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Interview: Sound of Metal Star Riz Ahmed's Soul-Searching Journey to The Long Goodbye

The Emmy winner presents a newly adapted livestream edition of a stage show that got cancelled by Covid.

This extended period of closures and lockdowns have forced many artists to reimagine their work. Emmy winner Riz Ahmed (The Night Of) — now receiving Oscar buzz for his performance in the new film Sound of Metal — is no different. Ahmed was scheduled to bring The Long Goodbye, a solo stage show inspired by his concept album of the same title, to the Manchester International Festival and Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year, but the pandemic quashed the possibility of a live performance.

As this "purgatory," as he describes it, wore on, Ahmed and collaborators Kirsty Housley, Andrea Gelardin, and Gareth Fry decided to reimagine the piece, but really ended up creating something new. The Long Goodbye: Livestream Edition debuts Saturday, December 19 at 3pm ET on Manchester International Festival's website, and serves as a companion to the original stage production, which will eventually be rescheduled as Covid restrictions lift.

For Ahmed, putting this piece together was the chance to reflect on a year filled with soul-searching and loss. It also parallels his character's journey in Sound of Metal, a film about a a heavy metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing. Here's what he had to say.

Riz Ahmed
(© courtesy of the artist; via Brooklyn Academy of Music)

You released The Long Goodbye as an album earlier this year. For those who aren't familiar, can you tell us a little about it?
It's a concept album that's about going through a breakup with your country, feeling like your country is almost dumping you. I had the idea for it back in 2017 when I was still in the [hip-hop group] Swet Shop Boys, but for whatever reason, it didn't get recorded. When I settled down to think about my solo music, I dug into the idea and realized that it's not just a track, it's a whole journey through the seven stages of grief.

The idea grew out of conversations with friends in American and the UK, who said that even though they were born in those respective countries, they felt increasingly unwelcome there and were thinking about leaving before things take a turn for the worse. To hear people who are born in the US and UK say "maybe we need to leave before things get too bad" is shocking, but in a way, it's not surprising. I can relate to that sentiment. A lot of people can relate to that, especially after Trump got elected. That caused me to revisit the original kernel of the idea, and then I saw how apt a metaphor a breakup is for this heartbreak so many people were feeling.

Did you create the album with a theater production in mind, or did that come later?
I didn't. But because the album has a through-line and a narrative, it lends itself to a theatrical immersive experience. That was what we intended to present at the Manchester International Festival and BAM in the summer, but we had to cancel due to Covid. When we got to the end of the year and saw how much the album was connecting with people, we wanted to give something back to the fans.

This experience is quite different to what the live show would have been. In some ways, there are the limitations of working with Covid restrictions and without a live audience, but it's also a new opportunity, in that it combines the intimacy of a one-man show with a cinematic experience. That would only have been possible within these restrictions, which not only force you to think outside the box, but also really clarify things.

This year, so many of us have been forced into a position of clarity about where we live, what we do, why we do it, and when you're creating something in that context, it forces you to cut to the chase of why you're doing it. It's not just the format of the show that feels like a step into the unknown for me, but it's also the content. Something about the soul-searching of this year and the losses I've suffered this year have really reshaped the show from what it would have been if it were just a gig back in the summer. It's much more personal, actually.

What were your theatrical influences in creating this piece, and how do you get along working with collaborators Kirsty Housley, Andrea Gelardin, and Gareth Fry?
I'm fascinated by stand-up comedy and one-man/one-woman shows. There's something about that form. The only other time you get a roomful of hushed people paying attention to one person and falling into a world of their words is, I guess, in Church or Temple or Mosque. I like the idea of using this reverence and subverting it with the profane, with transgression, and asking questions that you don't normally ask.

Andrea happened to see one of my shows and really liked what I was trying to say. She's worked with people like Lady Gaga and Cardi B, and the reason you work with someone like me, who doesn't have that kind of budget or mass audience, is because you believe in it. SHe's been indispensable. I was connected to Kirsty and Gareth through my management and have seen their work with Complicité. The Encounter was mesmerizing. Kirsty has an instincy to strip back the pretense and artifice of theater. There's something very Brechtian and very punk about how she wants to cut directly to the jugular of emotion. That really appeals to me. I'm most excited about theater as a space of stripping back and as a place of revelation, than as a place of escape or transportation. I like theater most when it brings you nowhere else but right here, right now, and she's able to bring that combination of urgency and elegance to what we're putting together.

Do you see any parallels between this project and your character's journey in Sound of Metal?
Very much so, actually. My character in Sound of Metal is going through a version of what we're all going through right now. He's a workaholic who's confronted with a health crisis and forced into a lockdown, and in the purgatory of lockdown, is rethinking what really matters to him. That's the certainly the journey I've been on, and that all of society has been confronted with. Ruben's journey in the film is kind of the template for the central questions we're asking for the show: What is the point of a gig without an audience? What is the point of entertainment in a time of suffering? What is the argument for escape when we need to confront where we are right now? Can live music play a different role, other than entertainment, other than escape? Can it bring us right here, right now? That's what we're looking at.

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