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‘I Was Communicating With My Whole Body.’ Riz Ahmed on Learning the Drums and Sign Language for Sound of Metal

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Crisis rampages through each of Riz Ahmed’s three major releases from 2020. In the film Mogul Mowgli, which he co-wrote and co-produced, Ahmed plays a rapper debilitated by an autoimmune disease. His album The Long Goodbye revolves around a metaphor in which he is broken up with by a racist, xenophobic Britain. And in the awards-hopeful drama Sound of Metal, which arrives in theaters Nov. 20 and on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 4., he plays a drummer who starts to go deaf.

When TIME reaches Ahmed via Zoom, he’s already in the midst of his next harrowing shoot: Invasion, a sci-fi thriller that co-stars Octavia Spencer and involves a looming inhuman threat. “The power of crisis in remaking how we see ourselves in the world is something I’ve always been kind of interested in,” he says. In an interview, he talked about learning sign language, rethinking priorities and the gifts and curses of representing a minority community through art.

TIME: This year, you released an album (The Long Goodbye), co-created one film (Mogul Mowgli) and starred in another (Sound of Metal). Is there a common thread tying these projects together?

Ahmed: The idea of apocalyptic events being the start of something is quite powerful to me. All of these stories are about workaholics confronted with a crisis that forces them to re-evaluate what really matters. What are the things you leave or take with you at the end of a chapter?

And these stories mirror our current situation. We are taught that being productive in the economy makes you a worthwhile human being. It’s such a toxic idea. This moment has revealed how the ideology of individualism is a bit of a myth, and made me think about my own relationship to work.

You’ve talked about wanting to be overwhelmed by your roles. Where does that impulse come from?

Darius Marder, the director of Sound of Metal, and I jokingly refer to each other as gobblers: we want to gorge ourselves on experience. When I heard about this really intense and emotional acting role in his film that also involved learning sign language and how to play the drums, there was something so ludicrous about that idea that I wanted to jump in the deep end. It’s how I like to approach life, I guess: just go all in.

I think powerful creative cocktails often come from being deprived of the illusion of control. A lot of people talk about that in the creative process: Elizabeth Gilbert, or the poet Rumi. When you’re forced to let go, something else is unleashed, something that is of you but also not.

And Sound of Metal was like that. Darius kept deliberately making it harder by saying, “We’re going to shoot on film and we have no money, so we get two takes for everything.” The more we did that, it was like, “We don’t have any control.” The film is then able to tell you what it is, rather than you being able to put it on a leash and walk it in the direction you think it should go.

What does that flow state feel like, and how do you get there?

That’s something I think about all the time. The creative process in itself is almost the thing I love more than things I’m creating. At the start of my career, I got into the habit of keeping a creative journal: keeping notes of every week and day of filming, every project I do, to try and reflect on what works and what doesn’t creatively. I wanted to understand and learn, what is this fleeting thing? What is this animal or wave you get to ride if you’re lucky? Flow state isn’t about an out of body experience: it’s being in your body and out of your head. In that sense, I think it has a lot in common with meditative states or athletic exercise.

Is the flow state of acting the same as the flow state of making music?

Yeah, and in other aspects of daily life. Some people experience it in prayer, in a good conversation with a friend or out dancing. It’s that feeling of transcending the narrow self: when you open up that channel inside, then you can be carried forward by the great river.

This is getting incredibly esoteric. Maybe we should get into some toilet humor or something. I’m British, man. I’ve exceeded my credits for being earnest for the week now.

Has learning sign language shaped you as an artist?

It shifted the way I work as an actor. I can sometimes be in my head and be quite analytical: I’m a verbal communicator. But both learning the drums and sign language put me in my body more. Jeremy Stone, my sign instructor, said there’s a trope within the deaf community that hearing people are emotionally repressed because they hide behind words. As I learned to sign more and more, I saw where that was coming from. I found myself getting much more emotional talking through sign language than in English—because I was communicating with my whole body.

Your latest album is built around the metaphor of breaking up with a racist, xenophobic Britain. What stage of the grieving process are you currently in?

Having written the record, I’m out the other side into self-love. I always thought that invitations to self-love as the start of liberation were cop-outs. But the more I learn about myself, the more I see how difficult it is to love or forgive anyone if you don’t do the same to yourself. As we look externally for validation and self-worth, I think it can lead us down some really dangerous roads. It’s a very obvious pitfall for a performer, to live for a round of applause and a pat on the back.

Of course, some people do have power over you in situations in life. Particularly if you feel like you’re in a marginalized community being broken up with by a country, It’s not a fair fight. But it’s really important we don’t internalize the rejection we face and turn it into self-hate.

How has your perspective on the duty to represent your community changed over your career?

Having that cross to bear as an artist can be a real gift and a curse. It’s a gift because it’s a privilege to know your work resonates beyond the work itself—that it might carry a wider significance to people feeling seen and heard who might not otherwise. It might incrementally contribute toward stretching culture, which is something that motivates me.

But on the curse side, sometimes your awareness of that responsibility can negate your own personal curiosity. As David Bowie once said when giving advice to young artists: “don’t play to the gallery.” You gotta realize the reason you became an artist is because you had something to express about yourself and trying to make sense of your place in the world.

If you are from an underseen or underheard community and don’t see yourself reflected back in the culture, then you can internalize the implicit message that your story or experience is not universal or valuable. So what you do is think, “I’ll make my own personal experience secondary, and I’ll be someone else.” That’s where you learn to code switch. That’s why I’m able to have a career as an actor, because I grew up doing that. You abandon your own private and personal experience and think about how you can speak to a larger group of people. And that’s where there’s a danger: of abandoning your personal experience and thinking more about representing as opposed to presenting yourself authentically.

Being aware that you represent people outside of yourself can be an incredibly powerful jet fuel, but I don’t think it’s a good GPS. The GPS has to be your own creative curiosity. If you make something from a really personal, honest place, you’ll connect with all kinds of people.

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