Two of the best film performances of 2020 were Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal and Steven Yeun in Minari, and both actors were rightfully nominated for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards because of such. However, in addition to the general excitement of Ahmed and Yeun getting those well-deserved nods, this also means they just made history as the first Muslim actor and first Asian American actor, respectively, to be nominated in the category.
In Sound of Metal, Ahmed plays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who’s learning to live with the loss of hearing, particularly in regards to his career as a musician and his love life — a performance that required him to study with an ASL coach for nearly a year. It’s an intimate and deeply moving character study, especially compared to the bigger blockbusters the British Pakistani rapper and actor has starred in (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Venom) as a supporting cast member.
Ahmed’s commitment to the role is why Sound of Metal was one of the best movies of last year, and it’s why he earned such a prestigious nomination at the 2021 Oscars. Previously, the only Muslim actors to be nominated were in the supporting actor category: Mahershala Ali for 2016’s Moonlight and 2018’s Green Book (both of which he won) and Omar Sharif for 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Meanwhile in Minari, Yeun stars as the father of a South Korean immigrant family trying to achieve the American dream in the ’80s. The emotional drama was dubbed our third favorite movie of 2020 and saw Yeun in particular deliver the literal performance of the year with incredible nuance, heart, and range.
Yeun is the first person of East Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor in the history of the Oscars. Previously, Ben Kingsley (who’s of Indian descent) was nominated for Best Actor with 2003’s House of Sand and Fog and won the award for 1982’s Gandhi. In the Supporting Actor category, three Japanese stars have been nominated — Sessue Hayakawa for 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, Mako Iwamatsu for 1966’s The Sand Pebbles, Ken Watanabe for 2003’s The Last Samurai — and Cambodian-American actor Haing S. Ngor won the award in 1984 for The Killing Fields.
Getting these prestigious nominations have been a long time coming for both actors, and it’s heartening to see them get credit for these roles in particular. “I’m deeply proud of who I am and the things that make me,” Yeun told Consequence of Sound in an earlier interview behind Minari. “Part of that is my Asian-American-ness, and my Korean-ness, and my American-ness. So I’m proud to help break a precedent if that happens, but ultimately I can only do me.”
See the full list of nominations for the 2021 Academy Awards here. Winners will be unveiled during a live gala at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on Sunday, April 25th, 2021, two months later than originally planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.