Actor Profile: Riz Ahmed
Riz Ahmed is not only a great actor, but also a musician and a widely-known activist; here is a rundown of his career so far.
Riz Ahmed is one of my favourite actors, but beyond that, he’s often one of the people I go to when I need to make sense of what’s happening in the world. Take a look at his Twitter feed and you’ll see what I mean. So who is this man who most of us first saw in the Bafta-winning movie Four Lions (2010), who’s now one of Time magazine’s #100mostinfluential people?
Riz Ahmed: How it all started
Rizwan Ahmed was born in 1982, in Wembley, London. He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, before enrolling at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Oxford was one of many defining experiences for Ahmed, as he talks about in this essay for the Guardian, entitled Typecast as a Terrorist.
He’s never lost his passion for philosophy, politics, and economics, often using his celebrity status to raise awareness of issues from Syria to diversity and representation (or the lack of) in the UK.
Earlier this year, Ahmed delivered Channel 4’s annual diversity speech to the UK Parliament, warning that “the enduring failure to champion diversity on TV is alienating young people, driving them towards extremism and into the arms of Isis.” He went on to say that “in the light of the rise in racial and religious hate crimes post-Brexit, TV had a pivotal role to play in ensuring different communities felt heard, and valued, in British society.”
The voice for a generation
Ahmed is certainly a great role model, not just for young British Asians, but for young British men in general. And he doesn’t just act. He’s also a music star with the Swet Shop Boys, under the alias @RizMC. In fact, according to IMDB, it was his first single, Post 9/11 Blues, that first drew the attention of satirist Chris Morris, director and co-writer of Four Lions.
What I didn’t know is that Ahmed was a BBC Introducing artist in 2007, playing at Glastonbury Festival and the BBC Electric Proms, after teenage years perfecting his craft via rap battles and pirate radio.
It may be acting that’s swept Ahmed to stratospheric levels, but you get the impression that it’s Swet Shop Boys that gives Ahmed a no-holds-barred outlet to express his creativity and all that’s on his mind. As Riz MC, he’s free to be a rapper from Wembley, a grounding alter ego to Riz Ahmed the global superstar, dealing “with the experience of being young brown guys in an increasingly mad world” as Kitty Empire puts it in her review of a recent Swet Shop Boys gig for the Guardian.
A man of many talents
When you know more about Riz Ahmed, it’s clear to see what’s behind those luminous, captivating, quietly towering performances. The same depth that draws me to seek understanding and even solace from Ahmed’s Twitter feed when it feels like the world is going mad, shines through his nuanced performance as Omar in Four Lions.
It’s hard to imagine many actors being able to leave you feeling empathy for the perpetrators when a suicide attack planned by an inept group of British homegrown would-be jihadis goes wrong. Overall, the film uses comedy to simultaneously humanise and therefore disarm the wannabe terrorists, but it’s Ahmed that gives Four Lions its complexity, marking it out as a genuine attempt to explore concepts like radicalisation beyond the media headlines.
It’s well-worth reading this 2017 article from Little White Lies to see why Riz Ahmed’s performance is still being talked about, seven years on.
From indies to blockbusters
Riz Ahmed’s roll call of acting is pretty impressive, starting with The Road to Guantanamo, in which he played Shafiq Rasul, one of the Tipton Three; followed by British TV roles in Britz, Dead Set and Wired.
His early films include Shifty where he played the title role, a young crack dealer in London whose life is spiralling out of control; Freefall, a BBC TV satire on the 2007 mortgage crisis that led to a global financial catastrophe; and Rage.
Following his appearance in Four Lions in 2010, Ahmed was nominated for a second British Independent Film Award for Best Actor, after also being nominated for Shifty.
Next up, Riz Ahmed starred in historical thriller Centurion, about a group of Roman soldiers forced to fight for their lives after their legion is decimated; followed by Trishna, the story of the tragic relationship between the son of a property developer and the daughter of an auto rickshaw owner; and another leading role and Best Actor nomination for Ill Manors).
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In the same year, Ahmed also starred in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, one of my favourite films and a brilliant exploration of the world post-9/11 for a Pakistani man living in America.
Once again, Riz Ahmed turns in a nuanced performance that leaves you questioning the very notion of ‘fundamentalism’, exploring the darkest recesses of the American dream and his search for a Pakistani dream, beyond his father’s nostalgia and political rhetoric shaped by 9/11 fallout.
In one scene, Ahmed’s character Changez is detained at the airport on his way back from a business trip, despite working for a U.S. corporate bank. It’s just one of the things that’s demonstrably changed post-9/11, forcing Changez to realise the shiny façade of the American dream, where it’s said anyone can succeed wherever they’re from, yet it hides a much harsher truth.
The blurred line
In real life, Riz Ahmed has had plenty of experience of being stopped at airports. He was detained at Luton Airport on his way back from the Berlin Film Festival, where the Road to Guantanamo won a Silver Bear Award.
As with anyone, his personal experiences have naturally shaped his creative expression, from his multi-layered on-screen performances and tell-it-like-it-is Swet Shop Boys lyrics, to his passionate awareness-raising on issues like Syria. But Ahmed goes way beyond anger.
He questions, ponders, looks for meaning in the gaps between the obvious answers, actively searches for alternative interpretations to the most difficult issues, and is not afraid to flip between uncompromising conviction, genuine open-mindedness, and laugh-out-loud fun. He’s over the moon at being on the cover of Time magazine and he’s going to celebrate. But he’s not going to pull any punches when it comes to issues like Trump’s Muslim travel ban or the Grenfell Tower fire.
I think it’s all those things that have made Ahmed an award-winning actor, equally at home in blockbuster Hollywood roles or small independent British films. For example, he went from playing Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to private eye Tommy Akhtar in City of Tiny Lights.
Authenticity is something that Riz Ahmed himself has commented on saying: “The camera or the microphone in the booth is merciless. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, it hears it. If you don’t believe it, it sees it in your eyes, it hears it in your voice that there isn’t the conviction there.”
Many people have got to know Ahmed through his later roles, including Rick in the much-acclaimed Nightcrawler, where he played opposite Jake Gyllenhaal; Naz in HBO’s The Night Of, which consistently earns Ahmed a host of award nominations; and Girls, as well as films Una and Jason Bourne.
As Riz Ahmed pointed out in his Channel 4 speech to Parliament, what’s needed is representation. But how does he feel, knowing he’s inevitably representing the Asian community in many of his roles?
“I try and say that in terms of my intentions, that is to represent myself. But in terms of an awareness of it, like, you know, you’re aware of the fact that you do represent more than yourself if there aren’t a variety of representatives.” (source)
Ahmed continues: “As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative. Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help stretch these necklaces, and that the teenage version of myself might breathe a little easier as a result. If the films I reenacted as a kid could humanise mutants and aliens, maybe there was hope for us. But portrayals of ethnic minorities worked in stages, I realised, so I’d have to strap in for a long ride.”
In his essay for the Guardian, Typecast as a Terrorist, Ahmed talks about the stages as stage one – the two-dimensional stereotype, stage two – the subversive portrayal, taking place on ‘ethnic’ terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes and stage three – the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race.
He’s certainly smashed stage two and arguably, come pretty close to stage three with roles like Bodhi Rook, although part of the film’s strength is that it challenges a whole range of existing stereotypes.
If you haven’t already, it’s well worth catching up on Ahmed’s career to date. You’ll find a hugely watchable actor able to light up the screen without ego and a treasure trove of gems including independent films and TV dramas.
I’d also recommend you listen to Riz Ahmed the activist, whether via the Swet Shop Boys, Twitter or the articles he’s written for publications like The Guardian. He’ll help you make sense of the world, even when it feels upside down.
Did you know?
Riz Ahmed’s favourite TV series growing up was The A-Team.
GQ Magazine recently called for Ahmed to be the next James Bond. Do you agree?
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