Riz Ahmed was having a moment of introspection. It was the autumn of 2018 and, from the outside, his career was riding high. He’d won an Emmy for 2016’s The Night Of, played a space pilot in the same year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and now Jacques Audiard, the so-called French Scorsese, had him playing a chemist hunted by gold prospectors in The Sisters Brothers. It was the type of role actors are supposed to long for, and the praise from critics for his performance was electric.
But as is often the case, Ahmed saw things differently. He wondered whether he’d sold out. In taking studio roles, Ahmed had come to realise that he was playing characters in whose stories he didn’t recognise his own experiences. Where was the young kid from Wembley in North London with Pakistani parents, growing up with two cultures competing against each other? The rapper whose first record, Post 9/11 Blues in 2006, was a parody deconstructing the stereotyping of South Asians in Britain? The actor whose early roles in The Road to Guantánamo (2006), Shifty (2008) and Four Lions (2010) made audiences look at society in different ways? The Oxford graduate who gave a lecture in Parliament in 2017 linking the lack of diversity on screen with people feeling ostracised by mainstream society? The working-class kid who shattered glass ceilings to become a household name? His was a rich, complex and rewarding life. Was his rising celebrity diminishing his personality? What roles did he want to play? How could he use his fame to work for him, rather than against him?
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It almost sounds like the start of a joke: the guy who makes his living playing other characters realises he doesn’t want to pretend anymore. But the stakes – decades of racial stereotyping, othering and job limitations – were too high for it to be funny. Ahmed didn’t want to code-switch anymore. Why should he hide his true self to please others, to get ahead? He needed to see himself, and others like himself, reflected on screen.
We’re now seeing the results of that moment of self-realisation. Ahmed’s most recent films display not only the best performances of his career, but arguably see him give the standout performances of the past year full stop: Mogul Mowgli, a magic-realist tale co-written and produced by Ahmed, about a self-obsessed rapper named Zed who leaves his girlfriend behind in New York to head to London, but who succumbs to an autoimmune disease and is consigned to his childhood bedroom instead of touring Europe; and writer-director Darius Marder’s electric debut Sound of Metal, in which Ahmed plays Ruben, a drummer who loses his hearing, leading to upset and paranoia that sees him fall out with Lou (Olivia Cooke), his bandmate and love. The film is about Ruben’s desperate efforts to try to fix his hearing, but it’s also about him learning to listen to other people. Critics contributing to Indiewire’s 2020 poll named Ahmed’s performance in the film the year’s best, and he was awarded Best Actor at the Gotham Independent film Awards in January this year. In a just world, Bafta and Oscar nominations must surely come – but don’t hold your breath, as these bodies still have a habit of failing to recognise actors from specific backgrounds.
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Over the past year I’ve caught up with Ahmed several times: over Zoom, on phone calls and in person at the Toronto film Festival, where Sound of Metal premiered. I was also on set, watching the filming of Mogul Mowgli in Chiswick.
But even if I’d never met Riz, I would feel I knew him. His story in many ways mirrors my own as a British-Asian film writer – a life of compartmentalising, of separating the public from private, of experiencing what it’s like to be the only person of colour in a room, any success leading to the nagging sense that more could be done to help others wanting to follow in your footsteps. It’s not just double consciousness; it’s a continually flipping consciousness.
It’s also one in which there’s a burden to carry, being one of the first from your demographic to succeed in a particular area. As Ahmed puts it: “I’ve grown up, gone through my own life, understanding that when you enter this room, you’ve got to leave that other part of yourself at the door. For a long time, I thought that contorting myself, wearing these different masks and popping up as this or that person might be a way of stretching culture. But I’ve realised that, actually, the thing that film culture doesn’t contain within it is, for instance, a critic called Kaleem Aftab. Does that depiction of a critic exist? Did you ever see the movie where there is a 6’2” black belt from India who happens to be Indian Gujarati from north-west London? No, but that is what Dev Patel is.” And that true representation is what Ahmed has pledged to pursue in his career hereon in.
Back at the beginning of his acting career, Ahmed experienced a similar moment of jolting clarity to the one he had in 2018. It was 2006, he was 23, and he had just attended the Berlin film Festival with Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s docudrama The Road to Guantánamo, his debut role in a feature. He had landed the part of Shafiq, one of the Tipton three – a trio of British Muslims held at Guantánamo Bay for two years before they were released without charge. Spirits were high when the film won the Silver Bear for Best Director. Here was an important story highlighting how stereotyping can lead to injustice and the removal of civil liberties.
What followed that Berlin triumph might sound like blackly comic satire if it weren’t such a sad indictment. “On the way back [from Berlin], all the actors got detained by British Intelligence officers,” Ahmed recalls. “I always say they must be ironically named because they were doing the stupidest stuff. They took us into a side room putting us into armlocks, saying: ‘Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle’?”
There was pressure put on Ahmed to make a song and dance about the detention at Luton airport – he could go on the news and use the media leverage from being an actor in an award-winning film to talk about the stereotyping. But Ahmed resisted. “I didn’t want the first time that I went on television to be as a victim,” he says. Instead, he chose to make a literal song and dance about it, releasing the parody song Post 9/11 Blues.
We’re all suspects so literally, be watching your back,
I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack
Dropped some litter on the street and caused a bomb scare
But when I told police my name was John
They thought they caught the wrong bredda
But it’s ok
Playing terrorists on telly, getting songs made
But will it get airplay, geezer?
Well, if BBC don’t want it, I’ll send it to Al-Jazeera.
There is a long list of actors with musical pretensions, but Riz is the real deal. Since the late 1990s he has had a parallel career as a musician working under the moniker Riz MC, and later as one half of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys.
Mogul Mowgli takes its title from a Swet Shop Boys song, Half Moghul Half Mowgli, performed at the start of the film. “The song is about being torn between different sides of your identity, being descended from Moguls and rich heritage, but living as Mowgli, lost in the urban jungle far away from the village that was once home,” says Ahmed. “That’s our experience in diaspora.”
Ahmed’s love of music, just like his first acting steps, can be traced back to the curiosity and active imagination that were hallmarks of his childhood. In the early 90s, his older brother would tell Riz not to listen to his expletive-laden hip-hop cassettes. But when his brother went out, Riz would memorise the songs on the forbidden tapes. He became fascinated by the commonalities he saw between the African-American experience and his own angst. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was appearing on pirate radio and in freestyle rap battles wanting to be the British-Asian Tupac.
His reaction to movies inspired similar mimicry. He was lucky that his uncles were so bad at babysitting that their idea of good guardianship of a child under ten was communal viewings of horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street. But if Tupac was Ahmed’s musical idol, Bruce Lee was the movie star of choice. “It was impactful to see a non-white male action hero who is speaking another language, who everyone thinks is amazing,” he recalls.
Ahmed would recreate scenes, making himself the hero of his own imagination. “It wasn’t like Christopher Nolan, where I was running around with a Super 8 camera,” he laughs. “I had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exercise book and a pencil. I’d watch a film then run around for a couple of days acting out my rip-off version scene by scene, hyperactively jumping off the bunk bed doing my own stunts. I would give the film a title and a rating – it would always be 18 because they were always hyper-violent. That’s how I filled my childhood, memorising rap lyrics and acting out films.”
Ahmed’s parents had emigrated from Pakistan, moving to Wembley, where Ahmed was born in 1982. “I was lucky to have supportive, nurturing, loving parents,” he says. “But there would always be a generational gap where things would be lost in translation.”
Tellingly, that generational divide is a central part of Mogul Mowgli. “I guess in a weird way it’s a coming-of-age story,” Ahmed says. “It’s about this guy who’s still in some ways trying to escape his status as a son, but he realises that to become a man, he has to embrace the fact that he is part of a link in this chain of inheritance. At some point, Zed has to look his dad in his face.”
Zed speaks to his dad with a mix of English and Urdu, a signifier of the different cultural influences that will be recognisable to many. The relationship is about honour and respect, not friendship. It’s one that reflects Ahmed’s own teenage experience. “My English friends had that friendly relationship with their parents where they could talk about who they’re dating, what’s going on in school, and talk about the same music and films that they’re all watching,” Ahmed says. But such conversations were closed in his household.
That multi-faceted side to his upbringing is something Ahmed would go on to explore in a short film he wrote and directed in 2014 called Daytimer. The film is set within the daytime rave scene that became popular in the 1990s. Shrewd promoters set up raves in the afternoon, aimed at Asian girls prevented from going out late by their parents. Now they could skip school, change clothes, dance with boys and return home when school ended, with their parents none the wiser.
“I tried to show the code-switching between three worlds,” Ahmed says. “One was the school, which was a traditionally British private school. Then you’ve got the Pakistani home environment, which was culturally different. The third world was like the Asian rude-boy scene, which took the template of masculinity from the African-American experience.
“There’s also a big class difference between one setting and the other,” he continues. “In the 90s it was more of a working-class sort of existence. I feel like we have seen the emergence of a brown middle-class now in the 21st century. There are many different ways of being brown. You can be Rishi Sunak…”
You could point to Ahmed’s own journey as an encapsulation of that wider change. The house he calls me from in New York shows how far he has travelled from the financial experience of his Wembley youth.
Ahmed’s father was a shipping broker, but his son wouldn’t have been able to go to Merchant Taylor’s, a fee-paying school, without the offer of a scholarship, and financial help from the school. Ahmed then went to Christ Church College, Oxford, to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics. But while there, he says, he felt like an outsider who didn’t belong. The life lessons were that he was too poor, too brown and too Muslim to belong. But, characteristically, he tried to make the route to the university easier for others like himself to follow, taking part in an access scheme geared towards making it more inclusive for kids from a diverse background.
At Oxford, music and acting offered a more level playing field, a safe space where he could shine. He set up a successful club night where he would DJ. He joined the drama society, earning his first acting success when his performances led to him spending a week at the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough. “It really opened my eyes, seeing this group of young people from across the country for whom the theatre was their life,” he says. “I was never allowed to see it that way. The emphasis had always been more on academia and the traditional route.”
As Ahmed’s time at Oxford came to an end, he was half-heartedly applying for more traditional jobs when an email changed the course of his life. “Interestingly, it was from one of the few Black women in my year, who I got to know through the access scheme,” he says. “She wrote: ‘I hope you pursue acting.’ She was the first person who said that to me, specifically and explicitly: ‘You should do this.’”
Without support and others believing in him, this is a career that would have ended before it began. Ahmed only applied to one drama school, the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and decided that if it rejected him, he would get a vocational job. But then when it accepted him, he realised he couldn’t afford the fees. So he applied to one scholarship, which he got. There was still a funding gap, but theatre producer Thelma Holt – who sent Oxford University students on drama tours to Japan – offered support.
“I had the luck of being in that privileged position, in that setting,” Ahmed admits. “There are so many internal and external hurdles I had overcome to pursue this as a viable career. Undoubtedly there are hundreds of people unable to overcome those hurdles – people who don’t have that alignment of luck and privilege.”
That knack for being in the right place at the right time and making good connections helped Ahmed through his first few years in film. He got his break in Winterbottom and Whitecross’s The Road to Guantánamo. Then Whitecross and Eran Creevy co-directed the music video to Post 9/11 Blues and, from that, Creevy cast Ahmed in his 2008 feature Shifty, the first film that required him to learn lines on a traditional set, playing the eponymous drug dealer alongside Danny Mays and Jason Flemyng. “It was pass-the-parcel with Riz!” he jokes.
Work begat work. After hearing Post 9/11 Blues, satirist Chris Morris contacted him, ostensibly just to ask about life as a young British Muslim man. But Morris’s intentions gradually revealed themselves, and he sent Ahmed his script for Four Lions, a comedy about a group of bumbling young British Asians who get radicalised and aspire to be terrorists.
Initially, Ahmed admits, “I turned it down. I thought it was fatwa bait. More importantly, it wasn’t so much a fear of people’s reaction, but my own. I set these filters on my career quite intentionally not wanting to be a terrorist.”
But Morris argued persuasively that if you make someone laugh, it can change the conversation, and Ahmed came on board. Four Lions was released in 2010, and did just what Morris said it would. Today, when Ahmed walks down the street, someone always shouts lines from the movie at him.
Despite the critical success, the limitations of working within the British film industry became apparent, and the next few years were ones of frustration. It wasn’t just the paucity and type of roles being offered to him nearly all the scripts related to terrorism – but also the way the media categorised him.
“I’d done these films that had a huge cultural impact, and people were writing huge opinion pieces about Britz [a 2007 two-part Channel 4 drama series about second-generation immigrants disillusioned with Britain], and yet I still couldn’t find a way of migrating from the politics column to the arts column,” Ahmed says. “This work was culturally relevant and entertaining, and yet I was still being looked at through this social commentary lens.”
It was at this point that Idris Elba advised Ahmed to go to America – the route to success for so many talented Black British actors. “I remember him saying to me: ‘You got to get to America,’” Ahmed recalls. “I just landed Nightcrawler , and I thought, ‘OK let’s try this’. I think it’s quite telling. There is a very short ladder for people of colour in the UK. I think that’s changing, but often you need to switch over to the States to come back to get to that next level to have those opportunities.”
America cast him in Nightcrawler as a character called Rick – not Shafiq, Sohail, Vijay or Omar. It was a transformation that would lead to him playing Aaron in Jason Bourne (2016), Scott in Una (2016) and Paul-Louis, who impregnates Lena Dunham’s Hannah, in the HBO series Girls (2012-17).
Homeless Rick is Nightcrawler’s moral conscience, going from wide-eyed innocent when he lands an internship working for freelance TV news stringer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), to collaborator-in-chief as they overstep the boundary between crime reporting and crime committing, ending up paying the ultimate price. It’s a scene-stealing turn from Ahmed, with clever changes in the performance that make his awakening entirely believable. Ahmed was the darling of Sundance. Casting agents put him at the top of their lists. American magazines wanted to profile this ‘new’ British star.
It was Steven Zaillian’s HBO miniseries The Night Of that confirmed his transatlantic stardom. Based on the 2008 BBC drama Criminal Justice, Zaillian’s eight-part series saw Ahmed play a character trying to prove his innocence after he wakes up to find the woman from the night before stabbed to death next to him. The role won Ahmed an Emmy and made him a bankable star Stateside. But he says today that he struggled with the expectations that came along with the part.
“I felt a little bit crushed under the pressure of that role,” he says. “I was lucky to be in the hands of Steve Zaillian, a stickler for detail who can sometimes be intimidating to work with. Still, ultimately you’re grateful for him being such a kind of specific sculptor, as anything that worked in that performance is down to him.”
Yet in Britain he was still making more noise on the news pages. In 2017 he was asked to deliver Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture in the House of Commons. It was a landmark moment, where Ahmed criticised the lack of diversity on television at a time of rising religious and hate crimes following the Brexit vote.
“If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism,” he warned. Ahmed argued powerfully that communities and ethnic minorities not feeling like they were part of society was pushing them to “switch off and retreat to fringe narratives”.
That was more than three years ago. Times are changing. When he looks at the recent casts in the Star Wars films, and the changing of the guard in superhero movies, Ahmed says, “There has been an evolution, where the next level of roles has been available to someone like me.”
Then there has been the #MeToo movement, #OscarsSoWhite, and last summer the Black Lives Matter protests. “It’s been a weird year,” he reflected when we spoke just before Christmas, “an important year. Going through something like this, you come out on the other side with some realisations, some clarity and some shifts. I was inspired by Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, which is so unapologetically personal and intimate, and specific to experience. I guess I took on Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli with that mindset.”
Consequently, when Sound of Metal writer and director Darius Marder approached him, Ahmed was ready to immerse himself in the character of Ruben. “The things that you’ve been chasing, they might not matter so much. That was in my head at the time. After having done a run of those big films and really exhausted myself both physically and mentally, Sound of Metal spoke to me. I think it will speak to a lot of people in the context of the pandemic – workaholism being laid bare by a health crisis that makes you reassess everything and puts you in a kind of purgatory of lockdown.”
Ahmed is physically transformed in the part: his hair is dyed blond, and his newly honed six-pack is on full display as he bangs the drums. Riz’s face has always had the angular structure of a model; here he has the physique of an action hero too.
More important than any external physical changes, though, was allowing himself to become a part of Ruben: “Stepping up to make Sound of Metal, I approached it with the sensibility that ‘I’m going to learn sign language and the drums, hang out 24/7 with the deaf community and punk-rock drummers,’” he says. “I thought: ‘I’m going to soak that up, and it’s going into me, not into a mask.’”
He knows more about himself as a performer than he did a few years ago. “Having a clearer sense of what I’d like to bring to roles has made me a better collaborator,” he says. “Maybe it’s just part of growing up. I read an interview where Vincent Cassel said that as a younger actor all you want to do is transform and escape yourself, whereas as an older actor you start to learn to embrace yourself.”
A positive working environment is also crucial; sets have to be collaborative. “The myth of punishing people to get the better of them, I learned early on, is bullshit,” Ahmed says. Though he admits that his own perfectionism can lead to awkwardness on sets.
“I started watching myself on the monitor at one point in my career because I felt directors held me to a lower standard than I was holding myself. People were willing to move on, when I was not. I used to try and watch everything, now I try and limit that a little bit. It’s about having trust in your collaborator.”
As he did with Darius Marder on Sound of Metal, Ahmed also found a sympathetic collaborator in director Bassam Tariq on Mogul Mowgli. Riz knew that he wanted to make a film about his heritage’s impact on his everyday existence, and after watching Tariq’s These Birds Walk (2013), a documentary about a runaway boy and humanitarian efforts in Pakistan, he got in touch.
They chatted about their shared experiences – their parents hailing from Pakistan, their relationship to Islam, and growing up in the West as part of a minority community. They started with a blank page, communicating on Skype, meeting up when possible, and even travelled to Pakistan together thinking they would make their film there. But as Ahmed says: “We realised there was a more in-depth conversation that we were having with the diaspora and with our diaspora in the West. That felt more present to us.”
British and American film history has numerous examples of filmmakers seeing that difference as an opportunity to tell a narrative, usually in a romantic plot, that ends with an affirmation that the British/American white liberal way of doing things is the best – cultural dominance masked as acceptance. It’s an othering trap that Mogul Mowgli does not fall into. While it’s not afraid to highlight the problems and issues, it’s sincere and truthful about the experience of being a British Muslim, and how confusion over identity can lead to mental and physical ailments. It’s not about choosing one culture over another.
As well as taking on more roles in the vein of those in Mogul Mowgli and Sound of Metal, Riz tells me he hopes to direct in the future. He was set to write and direct for the BBC series Englandistan, about three generations of a British Pakistani family, but the project “has stalled for a number of reasons. But I’m eager to do it.” It will be interesting to watch him develop those sides of his work.
In all our conversations, there was one observation in particular that stuck with me – one that spoke to why Ahmed’s work is so important and relevant. He was talking about how he came to see the positives in his upbringing, how it made him more rounded and analytical. “I realised that we had this enriching cultural heritage that comes with us,” he said. “We have this different palette to paint with, different goggles to see the world through. This gave us competing narratives. So, turning on the news, there’s always this DVD commentary running alongside what the BBC might be showing and stating.”
It’s this commentary, this alternative way of looking at things, that’s been lacking in cinema. It’s a way of looking that speaks to many across the spectrum – a questioning of orthodox thinking, and of the idea that storytelling can ever be neutral.
Just before we end our final conversation, Riz says, “I’m kind of done talking about all this. I would like not to talk about the change. I just want to be the change. If someone needs to talk about it, I’ll talk about it, but it can be self-defeating. I’m really aware that every time I talk about it, it pushes me back from what is my true calling and my truth. The thing I have to offer is my creative expression.”
When the phone clicks it feels exhilarating. The time for talking is over. Riz has paved a path where he’s allowed to reach ever greater heights. But even more than that, if Riz can be the change, I can be the change. This feeling I got, it’s the thrill of being inspired.
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