Riz Ahmed: ‘We have to be vocal. We’re living in scary times’
He was pulled aside at Luton airport and says he was illegally detained, questioned and threatened.
One thing about Riz Ahmed: he is not boring. We’re in a central London hotel room as part of the massive media blitz for Rogue One, the latest multimillion dollar incarnation of the Star Wars franchise. And maybe one day he’ll become boring, or learn how to be boring, but even though we’re at the very heart of the Hollywood publicity machine, surrounded by soft furnishings in all shades of beige, Ahmed is not boring. In the decade since Michael Winterbottom cast him in his first film, The Road to Guantanamo, he’s built up a critically acclaimed body of work, including his breakout performance in Chris Morris’s jihadist satire Four Lions. In addition, he has a sideline as a musician, and has just brought out a hip-hop album as one of the Swet Shop Boys called Cashmere. Sample lyric, from a track called “T5”: “Trump want my exit, but if he press a red button/ To watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on… Oh no, we’re in trouble/TSA always wanna burst my bubble/Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.”
He has always been someone with something to say. Earlier this year he appeared in Jason Bourne, but in many ways Rogue One marks the apotheosis from plucky indie actor to mainstream Hollywood player. But it hasn’t shut him up. If anything, it’s done the opposite, and now he’s getting the chance to say it on the back of a Disney blockbuster playing an imperial cargo pilot in the Star Wars prequel. In an essay for The Good Immigrant, a book of essays about race and immigration in the UK, he wrote about his experience of being racially profiled in airports. And how he came to realise that his experience of being interrogated was not unlike his experience of being auditioned – “where the length of your facial hair can be a deal breaker”.
He defined the career stages of any minority actor: “Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner.” Stage two challenges the stereotype. And stage three “is the promised land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to their race. There I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.”
His name in Rogue One isn’t Dave, it’s Bodhi Rook. But still. Is this the promised land?
“I don’t know. I’ve got an action figure. I didn’t realise that there’s a holy grail…”
Beyond the promised land?
“The action figure is like an extra level you didn’t know was there. It’s like the power-up in Mario. It’s just weird, isn’t it? It’s a miniature figurine of you. I mean it’s not you. It’s about the character and the film. But… it is you.”
Gareth Edwards, the director, another Brit, asked him to audition for the film. “And he made Monsters, which I loved, so I just put myself on tape. And I can be quite obsessive. I just kept sending him tapes of the scene that he sent me. I think I sent him like 11 or 12 different tapes.”
Did you really want the job?
“Who wouldn’t want to be in Star Wars? I kept on obsessively sending him more tapes. And eventually he emailed back and said: ‘Hey Riz, thanks for the tapes. I think that’s enough now. And, I was like: ‘Oh, I’ve definitely screwed it up.’”
In The Good Immigrant essay, he wrote how, “You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck.” Becoming an actor was a way “to stretch these necklaces… to breathe a little easier.”
So are you breathing more easily now?
“I mean my day-to-day reality is as contradictory as ever. Every time I get on the plane, I get searched. The last time I came back from LA, I got fully searched and all of that. That’s as usual. Then the second search. But this time, I got on the plane and I picked up the inflight magazine. And I was on the cover. I was already on the plane.”
It’s not a coincidence that so many tracks from his album, Cashmere, are to do with airports and travel – as well as “T5”, there’s also “No Fly List” and “Shoes Off” – because as a British-born Pakistani, it’s at airports that the “necklace of identities” pinches most. The first time it happened, in 2006, he was on the way back from the Berlin film festival where he’d been to promote The Road to Guantanamo, the filming of which had involved “an Axis of Evil world tour” shooting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran with the passport stamps to match. He was pulled aside at Luton airport and says he was illegally detained, questioned and threatened.
It was an experience that shook him. And though I meet him before the American election, it’s hard not to think that his experiences are a precursor to even more terrible things to come. That he is the canary in the coal mine. That the racial profiling he’s experienced will spread in ever more insidious ways. For Ahmed, at least, it had a creative upshot. He went on to write a song inspired by it called “Post 9/11 Blues” (“We’re all suspects so literally, be watching your back/ I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.”) And it was this that caught the eye of Chris Morris. They met and talked and continued talking while Morris wrote Four Lions. He wanted Ahmed to play Omar, the family man turned wannabe suicide bomber, but Ahmed turned it down. He didn’t want to be trapped by the label.
“I was doing other parts by that time. I’d just done a film called Shifty that had nothing to do with this kind of stuff. I wanted to build on that. But then Chris, said: ‘Look… if you’re asking me if this is a step away from or towards a brown James Bond, I think it’s towards.’”
He did the film. It was his breakthrough role. His stage two role that led from there to where he is today. But there’s always a tension in discussing these issues. I ask him about the last time he gave an interview to the Observer, back in 2007, when he said his religion was a private matter and that he didn’t want to be seen as a Muslim actor.
“I guess I started basically giving less of a fuck and saying what I think more. Probably that comes with just being a bit older. If you’re, like, a young, white actor, who comes out and does a good role, then it’s like, ‘You’re a great actor!’ And the interview is like, ‘Oh, wow you can act. Wow, tell me about that? When did you want to start acting?’
“I’ve done three or four solid films now that became cult classics. And everyone’s like, ‘What’s it like being a Muslim?’ That’s offensive. Really, that’s what it is, offensive. What you’re saying is that you cannot see me as creative or an artist or a human being first.
“I’m so happy to talk about all these things. I think it’s really important that we do. I don’t think it’s enough to be visible anymore. I think we have to be vocal about what we believe in. We’re living in scary times. But I think if those conversations really start detracting from, ‘Oh by the way, someone is skilled at their craft,’ I think that’s a step backwards. You know what I mean?”
He looks at me. And then says: “That’s like a massive cue for you to balance out what you write up and where your focus lies in this interview.”
This is my pre-warning, is it? My briefing note?
“Yeah. My next freestyle is a rant against you. Exactly.”
None of this is said entirely antagonistically. But there is an edge to it. There is an edge to Ahmed. His parents were Pakistani immigrants living in the very ordinary London suburb of Wembley, from where he won a scholarship to a private school, Merchant Taylors’ in Hertfordshire, from where he went to Oxford to read PPE. He’s always moved between worlds, between languages and registers and accents.
Earlier this year, he appeared in a gripping HBO drama, The Night Of, in the lead role of Nasir Khan, a college student wrongly accused of murder – a crime that unleashes a simmering undercurrent of racism and Islamophobia. It was the hit of the summer and led to an appearance on The Late Show. “This is what British looks like,” he told Stephen Colbert. “It looks like me. It looks like Idris Elba. And hopefully through Nasir Khan, America can see it’s what Americans look like, too.”
I watch it on YouTube and see the surprise register on his face as the audience bursts into applause. It’s entirely understandable that Ahmed doesn’t want the label of “Muslim actor”. And part of the reason The Night Of was such a hit was because of his bound-to-be-award-winning performance, but he’s right. It is scary times. And having someone like him, speaking and standing up, feels… well, like a relief more than anything.
And, America, for all these issues, has been his land of opportunity. It’s where pretty much all his work since Four Lions has come from. A result, he says, partly, of the stories we choose to tell in Britain. Our obsession with period drama, for a start.
“What are we saying about whose experience is valued? Whose voice should be heard? There’s an erasure that takes place. So when people say, ‘You do political films,’ or, ‘You do political rap,’ I’m like, ‘All art is political because what you decide to focus on is a choice.’”
He got into drama school, he tells me, by the greatest fluke. Though he acted at Oxford, it hadn’t occurred to him to apply. “I had a friend, the only black British girl that I knew in my year throughout the whole of Oxford. She just emailed me and said, ‘I saw you in a play recently and I hope you’re going to be pursuing acting as a career.’ Nobody else said that to me. And when you look at the screen, it’s like, ‘Dude, there’s nothing there for you.’ That’s a message you’re internalising every time you look at the TV screen, every time you open up a magazine. That you’re not reflected in this culture. That you don’t belong. I thought drama school was a stupid idea. But then I thought, ‘Screw it. Let me apply to just one.’”
One? Nobody gets into drama school like that, I say. He shrugs. “Just think about all the other amazing talent we’re missing out on. All the other people who don’t apply. To drama school. Or the Guardian. Or the Labour Party. Or whatever.”
He still couldn’t afford it and then, by another massive fluke, a theatre producer – Thelma Holt – saw him in a play and found him the money. “She literally just said, ‘I’m going to get you the money.’ And I got a cheque in the post. I was two grand short and I got a check for two grand. Who the fuck does that happen for? No one. That is such luck. And I’m only open to that level of help because I’m at Oxford. I’m only there because I went to Merchant Taylors’. I only applied because of one girl. I really shouldn’t be here. It’s crazy. And this… it’s not a tragedy for working-class actors or Asian actors or black actors. It’s a tragedy about what we are communicating as a society.”
He pauses for a moment. The publicist in the corner looks up, expectantly.
“Don’t you want to ask more about the film?” she says. No need. I’m sure he’ll be a great Bodhi Rook, but there’s so much more to Riz Ahmed than Star Wars. May the force be with him.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released on 15 December
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