The following interview for Backstage’s on-camera series The Slate was compiled in part by Backstage readers just like you! Follow us on Twitter (@Backstage) and Instagram (@backstagecast) to stay in the loop on upcoming interviews and to submit your questions.
“Sound of Metal,” Darius Marder’s intimate drama about a drummer who suddenly experiences hearing loss, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 and is currently making waves as a powerful awards contender with six Oscar nominations under its belt, among them best actor for Riz Ahmed, best supporting actor for Paul Raci, best original screenplay, and best picture. For Ahmed, Marder, and Raci, the film was a labor of love, and the creative process often mirrored the profound experiences of its characters onscreen. The three of them recently sat with Backstage to discuss how the Amazon Studios release came together.
Marder used the casting process to find actors brave enough to do “Sound of Metal.”
“This movie was very audacious in its way, always by design. I only wanted that version of it, I didn’t want any other version. And I wasn’t going to make any other version. It was incredibly important that I found actors that wanted this ride, and a process that is very scary, and vulnerable, and kind of unwieldy by design, and a kind of high-wire act, and a commitment—an absurd commitment. I did scare actors, I think. Everyone should have been scared, but then what it does is it separates those that have kind of good fear, or bad fear. There’s some fear that we are hungry about—we get that good fear and we get excited about it. That’s Riz, and that’s Paul. I think when you meet fear with courage, it turns into something extremely positive. So I just wanted that experience, and I really found it ultimately, especially with these guys, through a years-long process—five, six years of casting.”
Ahmed was looking for a role that would stretch him after doing bigger-budget projects.
“I was really grateful to have done some bigger projects than I was used to doing, after ‘The Night Of,’ and ‘Rogue One,’ and ‘Venom" and ‘Bourne,’ I’d certainly learned some new things and kind of stretched myself in some other ways there. But there’s kind of nothing like doing a really ambitious project, against the odds, with not much time or resources that is really just about character. The camaraderie of those projects, the challenge of it, the thrill of it. And I was just itching to do that, to go back to stretching myself in that way, after having done some more technical work on some of those bigger movies. I guess in some ways you’re always looking for a collaborator you can really think with, and with Darius and I, we just met and straight away we really connected, it was a meeting of minds. We both look for stuff that is going to throw us off balance, so that we can lose ourselves in it, and feed our obsession.”
Raci connected to the character of Joe because of his spiritual philosophy.
“When I read the script, I knew that it was sensitively written, seemed authentic to me, and although I had a lot of similar experiences to this character, Joe, what really struck me was Joe’s spiritual philosophy. And I’ve said this before: I grew up in Chicago as an altar boy, did mass and all that, Roman Catholic. And Joe’s philosophy was almost a little bit opposite. In Catholicism, Heaven is up there, and God is up there, and you pray to God to bring you something down here on Earth. And Joe’s philosophy was about the kingdom of God being right here [among us]. When I read that line—because through my spiritual advisors or gurus I had met in Los Angeles, I had made that shift of consciousness to realize the God that I communicate with or commune with is right here, and if you want something to be manifested, it comes from within, not the opposite, in my life—so when I read that, I thought: Oh god, this guy, he is the classic mentor. Everyone wants a Joe in their life, at some point.”
“I think a role finds you for a reason, and the same lesson I think Ruben had to learn, which is to surrender control, is a lesson I had to learn. I think usually that’s what happens: your journey as an actor on a project mirrors the lessons that are being learned by the character.”
Ahmed’s journey as an actor mirrored the journey of his character Ruben.
“Ruben is a character who is trying to control his life. He’s an addict, and addiction is about control. And I think a role finds you for a reason, and the same lesson I think Ruben had to learn, which is to surrender control, is a lesson I had to learn. I think usually that’s what happens: your journey as an actor on a project mirrors the lessons that are being learned by the character. I guess I was pretty reliant on watching dailies to understand how it all fit together almost, or doing more technical stuff like action. I developed a habit of leaning on it, and I was convinced it would help me. But of course on a project like this, you’ve got a character like Ruben who’s losing control, you as an actor should also be off your center, and off balance, and not in control. And something that was very wise of Darius, he said ‘I’m not going to enable you.’ As though it was an addiction. And at that point I realized, ‘Huh, OK. Just in the same way that Ruben has to relinquish that control, so do I.’ ”
Raci knows casting actors from the deaf community helped inform the authenticity on set.
“Having authentic deaf actors—I was brought up in Chicago by a community of deaf people, not only my parents—that was such an experience. I had so many deaf uncles that instilled in me this feeling of unconditional love, that’s how I was brought up in that community. Then when I moved to Los Angeles, I met this deaf community, and they accepted me whole-heartedly. And then I go to do this film, many, many years later, and the deaf community in Massachusetts, these are people that I grew up with. I grew up in the Chicago Club of the Deaf. The Santa Claus I knew was a deaf Santa. My world was a little bit weird, but I loved the people we worked with, all those deaf actors were so wonderful. We had a great time. And it was heartening to see Riz communicating on his own with the cast. You couldn’t have made this movie with people ‘acting’ deaf.”
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