The Oscars’ first Muslim lead actor nominee tells other British-Asians “You’re the decision maker”
In years to come, a pub-quiz question will be: who was the first Muslim to be nominated for “actor in a leading role” in the Oscars?
If you answered Mahershala Ali, you would be wrong. He won his award in the supporting actor category.
The correct response is: Britain’s Riz Ahmed in the independently made Sound of Metal.
More trivia. The film, about a drummer and former addict in a punk-metal band who becomes deaf, did not have a distributor when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.
This month’s 78-year Academy Awards may be rather special if history is made, and Ahmed wins the coveted prize. So special that you sense the enormity of his achievement has not quite sunk in for the actor.
“To be honest, I felt very, very grateful,” Ahmed said when I asked him what it was like to get the nod. “I took it as encouragement for the journey that lies ahead, rather than a prize for a journey that’s finished or destination it’s been reached, and I still feel I have a lot more to give. I just kind of want to take the encouragement and move forward.”
Speaking over Zoom, no screen, just his voice, you can hear the surprise, humility, and just that tiny hint of pride.
And that modesty shines through. It is not about him; it is about the team.
“The thing that was really kind of moving for me in particular was to see the film with so many nominations,” he continued. “Six nominations for this small Indie film that we made with very little budget, very little time. That to me is just very, very moving knowing how much everyone put into it.”
Like many-a-movie, it is the back story which is just as important. In Ahmed’s case, we must not forget he is an award-winning rap artist.
He has been nominated in other competitions for a number of acting roles, including Shifty, Four Lions, Nightcrawler, City of Tiny Lights and his next film Mogul Mowgli.
And lest we forget, he won the Emmy for “outstanding lead actor in a limited series” for HBO’s The Night Of.
So, here is a perfect vignette for the Ahmed biopic, the time he met Sound of Metal director, Darius Marder.
“I got sent the script, and I loved it. I met the director, and we really, really connected,” he enthused. “We had a long lunch, and it was halfway through that, we were both saying we have to do this together. So, it was kind of love at first between myself and Darius.”
Marder also warned him about what the role entailed.
“He told me that it’d be pretty challenging, learning sign language and learning how to play the drums. And to be honest, that just really, really excited me. So, the combination of the script, director, and the challenge that this journey would present, it meant that I was just desperate to do it.”
Every day, for weeks, Ahmed would spend two hours learning American sign language. On top of that he would spend another gruelling two hours mastering the drums to get that authenticity.
But surely his musical ability as a rapper helped?
“I thought that I was more rhythmically gifted than I was,” he conceded. “Keeping time with words is very different to keeping in time with all the different limbs, coordinating across different types of drums. So, there was a struggle for me, playing the drums, getting to the place where I needed to get to, it did not come easily. It just took a lot of hard work.”
Keeping it real
Early in his acting career, Ahmed may have appeared to have played the stereotypical roles often given to south Asian actors. The Islamic terrorist (The Road to Guantánamo and Four Lions) or a drug dealer (Shifty), for example.
But, just as in the Sound of Metal, the actor brings a hidden depth to his characters which impress critics and judging panels alike.
“People interpret your words, and your actions how they want,” he said when asked whether he was a role model for other south Asians in Britain today. “What matters to me is that rather than being a role model is that I’m just real to myself, I can just be authentic to how I’m feeling at any given time. As long as I’m just keeping honest, I can feel good about my choices.”
Several British actors of colour have complained that they have to go to America to “make it” before Britain accepts them.
Learning from America
Ahmed told Eastern Eye that Britain can learn from the United States.
“A lot of the actors in the US industry right now making waves are the British. So, Britain must be doing something right, generating this talent, and often diverse talent is making an impact.
“At the same time, the British industry can learn from the American one in terms of the opportunities it creates.”
In January, Midlands actress Meera Syal, told Eastern Eye that her industry suffers from “lazy racism” and a “diversity quota system”.
Pushed on this point, Ahmed agreed with her.
“Meera Syal is a trailblazer – anything that she says, I take very, very seriously,” he said. “I look up to Sanjeev [Bhaskar], I look up to these people who have paved the way.
“So, if that’s her view, I don’t question it for a second, and it’s really important to highlight the fact that, even though there may be individual cases of people who might be breaking through certain glass ceilings, the overall big picture can tell a different story, which is about a lack of opportunities or systemic imbalance or opportunity.
“So, I think it’s really important that alongside celebrating the individual cases that show signs of progress that we also step back and look at the bigger picture and say, well, you know what, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
For Ahmed, it does not matter whether others become complacent off the back of individual diversity triumphs.
“I’m not sitting around feeling concerned about whether other people are going to rest on the laurels. I’m just very much focused on the work I am gonna do, for myself and for others in creating space.
“So, I’m done with the days of sitting on the side lines, worrying about what decision makers will do. We are the real decision makers, we have to make a decision to make a difference.”
His story is one of bright-British-Asian-boy-done-good. Ahmed, born 38 years ago in Wembley, north London, won a scholarship to a private school, before reading philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford.
“Don’t ask for permission, step up, and do it,” said Ahmed when I ask him what he would tell other British south Asians who want to act, produce or direct. “It’s a long road, and it requires a lot of dedication and hard work.
“There are no overnight successes. But it starts with a commitment to just do it. Don’t wait for anyone to tell you that you should do it or that you can do it. You need to tell that to yourself and take that first step.”
The 78th Academy Awards take place on Sunday, April 25 at 8 p.m. EST.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video from April 12th and released in cinemas from May 17th.
Barnie Choudhury is editor-at-large for Eastern Eye. You can read more of his work here. https://www.easterneye.biz/?s=Barnie+Choudhury