With his buzzy performance in 'Sound of Metal' — which required him to learn sign language and drumming — plus a new wife and a booming company, the soft-spoken actor and rapper is having his loudest year yet.
Back in summer 2018, Riz Ahmed was preparing for a classroom scene for his latest film, Sound of Metal, and his American Sign Language coach, Jeremy Lee Stone, was becoming increasingly annoyed. Stone had worked with the actor for the better part of a year, teaching him ASL for the role of Ruben, a rock drummer whose life begins to spiral out of control when he loses his hearing. This, however, was his first day on the Massachusetts set, and he hadn't seen his star pupil in months. Stone made a "voices off" sign, and Ahmed was expected to reciprocate with an identical sign. But Ahmed sat defiantly, refusing to sign, and "it boiled my blood," Stone recalls. After all, the actor was well beyond fluent in ASL by that point. And then it hit Stone. Ruben the character was not yet fluent. "I realized, in that moment, I'm not speaking to Riz," Stone recalls. "There was no Riz. He was fully Ruben in that moment."
Ahmed's deeply immersive performance in Sound of Metal, which Amazon debuted Nov. 20, has garnered some of the best reviews of a trailblazing career that has brought the British-born phenom American stardom — if not quite universal recognition: On a sunny January day in Santa Monica's Palisades Park, as the 38-year-old actor is logging on to a video call with The Hollywood Reporter, a stranger calls out to him. "Is that Hardy?" she asks. Ahmed is confused. "Your name is Hardy?" the woman presses. "No it's not, no, no sorry," he says, looking puzzled before switching his focus back to the call. "I wonder if she meant Tom Hardy? Or Laurel and Hardy? Or am I a Hadid?"
Since 2016, Ahmed has flirted with a don't-confuse-me-with-Tom-Hardy kind of celebrity by starring in the Star Wars stand-alone Rogue One, a $1 billion-plus earner that became that year's second-highest-grossing film domestically, followed by Spider-Man spinoff Venom (which starred Hardy) two years later. In between, he made history as the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy for his role in HBO's The Night Of, besting Robert De Niro, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Geoffrey Rush and his Night Of co-star John Turturro in the outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie category.
But instead of harnessing that momentum and becoming a tentpole-only player, Ahmed signed on for the riskiest role of his career with Sound of Metal, a film that would require nearly a year of intense preparation with Stone as well as a drum instructor and a trainer. Underscoring the gamble, the film paired him with a first-time narrative feature director in Darius Marder, who had been trying to get the project off the ground for nearly a decade.
" 'Why are you doing this when you could go off and get paid, finally?' " Ahmed remembers asking himself. "There was an opportunity to do bigger, more commercial projects and make money and buy a home and all these things. But I thought, 'Here's your chance.' My gut feeling about it was so strong. And for whatever reason, I felt really hungry for something like that, to go all in and just fucking go there."
The risk paid off, with Sound of Metal capping off a year of professional and personal highs for the actor and sometime rapper. Ahmed recently wrapped production of the Amazon sci-fi thriller Invasion, opposite Octavia Spencer, and the studio was so enamored that it signed a first-look TV deal with his fledgling Left Handed Films production company. (Amazon studios chief Jennifer Salke calls his Sound of Metal performance "breathtaking" and says she is "incredibly excited that he's chosen to make Amazon Studios his home.") He's also in business with the Obamas, developing the Netflix film Exit West, based on the best-seller by Mohsin Hamid. And as added punctuation, Ahmed pulled off a very low-key wedding to novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza during lockdown — a simple, minimally attended, socially distanced affair.
"It feels good to be married," he says of life with his new bride, whose debut novel, A Place for Us, was published by Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint, SJP for Hogarth. "I think COVID has been a massive accelerator for people. It's been something that just clarifies things for you, clarifies what you're doing, why you're doing it, what you really want. It seems to have sent us hurtling into our own futures, collectively and individually. Getting married was something that felt right and made sense."
Hours after this interview wrapped, Ahmed nabbed the Gotham Awards' best actor honors, putting him squarely in the Oscar race, where he could continue to topple ethnic barriers. (Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian, is the only man of South Asian descent who has ever won or been nominated in the Academy Awards' best actor category.) Like his breakout role in Dan Gilroy's 2014 noir drama Nightcrawler, the Sound of Metal protagonist certainly was not written with a Pakistani Brit in mind.
"Many metal guys are Jewish," Marder explains. "But I wanted this actor to be Ruben, which was about a deep emotional truth and had nothing to do with ethnicity. Ruben grew up on the fringe, on the edge of society, counterculture. It was wonderful to find Riz because he knows what it feels like to be marginalized."
Ahmed was born in Wembley, the youngest of three in a working-class family. His father was in the Pakistani Merchant Navy before leaving to become a freelance shipping agent. His grandmother was the primary caretaker for the children until her death, when his mother, who worked in a government welfare office, took over. By his own admission, he was sandwiched between castes and cultures, a Pakistani speaking Urdu with his traditional Muslim family at home and a Brit wearing a stiff uniform at a posh private school thanks to a scholarship.
"The house I was in was called Clive House, [named after] Robert Clive, the guy who colonized India," he recalls. "And they wanted me to go play cricket for Clive House. I'm like, 'No.' I'd take off the tie and change into my fake Versace stuff to go to daytime parties with my South Asian rude-boy friends."
As far back as he can remember, Ahmed took pleasure in reenacting all the movies he watched with his older brother and cousins after trekking to the post office to rent VHS tapes, from RoboCop to Nightmare on Elm Street. He kept a diary and scrawled notes about each.
"Every film had to be violent enough to be R-rated," he says with a laugh. "I was this little hyperactive kid, and it was a playground for my imagination."
In school, Ahmed didn't even bother trying to fit in, and he landed in trouble quickly, ramming a chair through a window at age 11.
"I was very lucky that I had some teachers who basically said, 'Look, you want to mess around in my class, I'll give you another Saturday detention. If you mess around on the stage, you get a round of applause. So, you pick,' " he recalls. "It changed my life. [Theater] was a space for me to channel all this ADD energy."
Still, the elder Ahmeds stressed education above all else. With a brother who was on his way to becoming a psychiatrist and a sister who would practice law, he devised a backup plan in case acting didn't pan out and graduated with a degree from Oxford in philosophy, politics and economics.
"My parents had doubts, but so did I," he says about his acting ambitions. When he was 22, he landed a role in Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantánamo, a docudrama about three British citizens who were captured in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and detained for more than two years. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear. Upon his return to the U.K., Ahmed himself was detained at Luton Airport and questioned by authorities about his views on the Islamic cause and the Iraq War. "Then, all I was being put up for was terrorist roles," he says of the period that followed. (In 2019, he said Homeland Security prevented him from flying to the Star Wars Celebration in Chicago.)
He tried out for the Royal Shakespeare Company and says he blew the audition. But that bungled read led to better opportunities. He returned from the audition and began penning the satirical rap track "Post 9/11 Blues," which initially was banned from British airplay but then went viral. The song, which he says skewers the "circus of fear" of the time, caught the attention of director Chris Morris, who cast Ahmed as the lead in the jihad-themed black comedy Four Lions.
All the while, he received lots of "terrible" scripts filled with two-dimensional Muslim stereotypes. "Too many to remember," he says. "Things that their very premise, before you've even read a word of it, were offensive."
Instead, he gravitated toward auteurs with strong visions. The results were mixed.
"My audition for Slumdog Millionaire was just atrocious, and I accidentally ripped off half of Danny Boyle's shirt," he says. "He told me, 'You can go for it and grab me.' And it all went blank, and then I remember I'd got him up against a wall, and everyone stopped. Yeah, there's always those fuckups."
Coming off Mira Nair's 2012 drama The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ahmed enjoyed some heat and signed with a U.S. talent agency (he's now repped by WME and his longtime U.K. agent Kate Bryden). He met with Gilroy, who was casting Nightcrawler, but the director gave him little hope, telling Ahmed, "you're definitely, definitely, definitely not right" for the role of a homeless hustler who becomes a morally compromised news videographer, the actor recalls. By the end of the meeting, Gilroy told Ahmed to send him a tape.
"I did this obsessive thing that I do, which is send him 13 different takes. I'm an insane obsessive at times," he says. "I sent him auditions with different costumes, different accents. Some people, that would scare them off. Other people go, 'This person is crazy. Maybe they'll go the extra mile or something.' For whatever reason, Dan was into it."
Gilroy summoned Ahmed back to L.A. for a chemistry read with the film's star, Jake Gyllenhaal. But the production wouldn't foot the airfare, and Ahmed was broke.
"This was a real turning point for me in terms of like, 'Can I continue doing this?' " the actor notes. "I used half of what was remaining in my bank account at that time to just put myself on a plane to L.A. and spent the eight hours on that flight preparing for that audition. And then I landed it."
What followed Nightcrawler was a series of high-profile studio films — Jason Bourne, Rogue One and Venom — as well as HBO's The Night Of. There was little doubt: Ahmed had arrived. But he found he missed some of the more unconstrained, freewheeling filmmaking of the early days of his career, when he starred in movies with names like Shifty (playing the title character in the urban crime drama, naturally).
"The kind of movies I was doing in the U.K. for 10 years before The Night Of and Star Wars and all these kind of things," he explains. "They were just smaller and scrappier and independent, and were very intimate working environments."
Enter Marder, a perfectionist who spent years rejecting actors for the role of Ruben, a recovering addict who begins to lose his hearing after years of amplified acoustic exposure. His script became a running joke among agents, with no client ever meeting the director's expectations.
"Not everybody can do what Riz was able to do," Marder says. "Not just could but would. You need an immense amount of talent that Riz obviously has, but you also need a commitment to a process that I was interested in, which was unusual."
The process wasn't just unusual. It required full immersion. And Ahmed was game, moving from London to Brooklyn to be closer to Marder, a documentarian and screenwriter whose writing credits include the Bradley Cooper-Ryan Gosling starrer The Place Beyond the Pines. When Ahmed first arrived, he was reed-thin, his black hair peeking out from under a baseball cap. In short order, he dyed his hair blond and began transforming his forearms with Leighton Grant II, a no-nonsense trainer who suffers from hearing loss, just like Sound of Metal's Ruben.
Marder created custom earpieces that emitted white noise so Ahmed couldn't hear other sounds or his own voice. The actor also learned to drum. "Drums are hard because you have to put the time in," says Marder. "There's one point when your right and left brain start to merge, and you can't rush that."
Another thing Ahmed didn't rush was learning ASL, working with Stone daily for seven months and becoming fluent in the process. (Stone, who is deaf, says it typically takes students two years to become fluent.)
"Many actors are looking for a shortcut, whatever is good enough, 'Could I sign this?' 'Did I get that line?' Very two-dimensional to me," Stone says through an ASL interpreter. "[Being deaf] is about a culture. To really teach him, Riz really had to strip his identity and become fully immersed in the deaf community."
Stone included Ahmed in his own wedding, a deaf ceremony with six interpreters. Likewise, Ahmed invited Stone to one of his house parties, a rooftop affair whose revelers included French photographer and street artist JR. Stone was the only deaf person there, and no one other than Ahmed knew sign language. Given that it was dark outside, Stone couldn't read lips and interpret gestures. Feeling isolated, he decided to leave but was stopped in the lobby by Ahmed.
"He was like, 'Just give me one second,' " Stone recalls. "He went back up to the rooftop, and he told everyone to come down to the lobby for me to be able to see them and lip-read. Fifty people came down. The one word that I would give to describe Riz from this experience is that he is real. There is no bullshit, no pretense."
For Ahmed, it was a simple gesture that made a big difference to one man.
"I just thought, 'That's my friend. Fuck that, it's our loss at the party if Jeremy is not able to vibe with us,' " says Ahmed. "I just feel like the cost of creating an inclusive environment, whether it's on a film set, in our society or at a house party, is always outweighed by the benefit of knowing we are all in it together."
After Sound of Metal wrapped, Ahmed embarked on his most autobiographical project yet by co-writing and starring in Bassam Tariq's drama Mogul Mowgli. The film, which follows a British Pakistani rapper who is on the cusp of his first world tour when he is derailed by a serious illness, debuted at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival to raves and is scheduled to be released in the U.S. this year by art house label Strand.
"I had this lightbulb moment of another way of stretching culture is contributing a new archetype, a new mold, a new kind of protagonist to our culture that we don't normally see," he says. "I guess that's why it came from that instinct to pull from a personal place."
Throughout the lockdown, Ahmed has stayed busy. Though the industry remains hobbled, he shot Invasion right before COVID-19 conditions took a turn for the worse in L.A., finishing up in December. He forged an instant bond with co-star Spencer.
"I consider great actors to be excellent detectives as they constantly fight to find the truth of their character's circumstances as it relates to the scene. Riz was a great detective," she says. "He was everything I thought he'd be — intelligent, funny, quiet yet thoughtful."
Invasion, which marks a more cerebral entry in the alien visitation subgenre, also offered a welcome distraction from the COVID crisis. Ahmed lost an aunt and uncle with whom he was very close to the virus.
"I'm just aware that many people are experiencing loss right now," he says, growing quiet amid a now empty park. "And that isn't a way of deflecting talking about that experience [of my loss]. That's honestly a way of realizing that even in our loss, we are not alone."
For now, there are no studio tentpoles on the horizon. He shoots down the possibility of appearing in a Venom sequel ("I think I'm done in Venom. It's pretty conclusive. Dude got blown up in a spaceship") or in a rumored prequel film to Rogue One ("I just haven't heard of that, to be honest"). In the meantime, Ahmed is consumed with his Left Handed development slate, which includes his longtime dream project: a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The project was set up at Netflix but lapsed and reverted back to Ahmed.
"The first step is being let in the room and the second step is owning a piece of the room and the third step is being able to let other people into the room behind you," he says. "I'm just focused on my company right now. That and walking around Santa Monica, being confused for Hardy."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.