For his Emmy-winning role in HBO’s “The Night Of’’ and now for the film ”Sound of Metal,‘’ Riz Ahmed has burrowed deep into characters who undergo transformations so wrenching that they essentially become different people.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Ahmed has given considerable thought to the mutability of identity.
“In uncertain times people really want to hold on tightly to a clear idea of who they are,‘’ Ahmed, 37, says during a telephone interview. “But really interesting stories remind us that who we are, the idea of who we are, is always up for grabs, and is constantly evolving, being shattered and renegotiated.‘’
“The Night Of ‘’ (2016) featured Ahmed as Nasir (Naz) Khan, a Pakistani-American college student thrust into a waking nightmare when he is accused of murder. Naz eventually emerges from Rikers Island as a physically and emotionally hardened young man.
In “Sound of Metal“ — which opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on Nov. 20 and begins streaming on Amazon Prime Dec. 4 — Ahmed portrays Ruben, a recovering heroin addict and drummer in a punk-metal band whose life unravels when he starts to go deaf, thanks to the immersive din of his occupation.
Just as the platinum-haired, heavily tattooed drummer and his girlfriend, the singer Lou (Olivia Cooke), seem to be on the brink of success, Ruben faces the short-circuiting of his music career. While there are steps Ruben needs to take to prepare for a new life as a deaf person, he is reluctant to take them. Even after he agrees to a stint in a sober house for deaf addicts, Ruben chases the prospect of a cure for his hearing loss, still gravitating toward the quick fix.
Shot mainly in Ipswich in the summer of 2018, with some filming also in Cambridge, Boston, Lynn, and Topsfield, “Sound of Metal‘’ generated strong word of mouth when it premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Sound of Metal‘’ represents the feature-film directing debut of Conway native Darius Marder, who co-wrote the script with his brother, Abraham. Darius Marder previously directed the documentary “Loot‘’ (2008) and co-wrote the screenplay for “The Place Beyond the Pines‘’ (2012). For “Sound of Metal,‘’ he selected a cast that is a blend of hearing, hard-of-hearing, and deaf actors, including numerous performers from the Boston area. Playing a teacher in the sober house is Lauren Ridloff, who delivered a breakout 2017 performance in Stockbridge (and later on Broadway) in Berkshire Theatre Group’s revival of “Children of a Lesser God.‘’
Ruben’s hearing loss — aural fragments alternating with oceanic silence — is captured via innovative sound techniques. “This is a small film [but] we went for a sound design that is as big as any action movie,‘’ says Marder, 46. “It was a 23-week mix. It took more time to mix the movie than it did to edit the picture. It was an absolute odyssey.‘’
To intensify the experience of deafness for Ahmed, the director had him wear a custom implant that emitted a white noise, blocking him from hearing. That was only one of the demands Marder placed on his star.
Although the British-Pakistani Ahmed has for years performed as a rapper under the name Riz MC, he did not know how to play the drums. It quickly became clear, in his discussions with Marder, that the director was intent on a level of verisimilitude that would require that skill. “He told me early on that this is all going to be for real, and if we decide to do this together, when you’re drumming onscreen, you’re really going to be drumming, and that’s the sound were going to use,‘’ says Ahmed. “I said, ‘That’s amazing, but I don’t play the drums, so I’ll just have to learn.’ ‘’
He did. It took Ahmed seven months to master the drums, while also immersing himself for an equivalent amount of time in the study of American Sign Language. “The preparation for this was kind of crazy, kind of unheard of, in many ways,‘’ the actor says, laughing a bit at his own temerity. “You know, learning two languages, really. In spite of being a challenge it was such an incredible gift.‘’
Those last three words might also describe how Marder views his star, who has appeared in major franchise films like “Jason Bourne” (2016) and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘’ (2016), whose budgets dwarf that of “Sound of Metal.“
“What a lucky guy I am,“ says Marder. “This is Riz Ahmed at a moment when he’s really hitting it big as an actor. He’s won an Emmy. He’s now been in these tent-pole movies. He’s at a major, major crossroads in his career. And he has the courage to sign on to a relatively small film with a director that’s making his debut piece of fiction.
“He’s within a very small handful of actors who can do what he does,“ the director adds. “There just aren’t that many people that would commit to a role as fully as Riz committed to this role. It was really what I required. I think I scared a lot of actors. . . . It took me five years to cast the movie, probably, because of that.“
In one sequence, Ruben melts down in a manner that for pure despairing fury almost rivals the famous scene in “Citizen Kane“ where Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) obliterates his departed wife’s bedroom. Asked how he gets to that crucible of intensity, Ahmed responds with a flurry of mixed metaphors: “You have to hand over the keys to the wave you’re riding. You draw from your own life. You have this deck of cards, and you shuffle it, and you get somewhere in the back of your head, and then you just jump.“
But ultimately he seems less interested in talking about the craft of acting than in describing what he learned from his deaf and hard-of-hearing castmates and instructors.
“It made me aware that we live in a very segregated society, between hearing and deaf culture,“ says Ahmed. “Just spending some time in the deaf community and socializing within that community made me realize how insane that is. There’s really no reason for it. We should all be learning our national sign languages. There’s an incredible well of potential connections and friendships and love that we’re just not tapping into. There’s an immense wealth of deaf talent onscreen that isn’t being tapped into.
“My sign instructor would often tell me that there’s a trope in the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed, because we hide behind words,“ he adds. “There is a truth to that. Certainly being forced to communicate nonverbally opened me up in different ways.“