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Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim nominated for lead actor Oscar

Actor Riz Ahmed, star of "Sound of Metal."
Actor Riz Ahmed makes Oscar history with his nomination as lead actor for “Sound of Metal.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Riz Ahmed made history Monday as the first Muslim nominated for the Oscar for lead actor. He earned the nod for his role in “Sound of Metal.”

Actor Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar when he took home the statuette for supporting actor for “Moonlight” in 2017 and won the same prize in 2019 for “Green Book.”

The nomination also makes Ahmed the first performer of Pakistani descent to land in any acting race. He previously was the first Muslim, and first Asian, to win a lead acting Emmy in 2017 when he picked up the prize for lead actor in a limited series or movie for “The Night of.” The 38-year-old British-Pakistani actor’s Oscar nomination alongside Steven Yeun for “Minari” makes it the first time two actors of Asian descent have been nominated for lead actor in the same year.

Including ‘Minari’ and ‘Nomadland,’ there are multiple projects that scored historic 2021 Oscar nominations. Here’s a helpful guide.

In an interview on Monday, Ahmed spoke about what it means to him to have achieved these historic firsts.

“To be honest, I just feel like however people can find themselves in this moment, however they can find a connection to this moment, is beautiful to me,” he said. “Some people may connect to the fact that it’s the first Muslim, some people might say British Pakistani, some people might say first person from Wembley in London, what matters to me is that these moments of celebration, these moments of collective recognition, are actually moments where as many people as possible can recognize themselves in it.

“And so that’s all that really matters to me,” Ahmed said. “And I’m really pleased if this is an opportunity for more people than ever before to connect to a moment like this.”

Ahmed also has been seen in films such as “Rogue One,” “Venom,” “The Sisters Brothers,” “Nightcrawler,” “Four Lions” and the recent “Mogul Mowgli,” which he also co-wrote. He also has a career as a rapper and musician and in 2020 released the album “The Long Goodbye.”

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In “Sound of Metal,” Ahmed plays Ruben, a rock ’n’ roll drummer and recovering addict whose life is sent into a tailspin when he loses his hearing. Ahmed spent the better part of a year preparing for the role, learning drumming and American Sign Language and attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Prior to the Oscar nomination, “Sound of Metal” had already earned Ahmed nominations for the Golden Globe, SAG Award, Spirit Award and BAFTA for lead actor. He won the Gotham Award and numerous critics prizes.

Riz Ahmed demonstrates the letter R in American Sign Language in "Sound of Metal."
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) learns to spell his name in American Sign Language in “Sound of Metal.”
(Amazon Studios)

Directed by Darius Marder, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, where it was picked up for distribution by Amazon Studios for release in November 2020.

For Ahmed, it is particularly encouraging that what might seem an unlikely Oscar contender walked away with six nominations, also including best picture, original screenplay, editing, sound and supporting actor for Paul Raci.

“That’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about trying to shine a light on these films and kind of collectively, as a creative community and as a culture globally, pulling together and saying, ‘Hey, here are the movies that we feel talked to us as a society, as a culture, about who we are and where we’re at and what we’re working through,’” Ahmed said.

“And particularly I think ‘Sound of Metal’ is something that will really resonate with audiences. And I hope really help them get through this tough time,” he added. “It’s about a health crisis, throwing someone into lockdown, forcing them to do things a little differently when they are cut off from their life and their loved ones. That is something that everyone can relate to. So I hope that this film is something that gives people strength and gives people some support and some inspiration as they’re going through something similar.”

Read more of our Oscar morning interview with Riz Ahmed.

The 2021 Oscars will take place April 25 and will air live on ABC at 5 p.m. Pacific.

2021 Oscar nominations: The complete list


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