‘You’ve got to try and worry about something bigger than yourself’: Riz Ahmed on rap, racism and standing up to Hollywood

This summer, Riz Ahmed took aim at Hollywood and the wider film industry. In a speech that was somehow both measured and searingly furious, the British actor called out the “toxic portrayals” of Muslim characters in TV and movies. Using research that he was directly involved in commissioning, Ahmed showed how Muslims, who make up almost a quarter of the world’s population, are either “invisible or villains” in our screen entertainment. He said that this omission resulted not just in “lost audiences” but “lost lives” because of the “dehumanising and demonising” ways that Muslims were often depicted. Infatti, Ahmed noted, some of the most prestigious and awards-laden releases of recent years were “frankly racist”: nello specifico The Hurt Locker e Argo, both of which won best picture at the Oscars, and Marvel’s Black Panther, which earned more than $1bn at the box office.

The speech in June, which launched an initiative called the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, was many things: timely, vital and, for some, eye-opening. But mainly, on Ahmed’s part, it felt brave, even risky. Actors typically don’t take potshots at their paymasters, the studios. They almost never single out specific, very successful films for criticism.

“If you’re going to say something, say it, suppongo, giusto?” says Ahmed today. “I’m not trying to attack anyone personally, it’s just about trying to call out a collective blind spot. So am I worried it would have a knockback on my career? I dunno…”

Ahmed pauses, starts again. "Sai, this is all just a bonus,” he goes on. “I never expected I’d be able to have a career. They haven’t noticed I’ve snuck in. They are going to throw me out any minute. It’s probably that kind of thing. Nick all the sweets while you can. Trash the place. Tell them whatever you want. Maybe there’s some of that going on.”

He won’t say it himself, but right now Ahmed has the run of the sweet shop. After years of sustained excellence, working his way up through acclaimed indies such as Chris Morris’s Four Lions e il Reluctant Fundamentalist, then smaller parts in Hollywood spectaculars (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Venom), 2021 was the year that Ahmed landed centre stage. In Aprile, he was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance in Sound of Metal as Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing. He didn’t win, but the fact that he was the first Muslim ever to be nominated in that category started a debate that Ahmed has taken on. This month, he became the youngest recipient of the Richard Harris Award, the highest honour from Bifa (the British Independent Film Awards). In the citation, it praised “his outstanding work, both on-screen and off”.

This has been a busy, creatively fertile period for Ahmed. He also co-wrote and starred in Mogul Mowgli, a semi-autobiographical tale of a self-involved rapper who is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and has to trade a big tour of Europe for life back at home with his English-Pakistani family. The film was soundtracked by much of Ahmed’s own music, which came from his 2020 album The Long Goodbye. Ahmed has always made music – first as an MC and then as part of a rap duo, Swet Shop Boys – but that didn’t lessen the surprise of some critics that he really knows what he’s doing. “Ahmed’s ability to weave experience and cultural touchstones into an affecting tale of heartache, loss, and redemption is something of a marvel,” was the verdict of hard-to-please music review website Pitchfork.

We’re talking this evening over Zoom, because of a Covid scare – mine, not his. Ahmed is in a London hotel, waiting for a Bafta Q&A event to start and picks at some dinner. “Just some kind of salad situation," lui dice, “I think there’s lentils in it…” Ahmed’s dressed up, in a smart, striped jacket from Australian designers Song for the Mute, and I tell him it reminds me of early lockdown when everyone, going mad, did video-call eat-alongs. “Did people do that?” asks Ahmed, then mock-offended: “No one invited me!"

Ahmed looks back on his Oscar nomination as a “rollercoaster, innit?” Mainly, anche se, he was stunned by it. Sound of Metal was not expected to be a film that would be shortlisted for six Academy Awards. It had a first-time director, Darius Marder, and a script that knocked around in different forms for more than 10 anni. One of the delays was because of Marder having difficulty finding a lead actor who would commit to the regimen he demanded for the character of Ruben. Finalmente, the director met with Ahmed, a man who could never be accused of lacking dedication. For eight months, Ahmed spent two hours a day each on learning sign language, having drum lessons and working out with a trainer. The rest of the time, he prepped with an acting coach.

Even that was almost not enough. The day before Sound of Metal was due to shoot, the production lost its financing. Only a final-hour scramble from Marder got it back on track. “You really don’t know if anyone will see a film like that,” says Ahmed. “It’s like, here’s a dude, he’s never made a film before; here’s a script, been around for 10 anni, can’t get it made; getting money for it, you get like 10p. You gotta learn all this shit, it could all go horribly wrong.

“No one wanted to make this film,” he exclaims, his dark eyes alert and flickering, like a meerkat guarding its mound. “You couldn’t finance this film! No one wanted to put me in that role in this film, no one. For whatever reason, it didn’t make sense to people.”

That Sound of Metal even exists then is a hail-mary; that it went on to be nominated for Baftas and Oscars is altogether more unexpected and impressive. E così, when it started being noticed that a Muslim had never previously been in the running for the most prestigious acting award, Ahmed felt conflicted. “Some people go like, 'Oh, first Muslim, this and that,'" lui dice. “And your initial reaction is like, ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ Then you have another feeling: ‘But actually, wait that is relevant, insofar as like, why hasn’t this happened before? That’s weird.’ So always that kind of push and pull.”

Ahmed continues to feel that push and pull; he has it now in our interview. It would be much more straightforward to talk about learning to play the drums, instead of having to explain why it matters that, nel 200 most popular films made between 2017 e 2019, only 1.6% of the nearly 9,000 speaking characters were Muslim. That, nel 181 of those 200 films, there were no Muslim characters at all. “There’s a voice in my head right now that’s just going, ‘Oh my God, come on, get off this stuff, uomo!’” Ahmed admits. “Like 70% of my interviews end up being about politics and representation and all that.”

Partly Ahmed reasons that, if he doesn’t do it, chi lo farà? But also, his resolve has been stiffened by Covid, a period in which his aunt and uncle both died from the virus. “We’re just here for this long, uomo!" lui dice, snapping his fingers. “A lot of us lost a lot of people. You’re just here for two seconds so you’ve got to try and worry about something bigger than yourself because, guess what? None of us are getting out of this alive!"

Ahmed laughs, shakes his head. “I dunno,” he sighs, “I’m sounding incredibly fucking pretentious.”

Ahmed has always had a disruptive streak. He was born in Wembley, Londra nord, to Pakistani parents; he didn’t start to speak English until he went to school when he was six. Anziché, he stayed at home with his mum, his “best friend”, speaking Urdu, watching comedy sketch shows such as Fifty Fifty, which was loosely based on Sabato sera in diretta. invecchiato 11, Ahmed won a scholarship to a private school, Merchant Taylors’, whose alumni include archbishops and Nobel laureates.

“I had quite a volcanic energy as a kid,” Ahmed recalls. “I remember in my first week of school, I put a chair through the window. I was quite lucky really I had some teachers that were like, 'Destra, we’ve got to channel this somehow.’”

One teacher, Mr Roseblade, told him that if he wanted to get into a decent university, he should become involved in extracurricular projects. This – and his innate skill for arguing with everyone – led to debating and drama. “It was really, veramente, really genuinely just therapeutic for me,” says Ahmed. “You are not allowed to feel intense emotions in your day-to-day life: it’s not safe or it’s not cool or it’s not the done thing. And it’s like, ‘What do I do with all this shit? They’re telling me I’ll get kicked out if I feel these things so where do you want me to put it?’ So it was a space where anything’s possible.”

Ahmed made it to Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics, hated it, wanted to leave, stuck it out. He did some acting there, but when he graduated, he was half-hearted about pursuing it. “I thought, ‘It’s not realistic, so I’ll just apply for one drama school and if I don’t get in, then it’s not meant to be," lui dice. “And I applied to Central School of Speech and Drama for the one-year MA classical acting course. ho pensato, ‘I want to be in and out in one year. Let’s not prolong this inevitable car crash.’”

Why “car crash”? Ahmed points out that with the exception of the sketch comedy Goodness Gracious Me, which ran on the BBC from 1998 per 2001, there was little to indicate there were any opportunities for British South Asians in entertainment. “You’ve got to remember, things feel really different now, but this was 2004, 2005,” says Ahmed. “Let’s pull up IMDb for 2004, pull out the Radio Times, show me where and how I’m earning a living for my family? Show me how I’m able to apply my craft and do so with dignity? It’s just not a thing.”

Nel 2007, the director Danny Boyle was on the hunt for the lead for his new movie Slumdog Millionaire. Ahmed auditioned but lost out to the Skins attore Dev Patel. "Quando Slumdog Millionaire came up, I’d already been working for a few years,” says Ahmed. “And it was like, ‘There’s never been anything like this! A lead role in a film and it’s for a young brown dude.’ And when I didn’t get it, straight away, I was like, 'Bene, questo è tutto, it’s done, there’s not going to be another one of those.’”

A turning point for Ahmed came in his early 30s, in giro 2013. He was getting by in the UK, but the work, he admits, “had kind of dried up”. On a night out in London with Idris Elba, he asked for advice. “He was like, ‘You should go to America,’” says Ahmed. “And I said, ‘Now what would they do with someone like me over there? There’s no point.’ And he just said, ‘Don’t categorise yourself. Even if they do.’”

Ahmed booked a ticket, and one of his first auditions was for the psychological thriller Nightcrawler, and a character called Rick – which he liked because it didn’t immediately identify him as Muslim or a person of colour – who worked for Jake Gyllenhaal’s ambulance-chasing news service. This then led to a career-defining turn in the HBO series The Night Of, in which he was a student who has a one-night stand with a white woman and then finds her brutally murdered. The role won Ahmed an Emmy, and his feet have scarcely touched the ground since.

“The promised land," is what Ahmed calls the phase of his career that he’s entered. In an essay in 2016 per The Good Immigrant, a book about race and immigration in the UK, he defined it as a place “where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. Là, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. Là, my name might even be Dave.”

Ruben in the Sound of Metal is a “promised land” role. So is Ahmed’s new film Encounter, in which he plays Malik (the character, in the original script, was called Marcus, but Ahmed pushed for the name change, because he thought it would add “layers and psychological conflict”). Malik is a former Marine, and father of two sons, who believes that parasites are invading earth and assuming control of human hosts. In desperation, he takes his children on a road trip to keep them safe.

Ahmed suspected he wasn’t an obvious candidate for Encounter and that made him more determined to land the role. He is known for going deep in his preparations: if a part requires an accent, he’s talking that way, day and night, throughout the shoot. But what intrigued and scared him about Encounter was that Malik was a father, albeit an unconventional one who lets his kids eat as much ice-cream as they want and blow off steam by firing his gun.

“It’s good sometimes to not know fully what you’re doing, because if you’re not fully in control, interesting things can happen,” Ahmed reasons. "Sai, ‘I’m shitting it because I don’t know how to be a dad. Oh, that’s what Malik feels.’ So you lean into that fear a little bit.”

The pandemic era has seen major changes for Ahmed personally as well as professionally. L'anno scorso, he married the American novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza, whom he met in a café in New York when he was filming Sound of Metal. “We were both jostling over the same laptop plug points,” he told the talkshow host Jimmy Fallon.

Ahmed, who still mainly lives in west London, is clearly a private sort, but hints that Covid was at least partly responsible for his decision to marry. “In the pandemic, spending more time at home, sitting with yourself a bit more, that was really clarifying in lots of ways," lui dice, when I ask how life has changed since his wedding. “Particularly losing loved ones. Like I said, before you know it, this will all be over. So work out what matters to you, stand by it and just don’t fuck about. Get on with it!"

It’s time to wrap up our chat; I finish by asking Ahmed what he hopes his legacy will be. It’s a clichéd interview standard and he smiles, cuts straight through the bullshit: “I’m only 38 Anni, bro! Do you know something I don’t? Do I need to get a fucking doctor’s checkup now? Shit, what did they tell you, uomo?"

Ancora, I persevere: does Ahmed want to be remembered for his acting and his music? Or is his real aim set on bringing about systemic change in representation in the film industry? Ahmed turns serious for a moment and, eyes blazing, fires back, “Do I have to pick between the two?"

Encounter is out now on Amazon Prime

Photographer’s assistant Jack Storer; styling assistant Florence Armstrong; tailor Nick James; grooming by Tara Hickman using Armani

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