’ by events; which seems appropriate given the current circumstances. (More cast are gathering to play the residents of Llareggub.)

My own first live experience of the richness of Thomas ‘verse was seeing Richard Burton as the narrator as passages from Under Milk Wood were recited during a celebration of Thomas’ work at the Duke of York’s Theater in 1982.

Elizabeth Taylor was also in town. That was a great night.