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]
Impostor syndrome: Everybody feels it, even Hollywood’s most seasoned stars. In a conversation recorded last month, actors Delroy Lindo, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Gary Oldman and George Clooney copped to the pangs of self-doubt they’ve experienced in their careers and the “jet fuel” that’s helped them power through.
“This idea of the impostor syndrome, it’s real with every actor,” said Clooney, who directed himself as a lone astronomer left on a dying Earth in the sci-fi adaptation “The Midnight Sky.” “Because to be successful at any level in this industry means that you’re beating such huge odds.”
Seeing that a performance can make a lasting impact and even meaningful change is a persuasive counterweight, said Ahmed, who plays Ruben, a drummer losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” “It’s a tremendous jet fuel to know that your work might help stretch culture in some way.”
“I think it’s very healthy, this impostor syndrome,” added “Mank” star Oldman, who portrays “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in the period biopic. “If someone said to me, ‘What do you think is your best work?’ I’d like to say, ‘Next year. The best work is the next one.’”
Beaming in remotely for the annual Envelope Oscar Roundtable, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the quintet vowed to raise a glass when it’s safe to do so. They shared stories and laughs, as well as the sentiment that’s been on their minds now more than ever — gratitude.
Yeun, who stars as a family man chasing his American dream in “Minari,” described the sensation of panic — then faith — that overcame him while in the shower two days before filming. “I was in my hotel room freaking out. I was like, ‘I’m going to do a terrible job. Every Korean American kid is going to hate me because I represented this poorly.’ I was in the shower and I just started sobbing. And the feelings that overwhelmed me were fear, awe, gratitude and submission. It all came together into this feeling of just faith,” he said.
Meanwhile, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone around the globe, including our panelists. Lindo revealed that he’d battled the virus back in March — only months before drawing acclaim from audiences and critics alike for his turn as the tormented Vietnam War veteran Paul in “Da 5 Bloods.”
“I was very sick,” he said. “But the fact that I recovered from that is a consistent wake-up call and a consistent reminder to be grateful. Because the alternative could have been very different for me.”
The five actors also took time to remember the late Chadwick Boseman, who died in August after starring with Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” and filming his final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“It’s a crappy year, and we don’t get to be in the same room together,” Clooney said. “And if we were sitting in a room right now, all of us together, there’d be an empty chair for Chadwick Boseman.”
Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity. [More at Source]
Variety and PBS SoCal announced today the actor lineup and schedule for the thirteenth season of their three-time Emmy Award-winning series Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.
The new season was filmed entirely from the actors’ homes and includes exclusive one-on-one conversations between top acting talent from potential contending movies in this year’s Academy Awards race. The episodes will premiere on PBS SoCal on Friday, March 5 at 8:00 pm, 8:30 pm, 9:00 pm and 9:30 pm. All episodes will stream on pbssocal.org and on the free PBS Video app following their premieres.
Variety’s Actors on Actors issue will hit newsstands on Jan. 20 with clips appearing on Variety.com starting Jan. 19. All Variety.com Actors on Actors videos will be presented by Amazon Studios. This season’s featured conversations are:
Jodie Foster (“The Mauritanian”) with Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”)
Ben Affleck (“The Way Back”) with Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”) with Michelle Pfeiffer (“French Exit”)
Tom Holland (“Cherry”) with Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) with Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”)
Jamie Dornan (“Wild Mountain Thyme”) with Eddie Redmayne (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) with Pete Davidson (“The King of Staten Island”)
Jared Leto (“The Little Things”) with John David Washington (“Malcolm & Marie”)
Zendaya (“Malcolm & Marie”) with Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)
Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) with Steven Yeun (“Minari”)
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) with Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”) [Source]
With his buzzy performance in ‘Sound of Metal’ — which required him to learn sign language and drumming — plus a new wife and a booming company, the soft-spoken actor and rapper is having his loudest year yet.
Back in summer 2018, Riz Ahmed was preparing for a classroom scene for his latest film, Sound of Metal, and his American Sign Language coach, Jeremy Lee Stone, was becoming increasingly annoyed. Stone had worked with the actor for the better part of a year, teaching him ASL for the role of Ruben, a rock drummer whose life begins to spiral out of control when he loses his hearing. This, however, was his first day on the Massachusetts set, and he hadn’t seen his star pupil in months. Stone made a “voices off” sign, and Ahmed was expected to reciprocate with an identical sign. But Ahmed sat defiantly, refusing to sign, and “it boiled my blood,” Stone recalls. After all, the actor was well beyond fluent in ASL by that point. And then it hit Stone. Ruben the character was not yet fluent. “I realized, in that moment, I’m not speaking to Riz,” Stone recalls. “There was no Riz. He was fully Ruben in that moment.”
Ahmed’s deeply immersive performance in Sound of Metal, which Amazon debuted Nov. 20, has garnered some of the best reviews of a trailblazing career that has brought the British-born phenom American stardom — if not quite universal recognition: On a sunny January day in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park, as the 38-year-old actor is logging on to a video call with The Hollywood Reporter, a stranger calls out to him. “Is that Hardy?” she asks. Ahmed is confused. “Your name is Hardy?” the woman presses. “No it’s not, no, no sorry,” he says, looking puzzled before switching his focus back to the call. “I wonder if she meant Tom Hardy? Or Laurel and Hardy? Or am I a Hadid?”
Since 2016, Ahmed has flirted with a don’t-confuse-me-with-Tom-Hardy kind of celebrity by starring in the Star Wars stand-alone Rogue One, a $1 billion-plus earner that became that year’s second-highest-grossing film domestically, followed by Spider-Man spinoff Venom (which starred Hardy) two years later. In between, he made history as the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy for his role in HBO’s The Night Of, besting Robert De Niro, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Geoffrey Rush and his Night Of co-star John Turturro in the outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie category.
But instead of harnessing that momentum and becoming a tentpole-only player, Ahmed signed on for the riskiest role of his career with Sound of Metal, a film that would require nearly a year of intense preparation with Stone as well as a drum instructor and a trainer. Underscoring the gamble, the film paired him with a first-time narrative feature director in Darius Marder, who had been trying to get the project off the ground for nearly a decade.
” ‘Why are you doing this when you could go off and get paid, finally?’ ” Ahmed remembers asking himself. “There was an opportunity to do bigger, more commercial projects and make money and buy a home and all these things. But I thought, ‘Here’s your chance.’ My gut feeling about it was so strong. And for whatever reason, I felt really hungry for something like that, to go all in and just fucking go there.” [More at Source]
RIZ arrives at the agreed location for our interview, a two-storey house on a quiet residential street in north London. It is a grey Saturday evening. We enter through the front door but quickly make our way to the small backyard, a request he’s made with Covid-19 concerns in mind. The global film industry is just starting up again but not without strict health and safety regulations amid fears around the potential for delayed shoots and cancelled projects.
PAUL: What does the rest of the weekend hold for you?
RIZ: I’m flying to America, hopefully on Monday, to start a shoot. The project is one of the few things that’s able to shoot because of Covid. So, there’s all of that new protocol to run through.
Is insuring films much harder because of the pandemic?
It’s lawyers’ letters, all of that kind of stuff.
Were you in London for the entire lockdown? Is it still home?
So, I’ve spent a week in your company, going back through the full RIZ AHMED archive of film and music.
Thank you, man. You’ve been helping my YouTube views? Gently shifting the Netflix algorithm incrementally in my favour? The cheque’s in the post.
It has been a good place to be. The first time I noticed the muscular intimacy of RIZ AHMED’s acting was on a late-night UK Channel 4 screening of the 2008 low-budget thriller about petty drugdealers, ‘Shifty’. In the last scene of the film, his character turns to his old friend, played by British character actor DANIEL MAYS, and they laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation they’ve found themselves in. It’s a scene shot from behind, which consolidates the film’s undercurrent of fraternal tenderness and tension. The next film I saw him in, the terrorism-heist tragicomedy ‘Four Lions’, I still consider to be satirical writer and director CHRIS MORRIS’s masterwork. To be revisiting all these works and more has been a pleasure.
Have you been able to take a moment during the last few months of stillness to look back over the choices you’ve made? Do you allow yourself pride in them?
I think often most of us – actors, artists, anyone really – tend to look forwards rather than stop and look back. Particularly with the pandemic. As to how I want the future to be different? How do I want it to be the same? We’ve all been reassessing the future we want to carve out for ourselves and for everybody, collectively. What patterns do I spot in my past that I want to continue? What do I want to fix? [More at Source]
Very is an overused superlative but when it comes to Riz Ahmed, it’s necessary. He is a very thought-provoking human being. He is a 37-year-old British Pakistani very well versed in championing diversity and calling out the right from the wrong. He is a very thoughtful creative and society’s wellbeing hangs upon his conscience more so than most. , both of award-winning acclaim.
You will recognise Ahmed from the intense roles he nails on the big screen in Four Lions, Venom, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Nightcrawler and Jason Bourne as well as his small-screen-stealing parts in The Night Of and The OA. If you haven’t, watch him in The Road to Guantanamo too. His music, born from university days as Riz MC then that of underground Swet Shop Boys fame, has an avid following with hits like ‘Englistan’ and Cashmere respectively. More recently, his solo album The Long Goodbye—dubbed as a poignant break-up with Britain—was well received and perhaps presents the clearest indication to date of what Riz Ahmed is about.
Today, on an August bank holiday Monday, sitting two metres away from us in a Hackney studio, Ahmed is just playing himself. His jumper, like the exposed brick behind him and the wooden bench between us, is beige—noticeably unremarkable. His beard is tittering on unkempt and his brown eyes offer a semblance of security while in his periphery. His phone, visible in the pocket of his distressed jeans, remains there, untouched for the duration of our time together. He is relaxed and nowhere else but present.
We are here to discuss his two latest films, Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli, but currently we’re mulling over the cultural implications of being left-handed. “They say it’s linked to creativity,” muses Ahmed, which would make sense in his talented case. He proceeds to relay how his grandmother was left-handed but had her left hand tied behind her back and was forced to write with her right hand due to, we surmise, the social pressures of being left-handed and a cultural perception of bad luck dating back to biblical times. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” ponders Ahmed. “But not a completely flippant thing to bring up when talking about the evolution of our consciousness in today’s world.” [More at Source]
“The Greek word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t mean final destruction, it means revelation,” Riz Ahmed writes in the September 2020 issue – his first as a contributing editor to British Vogue.
Like many of us, the Emmy winner has spent the last few months contemplating what “normality” should actually look like post-Covid-19 – and making plans to foster long-term changes for the better. “The board has been flipped over by a stray strand of viral RNA in Wuhan, by a brutal viral video from Minneapolis, and something has been stripped away – the facade of it all,” he stresses in a moving feature about his transformative lockdown experience.
Naturally, one of the key issues that Ahmed is keen to tackle moving forward is the lack of diversity within the film and television industry – a microcosm of today’s systemically racist world. “The issues in the industry are just a highly visible reflection of the imbalances in our society at large – and so in order to address them we need interventions at every level, from supporting young people in broadening their horizons and accessing a range of opportunities, all the way through to challenging agencies, studios, and distributors to question the biases they are compounding and take measurable action,” he tells Vogue.
“Change is overdue, and it’s coming with or without the people that have been standing in its way… I’m excited to be a part of the change that Edward’s British Vogue is making to our culture, at this pivotal moment.”
It’s no accident, of course, that Ahmed joins the masthead in an issue devoted to changemakers – particularly activists, whom Ahmed cites as his greatest source of hope. Among those inspiring him now? “Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, the educator and award-winning spoken word poet, who consistently blows my mind with her work and her activism. Jumoke Abdullahi, who is doing amazing work reframing disability with her group the Triple Cripples. Femi Nylander and the team behind the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove Rhodes’s statue at Oxford University. [More at Source]