Riz Ahmed is running late. The London-based actor is in New York in mid-September for meetings, interviews, photo shoots, and fittings. He got stuck in traffic, and then he realized he forgot the key to his Airbnb. “This is what really productive people do,” he jokes as he settles behind a table for our chat via Zoom, about an hour after the appointed time. “That’s actually one of the secrets I want to share with your readers.”
Whatever system Ahmed has or doesn’t have in place, it’s working. Since his Oscar-nominated performance as a drummer who loses his hearing in the 2020 film Sound of Metal, Ahmed’s agenda has been packed with a dizzying array of projects. He released an album, The Long Goodbye, on his own imprint, Mongrel Records. He cowrote, produced, and starred in Mogul Mowgli, a film about a British Pakistani rapper who grapples with identity issues while confronting a debilitating illness. He’s tackling the role of Hamlet in a film adaptation written by an Oxford classmate. On December 3, he stars in the film Encounter as a Marine saving his family from an apparent alien threat. (It comes out on Prime Video December 10.)
He has also emerged as Hollywood’s busiest and most visible Muslim actor, and one of a small number of Muslim performers tapped to play characters whose ethnicity and faith aren’t even remarked on. He knows that he’s in a rare position within the entertainment business, and any business, for that matter, and he’s taking the responsibility seriously. Over the past year, Ahmed has become the industry’s leading advocate for expanding Muslim representation in media, both on and off the screen.
It is a daunting task. Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, bias and discrimination against Muslims persists. In the months following former president Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries, nearly half of Muslims in the U.S. surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they’d experienced discrimination because of their religion. Pew research also shows that Americans consistently give negative “ratings” to Muslims (and atheists) when polled about their sentiments on faith. [More at Source]
Feature: Riz Ahmed for The Observer!
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. In fact, Ahmed noted, some of the most prestigious and awards-laden releases of recent years were “frankly racist”: specifically The Hurt Locker and 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, I guess, right?” 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. “You know, 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 and the 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 April, 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”. [More at Source]
Feature: Riz Ahmed for British GQ
On 1 April 2020, nine days into the first Covid lockdown, Rizwan Ahmed was staring back at me over a WhatsApp video call. Across subsequent months, surrealism would become the new normal for us all. But for me personally this was where the madness began: a candid conversation with a star whose voice I first discovered nearly 15 years ago, as a wide-eyed teenager picking up RWD magazine. Riz MC was featured in the “About To Blow” talent-spotting section.
“Sometimes people talk about growth as something that you don’t invite, right? Sometimes growth just slaps you in the face. And I feel like that’s what it was for me,” Ahmed poses now, 18 months on, reflecting on his personal journey since the start of the pandemic. He is wearing a striped green collarless shirt and glasses. We’re poolside, facing each other across a small table, eating brunch beneath a clear blue West London sky on the roof of White City House. Ahmed’s answers are philosophically demanding but therefore rewarding, like sitting with your favourite professor during office hours. Yet between thoughts he pauses seamlessly to make in-the-moment observations: excitement at the colourful dragonfly that zips past us; polite inquisitiveness about whether his vegetarian breakfast will come with avocado. “I was pedalling so hard that sometimes I didn’t look up to see where I was heading. So that enforced me to stop, sit with myself, think about what really matters… It was difficult in many ways, but I am also strangely grateful for it. It gave me clarity.” After everything, he seems happy to be here.
In the spring of 2020, Ahmed’s album, The Long Goodbye, and its accompanying short film were released to critical acclaim. Months later came the UK release of Mogul Mowgli, a collaboration between Pulse Films and Ahmed’s production company, Left Handed Films. The feature film, which he cowrote with his friend director Bassam Tariq, drawing from their life experiences, traces the paralysing demise of rapper Zed as he navigates illness and a premature career halt. “It’s basically a pandemic movie: a workaholic gets hit with a health crisis; his life is thrown into a lockdown. He has to sit with himself, reassess what really matters,” Ahmed explains, noting the film’s atmospheric parallels with the timing of the real world. “I always find the making of a film, the telling of a story and the story itself, end up mirroring each other. Always. It’s like the lesson you need to learn, in your life, in that moment, the character teaches it to you. The story is taking you on that journey that you need to go on.” [More at Source]
Feature: Riz Ahmed for Variety
As Jennifer Aniston knows, a good haircut can make your career in Hollywood. But in Riz Ahmed’s case, so can a bad one.
At age 22, the actor-producer-rapper fell victim to a “horrific bowl cut,” he recalls to Variety. In his arts program at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, the students deconstructed Shakespeare by day and hustled for acting jobs at night.
“We were still doing headshots at drama school, so everyone was making sure they looked good,” he says. “I turn up with this hair and ended up looking like one of the Tipton Three. When Michael Winterbottom’s casting director saw my photo, I got a role.”
Ahmed is referring to his big break, Winterbottom’s 2006 film “The Road to Guantánamo,” in which he played Shafiq Rasul — one of three Muslim men from Tipton, England, who were detained at Guantánamo Bay in 2001. They endured two years of torture and interrogation at the American base in Cuba before being released with no charges, an example of the moral murk that accompanied the post-9/11 “war on terror.”
From that fateful coif grew an impressive screen career, one that has positioned Ahmed as one of the industry’s most compelling, blazingly modern performers. An Oscar nominee for 2019’s “Sound of Metal,” the 38-year-old represents a new class of leading man — one who showcases vulnerability, subverts traditional masculinity and ushers in a different type of Hollywood hero. Ahmed’s talent continues to unfold in fresh and exciting ways in two fall films: He plays an up-and-coming British Pakistani rapper in “Mogul Mowgli” and an ex-military officer grappling with a microorganism invasion in “Encounter.”
The two projects are perfect vehicles for Ahmed’s twitchy intensity and emotional daring, spanning genres in ways that highlight his versatility. At a time when one generation of actors seems to be falling over themselves to get into spandex and anchor a superhero movie, Ahmed is forging his own path, one that cuts through the world of streaming and indies while allowing him to create the kind of morally compromised, rough-edged characters that populated the greatest movies of the ’60s and ’70s. [More at Source]
Feature: The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion
Newly-minted Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winner Riz Ahmed has become just as well known for his activism as for his performances in projects like “Sound of Metal” or “The Night Of.”
Now the actor, musician and producer is taking his fight one step further, by launching a multi-layered initiative for Muslim representation in media, in partnership with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund. Powered by USC Annenberg’s new study on Muslim representation in media — which found that less than 10% of top grossing films from 2017-2019 had a Muslim character on screen, with less than 2% of those characters having speaking roles — the coalition has created the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, as well as the Pillars Artist Fellowship, offering selected grantees an unrestricted award of $25,000.
The grantees will also receive mentorship from the fellowship’s advisory board, made up of Muslim artists, including Ahmed, Mahershala Ali, Ramy Youssef, Lena Khan, Sana Amanat, Karim Amer, Rosa Attab, Nida Manzoor, Jehane Noujaim and Hasan Minhaj.
The project spawned from Ahmed’s 2019 speech at CAA’s Amplify conference, where he made an impassioned plea for the entertainment industry to reevaluate its role in perpetuating negative stereotypes about Muslims and the real threats members of the community face in their everyday lives, no matter how famous they are.
“With all my privilege and profile, I often wonder if this is going to be the year they round us up, if this is the year they’re going to put Trump’s Muslim registry into action, if this is going to be the year they ship us all off,” he said. “The representation of Muslims on screen — that feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded.”
Looking back on that presentation, as well as his 2017 address to Parliament in his native England, Ahmed tells Variety, “It’s not a speech I wanted to give. No offense, but this is an interview I don’t want to have to give. This is a study none of us want to have to do.”
“But sometimes, when you’ve got a feeling anecdotally and experientially, and you’ve been gas lit, you need that data,” he explains. “You need to bring the big guns to come in, and show you that this isn’t just in your head.” [More at Source]
Feature: Riz Ahmed for Esquire Magazine
In his latest film, Sound of Metal – in which Julie Andrews teaches some Austrian children to sing Iron Maiden (Ed: fact check?) – Riz Ahmed plays a workaholic musician, a drummer, who suddenly goes deaf on tour and joins a deaf community to learn how to adjust to his new life. The first step in this process is just sitting alone in a room and writing down his thoughts. And it’s hardest step of all.
“It’s a kind of purgatory,” says Ahmed, a workaholic artist himself. “A bit like lockdown really, so I think people will relate. These last months, a lot of us were forced to turn inward, and it’s hard when you’re used to spinning a lot of different plates.”
We’re at the James Hotel in Hollywood. He’s in town to shoot a sci fi movie, Invasion, starring Rory Cochrane and Octavia Spencer, about a father on the run with his two sons, to escape an alien threat. So, at least his lockdown his over, and movies are back in production – a semblance of normality. But earlier in the pandemic, he was stuck at home like so many of us, reflecting on What It All Means – the cracks Covid has exposed in terms of the climate, racial justice and so on, as well as the persistent need he felt to remain productive, “just to have a sense of self-worth, because that’s what we’ve been taught by this broken capitalist system.” These are things Riz can speak at length about, and in full paragraphs, citing statistics. There’s an intensity about him. He’s engaged.
But he’s also upbeat. The world may be falling apart, but for Riz, the artist, things are coming together quite nicely. “There’ something quite spurring about shit falling apart, in terms of clarifying your priorities,” he says. “And I feel really positive about where I’m at creatively. I’m working from a much more personal place, and I feel like I’m finding my voice, my language. I’m doing what I want to do now, rather than what someone else wants.”
At 38, his resume is as full and varied as any actor of his generation. A string of acclaimed independent movies (Four Lions, Road to Guantanamo, Nightcrawler), a few big studio films (Bourne, Venom, Star Wars), an Emmy winning television performance (The Night Of), and a rap career for which he’s less known, but which has been as rewarding as anything else. “My music’s not commercial,” he says, “but I know the ways it’s touched people, the depth of connection people have had. It depends on how you define success.”
In this particular period of flourishing, there are three pieces of work – two movies and an album. Sound of Metal, a small and necessarily quiet feature, which required seven months of learning the drums and learning sign language – “I never prepared so intensely for a film before.” The work was worth it though, earning him a Golden Globe nomination and Oscar chatter. It follows 2020’s Mogul Mowgli, a much louder and more personal film, electric in its energy and confrontation, that Riz co-wrote with first time director Bassam Tariq, in which he played another stricken musician, a rapper named Zed who suffers an autoimmune disorder.
It’s not easy to tell Zed and Riz apart. Like Riz, Zed is a British-Pakistani rapper – his music is taken from Riz’s latest album The Long Goodbye – who’s preoccupied with themes such as identity, ancestry, and art, an immigrant’s yearning to discover who he really is. And like Zed, Riz also suffered a health issue in recent years, which he won’t specify, but it was grave enough to serve as a wake-up call. “I had my personal little corona,” he says. “It forced me to sit with myself, think of what really matters and… just face my mortality, basically.” [More at Source]
Feature: Riz Ahmed for W Magazine
In his performance as Ruben in Sound of Metal, a film about a drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed helped break barriers between the deaf and hearing communities—and gained critical acclaim in the process. As the British actor tells it, the most impactful part of playing this role was the lessons he learned along the way. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Ahmed discusses his immersive approach to getting into character, attending deaf poetry slams, and falling in love with the process.
Before working on Sound of Metal, did you know about the deaf community and heavy metal—these areas that you had to become an expert in?
No. One of the things that really attracted me to this role, and one of the things I like most about being an actor, is learning new skills and learning about new people in communities and cultures. And that’s what this job was. [Sound of Metal director] Darius Marder said, “Whoever is going to play this role is really going to play the drums. I love music too much to fake it. And similarly with American Sign Language—your character needs to be fluent. Then I want the actor to be able to improvise with deaf actors.”
That challenge was just what I was looking for at the time: something that would be almost overwhelming, so I would have to lose any attempt at control. And that’s when the interesting things happened. It was a seven-month process of learning to play the drums from scratch, and American Sign Language.
What was a typical day in this seven-month period like?
Ruben is a character who is very structured, so I thought I’d approach the preparation in a very structured way, to be quite immersed. I stayed in the accent and with blond hair for seven months. And, you know, there are tougher things to do for seven months than walk around blond. I would do American Sign Language with Jeremy Stone, my instructor, for a couple of hours in the morning. Then I would go and work on my script with my acting coach. And then in the afternoons for a few hours, I would drum. In the evenings, I would usually go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. At night, I would go to a gig. I was learning about multiple worlds at the same time: the punk and metal and noise scene, the deaf community, addiction circles. The way I like to work is just to immerse myself in it completely. So it was a long journey, but it was such an eye-opening one. [More at Source]
Feature: Riz Ahmed for Clash Magazine
River Runs Deep: Riz Ahmed Interviewed
“I’m proud of all the work I’ve done, but’s it’s also important we evolve…”
Riz Ahmed has emerged as an unfiltered voice for the marginalised and minoritized, with totemic performances across music and film. For years, Ahmed has embraced the gift and burden of representation.
Now, he’s ready to hone in on the micro.
There’s a protracted scene at the end of The Long Goodbye short film where Riz Ahmed glowers directly into the viewer’s gaze. In spoken-word, he recites the lyrics from ‘Where You From?’; his bloodied mien a mesh of fury and anguish, eyes transmitting a hollow longing.
In preceding scenes, Ahmed and his family are partaking in the usual “ronak” – the frenzy – that characterises a typical day in a Desi household; it’s a projection of warmth, colours, aroma and familial noise. Whilst a nagging sense of foreboding pulses throughout, the violent melodrama that supervenes remains etched in the psyche long after initial viewing. “With the short film, I was asking how can you understand this wider social and political fuckery through a very first-person, subjective point of view? How can I portray this vicious invasion of our private space, this world breaking down through a portrait of one character breaking down?” Ahmed says.
Clash catches Riz Ahmed over Zoom on the promo trail; he’s currently in LA filming for the sci-fi thriller, Invasion. Our transatlantic conversation coalesces into dialled-in observations, unexpected analogies and whimsical detours through a storied career. It can feel like a breathless jaunt as Ahmed stuns you with commentary that reads like a thesis: We cover artists that soundtracked his lockdown – Tirzah, J Hus, Koffee and Jai Paul, to name a few – global politics, art over commerce, the spectre of isolation for an actor who lives out of his suitcase. Ahmed commands your attention, always. There’s no ego, no sense of elevated superiority – just a convivial demeanour.
Ahmed recalls his own history, weaving a binding thread through a career that has for the most part, abjured a mainstream blueprint. Born in Wembley, London, to an upwardly-mobile family who emigrated to the U.K from Karachi, Pakistan in the 1970s, Ahmed remains tethered to his heritage. His family still resides in London; a personal and community-based sanctum he takes with him wherever he goes. “London is home; culturally, and in terms of its demographic mix. It is one of the most colourful cities in the world,” he says with pride.
Still, Ahmed, like many children of the diaspora, is bound by a constant state of the ephemeral. A sense of unbelonging shrouds us in perpetuity – we become one with this ambiguity, and it inscribes our being like a tattoo. Ahmed’s work reconnoitres that sticky grey area, avoiding binary answers for multifarious questions. “We’re people who code-switch, we live between cultures to navigate our daily lives, implicitly and explicitly,” he shifts in his seat, “It’s impossible to bring all of yourself to this interview, this meeting room, this workplace or even a romantic relationship – you have to leave a part of yourself at the door,” he explains. [more at source]