Riz Ahmed Learns to Harness His Power

The “Sound of Metal” Oscar nominee unveils the secrets to his craft and the strength of surrender

For Riz Ahmed, the key to unlocking any great performance is the practice of surrender. A given role’s preparatory work is done, the emotional life is built, and the character is right there waiting behind the veil; all he has to do is pull it back and let him take over. 

“It’s about taking a leap of faith in yourself, in your partner, in this present moment, to carry you. And that is a kind of spiritual act, really—to believe that you are enough,” Ahmed reflects. “Because within you is everything, and within everything is you. That’s a tenet of faith. It is interesting that so many spiritual traditions talk about surrender. I think of acting as a spiritual practice, and it’s about surrender.

“That’s why I always think that preparation isn’t about making decisions—it’s about exploring possibilities,” he continues. “And that’s why it’s really important not to get into a rut when you’re preparing, [and] to prepare in a way that makes you feel like you’re opening up possibilities rather than closing them down.”

“Those times when you’re reminded that you don’t control anything, there’s a creative breakthrough just on the other side of it. It’s that surrender; being reminded that you’re not in control is the artist’s greatest superpower.”

To bear witness to the fruits of such surrender, look no further than Ahmed’s performances since making his feature film debut in the BAFTA-nominated “The Road to Guantánamo” just months after graduating from London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. In the last 15 years, the 38-year-old British Pakistani performer has risen to the upper echelons of U.K. independent cinema, notching three British Independent Film Award nominations for best actor by 2012. He won an Emmy for his mainstream breakout on HBO’s limited series “The Night Of” in 2017, and dabbled in some of the biggest blockbuster properties of the last decade, including “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Jason Bourne,” and “Venom.” Today, he is the recipient of industrywide praise—and nominations for Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG, Film Independent Spirit, and many more awards—for his work in Darius Marder’s grueling but gratifying “Sound of Metal.”

“Ideally, you go a bit deeper every time; you go a bit further every time; you learn something new every time,” Ahmed, speaking by Zoom from Los Angeles, says of his progression as a performer. “I was on this group call with Gary Oldman on one of these actor roundtables recently, and he was saying that impostor syndrome never leaves you. I would put it a different way: You never stop growing. You never stop going, ‘Ah, of course! OK, that’s for next time.’ Which is the thrill of it, but it can also be tricky to accept.”

Ahmed first found his identity as a performer at an early age, more as a result of others’ guidance than of a love for the arts. “I did always have that tendency to be a bit hyperactive—having too much energy and not knowing what to do with it or how to channel it,” he remembers. His mother, herself boasting a “larger-than-life personality,” nurtured her 8-year-old son’s impressions of Prince Charles and penchant for acting “like a clown at family gatherings” by signing him up for youth speech and drama classes. 

“I was constantly trying to reenact films that I’d seen—it was ‘RoboCop,’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ ” he remembers. “I’d be running around the house, jumping off the staircase, trying to create my own Jackie Chan movies. Looking back, it kind of kept me from being thrown out of school, having that outlet.”

In high school, Ahmed began “getting into more trouble,” but he soon learned to channel his excess energy into performing onstage. “I just found it incredibly soothing to be able to go onto a stage and really let it rip,” he says. “It was something that was very cathartic for me.” (That catharsis continues today in his acting, but also in his work as a rapper and musician via hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys and his solo studio efforts—most recently, 2020 concept album and short film “The Long Goodbye.”)

The arts continued on an extracurricular and self-starting basis throughout his time studying philosophy, politics, and economics at Christ Church, Oxford University. But it was later, while studying at CSSD—rooting himself in the classic and foundational texts, teachings, and practitioners of the craft—when Ahmed the actor we know today began to take shape. 

Part of that delay, he admits, is a result of feeling like he could never feasibly mine his passion for professional gain. 

“One of the biggest obstacles to any journey, and one that you have to continually revisit and resurmount, is the obstacle in your mind which tells you that it’s not a realistic goal and it’s not something you can do,” Ahmed says. “I never thought I could [act] for a living—and nor did anyone else really tell me that would be a wise move, either, because you didn’t see a lot of people like me doing that.

“You internalize those messages from what you see on the screen, what you see in the culture. If you’re not reflected in the culture, you start to imagine that maybe you don’t belong in it. Absence is itself a very powerful message.”

Ahmed has spoken extensively over the years about how race often influences the roles that he and other nonwhite actors are afforded onscreen. He found ways early on to subvert the more frustrating tropes of Muslim representation in the 21st century; his “Road to Guantánamo” debut was a politicized account of those wrongfully detained in the aftermath of 9/11, and fan favorite “Four Lions” satirized a group of incompetent terrorists in ways both cringe-inducing and hilarious. But what he’s referred to as the “Promised Land” of the actor, “where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race,” was often in sight but out of reach. 

“One of the biggest obstacles to any journey, and one that you have to continually revisit and resurmount, is the obstacle in your mind which tells you that it’s not a realistic goal and it’s not something you can do.”

As such, after working the U.K. indie circuit for the better part of a decade, he hit a ceiling. The larger career breakout he needed, both as a creative person seeking fulfillment and, more simply, as an actor needing to make financial ends meet, wasn’t coming. (His most hopeful prospect at the time, the first James Gandolfini–led iteration of “The Night Of,” fell through in the aftermath of its star’s passing.) So when the opportunity to meet with filmmaker Dan Gilroy came, thanks to some vague favors asked and strings pulled by his agent, Ahmed knew he had to go all-in. 

The Oscar-nominated writer-director was sitting on the script that would ultimately launch Ahmed’s Hollywood career: “Nightcrawler.” Though Gilroy told the actor straight away that he was not a fit for the role of Rick, the assistant to Jake Gyllenhaal’s antihero photojournalist, he eventually warmed to the idea of looking at a self-tape. Soon after, Ahmed was invited to Los Angeles for a callback opposite the filmmaker and Gyllenhaal, who also produced the film. 

“The moment he walked out of his audition for ‘Nightcrawler,’ having killed it, I thought to myself, That’s the genuine article right there. There’s no stopping that dude,” Gyllenhaal recalls of Ahmed’s audition. “I adore him and adore working with him.” (The two reconnected in 2018’s acclaimed, if little-seen, “The Sisters Brothers.”)

Ahmed says that seizing the opportunity to change the circumstances of his career goes back to that practice of surrender. 

“I had to fly myself to L.A. for the callback, and that was, like, half of what I had in my bank [account]. So I had to bet on myself,” he remembers. “Those times are scary, and they can be really dark. But what I found, weirdly, is [in] those times when you’re reminded that you don’t control anything, there’s a creative breakthrough just on the other side of it. It’s that surrender; being reminded that you’re not in control is the artist’s greatest superpower.”

In addition to notching an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and a Golden Globe nomination for Gyllenhaal’s performance, “Nightcrawler” earned Ahmed his first Film Independent Spirit Award nod and finally established his stateside staying power. He spent the next two years preparing for and filming “The Night Of,” this time starring John Turturro

“A big part of the story of ‘The Night Of’ ​was our connection, this intrinsic connection, and I think we just had that because we both approach things a certain way,” Turturro says of Ahmed. “He was really all-in; I saw him suffer [and] change his body. He’s very smart, he’s a real hard worker, [and] he’s got a lot of things he wants to say about where he’s from and how he looks—his cultural background. He has a hunger to express himself…. I tip my hat to him.”

Today, Ahmed says the ways in which he expresses himself through his work differ from project to project, but he cites “The Night Of” as a turning point in that process. 

“It’s kind of hard to describe, but I think I started exploring meditation more, and relaxation more, rather than text,” he explains. “And then after ‘Sisters Brothers,’ I feel like I hit another wall there, and I realized I needed to bring more of myself to my work, rather than box myself into the parameters of research.”

No matter the job, Ahmed’s three pillars to building a performance remain the same: his mind, his body, and his heart. 

Step No. 1 is to “break it down with your mind—do the homework, do the research, understand what’s happening.” That means understanding the basics of each scene while being “careful not to allow that framework and those framing devices to limit it and put it in a box.”

No. 2 is to “put it in your body—dance it, shout it, sing it. Really work it out. Do it wrong. Let it do you. Let it do your body.” That’s paired with hours of research, self-recording, and exploring a role’s physicality. 

No. 3, he says, is “your heart, which is really about doing a little bit of digging within yourself, allowing the character to be that shovel that allows you to dig a bit deeper.” You must also situate the material in a reason for doing it at your current time and place. “What can you bring of your life and what can you bring of yourself to this that will be healing to you, and also be healing to others who see you in this?”

That third pillar, in particular, is on full display in “Sound of Metal,” perhaps Ahmed’s most demanding—and, in many ways, most personal—performance to date. He stars as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict who, after losing his ability to hear, checks himself into a rehabilitation center for the deaf, where he learns to grapple with his life anew. It’s now nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.

“There is a rarified group of actors who have the ability to play almost any character. Riz is a shape-shifter,” Marder says of directing Ahmed, who also executive produced the project. Theirs was a tight, emotionally and physically demanding 25-day shoot. Not only did the actor learn how to play the drums and communicate in American Sign Language before filming, but Marder enthuses, “He has the profound ability to access emotional specificity and nuance of character even when it would appear the furthest from his own experience.

“I once heard someone describe actors as having a garden of emotional truths that they can pull from. Riz’s garden is extremely expansive,” Marder continues. “He is the very rare talent who’s able to draw from vast, perhaps infinite, varieties of truths that actually live within him and become alive and electric in his performances.”

Gyllenhaal echoes the sentiment. 

“I believe freedom is on the other side of discipline; Riz is the personification of this idea,” he says. “He comes prepared, beyond. Also, he’s obviously a wonderful lyricist and musician; I have always felt that a scene has the same elements as a piece of music—structure, rhythm, melody—and Riz approaches a scene he’s in like a gifted musician. He has studied, practiced, and has a thousand interpretations on hand…. Moreover, he is looking to learn, always—an intellectual.”

Next, Ahmed is starring in Michael Pearce’s sci-fi alien thriller “Invasion” with Octavia Spencer, which is wrapped and in post-production. Via his Left Handed Films, which just signed a first-look TV production deal with Amazon Studios, he hopes to continue amplifying the stories he wants to tell while also helping others tell theirs. 

“I want to work with and empower and collaborate with some of these amazing, bold new voices that are coming up. People like Bassam Tariq, [who] made ‘Mogul Mowgli,’ or helping someone tell stories like ‘Flee,’ [Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s] animated documentary that just won at Sundance. Stuff that’s stretching culture a little bit.”

As far as the advice he’d leave young actors and creators hoping to make their voices heard, he says, simply, to “trust yourself, breathe, and surrender.”

“When you open yourself up like that and you breathe, you find it’s all there, all right there, if you can just ride the wave.”

This story originally appeared in the March 25 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Stephanie Diani on 1/13 in Santa Monica

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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