Riz Ahmed
Riz Ahmed makes history, becomes first Muslim nominated for lead actor Oscar Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

Don’t ever mistake the West End of London for the West of London — the difference is stark and yes, night and day. At night, the West End streets are alive as thousands of people — obviously I’m talking about the way things used to be — head towards theatres and cinemas in giddy anticipation of the performances about to unfold on stages and screens. The bright lights of billboards and from canopies overhead theatres illuminate the pavements below. The atmosphere is electric, magical. West London? Well …

Wembley is known for its football, not its footfall. Brent, a borough arm-pitted between the hard shoulders of the M4 and the A40 roads, is a mixing pot that simmers with the tensions of ethnic communities from the world that came to Mother Britain in the dying days of the British Empire, or others who fled Eastern Europe when the satellite republics of the Soviet empire collapsed and spewed people to eke out living where they could.

Yes, it is a long way from this wild West London to the West End with too many gaps to mind on District, Northern and Piccadilly lines of the Underground. And it is far farther still to Los Angeles, a world away and a place where most in West London can only dream. Not Riz Ahmed, a British-Pakistani and Muslim actor who finds himself now nominated in the Best Actor category at the Oscars.

“Wow! I’m honoured to be nominated by my fellow actors alongside such inspiring performances, and am grateful to the Academy for their support and encouragement,” Ahmed said when the nominations were announced earlier this week. “Sound of Metal is about how a health crisis can cut you off from your life and loved ones, and force you to grow in unexpected ways. In a challenging year for so many, I hope this story can inspire us to forge new and deeper connections with ourselves and others.”

There’s a pivotal scene in the Sound of Metal when drummer Ruben Stone — Ahmed — breaks down in the isolation of the room’s washed-out white walls, struggling to cope with the silence that has followed his sudden hearing impairment. It’s a showcase of Ruben’s unravelling and Ahmed’s immersive performance which film critics have hailed as worthy of an Academy Award. Whether that will come? ... He’s up against the emotional favourite, the late Chadwick Boseman in another music-inspired film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Hollywood is a sucker for a tear-jerker ending.

“It’s always encouraging and I don’t take it for granted at all,” Ahmed said, adding that he also doesn’t want to get caught up in labels like British-Pakistani or firsts like Muslim in a leading role. That can be too distracting, he says.

Instead, the 38-year-old actor — the road to stardom is long and winding — said that his journey has led him to a moment of realisation that he wants to play characters that pique his creative curiosity, not only with regard to race and identity but also related to other diverse, lesser-known experiences.

Sound of Metal is a journey of Ruben’s self-discovery as he battles sudden deafness and struggles to maintain sobriety and places the spotlight on Ruben’s spiralling emotions as he deals with the heartbreak of losing his hearing, his music and his girlfriend.

“The best way to approach it was from a personal place,” he said. That is partly why he rarely sleeps before shooting, bringing a physically drained and emotionally gaunt body to the set that reaches deep within and finds the news level of intensity. That is not acting but mere metaphysical transformation.

Ahmed first came to mainstream attention in 2014 in Nightcrawler, a deliciously noir look at the seedy world of freelance news videographers who troll and trawl the detritus of Los Angeles for morning news shows. And four years later Venom, from the stable of Marvel comics, placed Ahmed in the mainstream again.

But Ahmed is well aware of the pressures that come with being British and Pakistani and how it might stereo-cast him. Maybe he’s grateful he didn’t get the part he auditioned for in Danny Boyle Slumdog Millionaire

His father was a shipping broker who focused Ahmed enough to win a secondary school scholarship. Then Oxford, with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and graduating in 2004, and later on to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.

Also known by his hip-hop alias Riz MC, he released his first hip-hop single in 2006, Post 9/11 Blues: a controversial satire that was temporarily banned from British airplay. It caught the attention of satirist Christopher Morris, who cast him in his Bafta-winning movie Four Lions in 2010.

Inspired equally by jungle and hip-hop, Ahmed first got involved with music directly in his mid-teens, cutting his teeth on pirate radio and in battle-rap competitions, of which he won many. He was selected as a BBC Introducing artist in 2007, playing at the Glastonbury Festival and the BBC Electric Proms. Since graduating from Oxford, he has worked consistently in theatre, film and television, starring in award-winning dramas The Road to Guantanamo in 2006 and Shifty in 2008. Whenever he has to drop his natural English accent for a role, he speaks to everyone on and offset without it until everything is wrapped up. In full-immersion therapy.

The Oscars will be handed out on April 25 in a ceremony that will take place at both the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and, for the first time, at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Neither the form of the ceremony nor a host has been announced. It’s a virtual broadcast, which means he can forgo the full-immersion therapy of the red carpet for now. But not for long, somehow …

With input from agencies