Riz Ahmed reacts to his historic Oscar nomination

Actor Riz Ahmed sits in a dark room
Actor Riz Ahmed is nominated for best actor in the film “Sound of Metal.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“Sound of Metal” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 before being released by Amazon Studios in November 2020. On Monday it received six Oscar nominations: best picture, original screenplay, editing, sound, supporting actor for Paul Raci and best actor for Riz Ahmed.

The film tells the story of a rock-and-roll drummer (Ahmed) who loses his hearing, turning his whole world upside down and putting his recovery from drug addiction into a fragile state. Olivia Cooke plays his bandmate and girlfriend, while Raci plays his counselor.

Born in the U.K. of Pakistani heritage, Ahmed is the first Muslim nominated in the lead actor category. (Mahershala Ali has won twice for supporting actor.) Ahmed’s 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. For his role in “Sound of Metal,” Ahmed has also been nominated for the Golden Globe, SAG Award, Spirit Award and BAFTA for lead actor. He won the Gotham Award and numerous critics prizes.


Ahmed got on the phone from California for a few minutes Monday morning to talk about the recognition for the film.

What does this nomination mean to you?

You make a film like this, you make it as a labor of love. Everyone involved in this film, we sure as hell weren’t making it for the money and we sure as hell weren’t making it as a kind of mainstream crowd-pleaser with the assumption that even many people would see it. We made it because we wanted to do something we hadn’t gotten to do before in each of our respective crafts, whether it was editing or sound or acting or as writers. Our writers worked on this script for 13 years. I spent a year preparing for this, Nicolas Becker worked on “Gravity” and innovated sound design techniques that he said had never been used before on this. So it really was a kind of creative endeavor, a labor of love and a desire to push ourselves and go further. And so to be nominated by our peers in each of these different crafts, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful feeling to get that encouragement.

And it must be exciting that the recognition wasn’t just for you, but also for Paul Raci, for writer-director Darius Marder, for the sound and editing teams.

It feels amazing. It really was a team effort. It was really a kind of family affair. This film was a group of people who really didn’t know each other at all before the experience. And I think, each of us, in some profound way, was really transformed by it, quite frankly. And we went on this journey together, and there was an immense amount of camaraderie and teamwork and generosity of spirit. If I’m honest, I was really pleased to see myself be nominated, but when I saw the other nominations and particularly best picture, I was just jumping up and down. The work that has gone into this film — particularly from Darius, but across all departments — it’s just overwhelming. Everyone just kind of went further than they have ever gone before on this one. So it’s just beautiful to get that encouragement.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in 'Sound of Metal'
(Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

When the movie premiered, it was not the kind of movie that came in hotly anticipated. The fact that it doesn’t feel like a typical Oscar movie but can still get this sort of attention is exciting.


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. This is the kind of diet for the heart, for the soul, that we’re all singling out and saying, hey, try this. 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. 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.

You’re the first Muslim nominated in the category of lead actor. When you won the Emmy for “The Night Of” you were the first Muslim to win in that category as well. What does that mean to you, to be leading in this way?

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. 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. And I’m really pleased if this is an opportunity for more people than ever before to connect to a moment like this.

You always speak with such clarity and such passion about issues of representation and inclusion. As the Academy membership is changing and the film industry is changing, do you feel you are a person particularly suited for this moment?

I just feel like it’s a privilege to be part of this film. It’s a privilege to be encouraged to go further when you’ve gone further than you’ve ever gone before creatively, to have that support from your creative community. I just feel like this is a moment where we are all trying to open our minds, open our hearts, find new ways of connecting to ourselves and to others. And I really feel that this film is about that. In many ways I feel like this is a movie for our moment; it really mirrors and speaks to the emotional journey that so many people are going on right now. And so really I feel “Sound of Metal” is the movie for this moment. And I hope that this shines a light on it so more and more people can connect to it,

I feel like this is a movie for our moment, it really mirrors and speaks to the emotional journey that so many people are going on right now

— Riz Ahmed on ‘Sound of Metal’

You also released an album, “The Long Goodbye,” last year and you co-wrote on the movie “Mogul Mowgli.” What drives you to do so many different things creatively?

I think every time you play a character it might be a slightly different experience, but it all gets you to the same place. It all gets you to a place of expressing yourself authentically, and I think it’s the same with different mediums, whether it’s making music or writing screenplays or even producing, which is something that I’m excited to do more of now. They’re opportunities. They’re all pathways, hopefully, to take you to the same destination, which in my mind is to try and stretch yourself. And in the process, hopefully, contribute in some small way towards stretching culture.

If you can creatively go further than you’ve gone before, and if the story can take us all collectively to a place we haven’t been before, show us a world or a character, or tell a story in a style that hasn’t been quite done before, then I think that’s what it’s all about. You know, they’re all different pathways to that same goal. It’s my mantra: Does it stretch me, does it contribute in some small way towards stretching culture? To me, that’s what stories, that’s what art is about. It’s about stretching culture and stretching our idea of ourselves until we realize there’s no us and them. There’s just us. That’s what I think the core and the heart of stories and art is. And I think in these divided times realizing that is something that can really help us through,

And congratulations on your recent marriage. It’s really been quite a year for you.

Well, thank you. There’s been challenges and there’s been blessings, and the big thing, I guess, is trying to find the blessings within the challenges.