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You keep up on things. You know what’s going on in arts and culture. Then inevitably, it happens. Someone who wasn’t even on your radar is suddenly everywhere, making you question not where they’ve been, but where you’ve been. Meet Riz Ahmed. By now, you probably recognize him from HBO’s The Night Of, but for years, Ahmed’s been busy making wide-ranging, significant, and accomplished work.
In person, he’s not some frenetic perpetual motion machine, but he does seem to function at a brisk and constant clip, creating, provoking and questioning. He approached Naz Khan, the role that’s brought him to recent wide attention, with a simple theory: “If you see the world in a certain way, the behavior follows.” Applied to Ahmed himself, it seems an apt description of how he creates art, and with it, change.
Born in London to Pakistani immigrant parents, he won a scholarship to north London’s Merchant Taylors’ school, where he found himself and most Asian kids a subclass in a sea of diplomats’ kids in full prep regalia. He decided to do something about it, specifically, rigging a vote to force the school into electing its first Asian head boy. When other frustrations were expressed more overtly – he threw a chair intended for another student through a window – one teacher had a suggestion: “If you can muck about on stage, you get applause for it, not a suspension.” Good idea. At Oxford University, he studied philosophy, politics and economics, and also put on the only play with two non-white leads staged during his time there. When he decided to put on a drum and bass night but didn’t have immediate takers, he printed up flyers minus the venue and kept at it until he found a club willing to fill in the blank. College confirmed something he’d sensed all along: You can make yourself an insider, but the world will send you occasional reminders that status is temporary. It’s a perspective that’s informed his work across genres, including film, TV, stage and music.
He did manage to work in some drama studies, and made his film debut at 23 playing a member of the real-life Tipton Three in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo. He also made a three-hour debut at the Luton Airport, where he and another actor from the film were detained under the Terrorism Act by Special Branch upon returning from the Berlin Film Festival. We’re sure the Branch boys were just exercising caution; we’re also pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened to Matt and Ben.
Ahmed was nominated for his first British Independent Film Award for Shifty, and highly praised for his effortless, persuasive chemistry with other actors. His second came for Four Lions, Chris Morris’ hilarious satire on terrorism. Mira Nair, who directed him in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, recognized his unique ability to play characters that shift between worlds. “It’s the most demanding, complicated role for a young person to carry a film on his shoulders, and to be somebody at once absolutely authentic to the Lahori universe, yet absolutely comfortable, elegant and savvy in the Wall Street universe; to spout the poetry of Faiz at one moment and ruthlessly cut out a factory in Manila the next.”
Eventually American filmmakers saw his work (or at least got hold of reviews routinely peppered with words like “charismatic” “brilliant” and “natural”) and wanted in. His performance opposite Jake Gyllenhal in Nightcrawler was outstanding, and in its review of Jason Bourne, RogerEbert.com wrote, “Only Riz Ahmed makes any impact on a performance level, doing a lot with very little – watch the way he subtly plays a successful businessman who knows the skeletons are about to fall out of his closet. There’s a much better version of Jason Bourne that focuses on him…” This year’s been a big one for him. He’s in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and puts a new spin on the gumshoe genre in City of Tiny Lights. He’s also working on a multi-generational Pakistani-British family story he aims to make for U.K. television.
If the industry (ironically) helped Ahmed’s early career with its tendency to see in stereotypes, it’s also allowed us glimpses of a depth we’d otherwise miss by occasionally looking past them. Needless to say, that goes for society as a whole, and Ahmed is not shy about voicing that opinion. But he knows that if you’re going to be an unapologetic button-pusher, you best avoid righteous self-aggrandizement and do it with some humor. And some serious rap. Under the handle Riz MC, he’s put out three albums of songs that have been critically acclaimed (and in one instance, banned) for their biting – and bitingly funny – take on immigration, race and other issues.
Ahmed specializes in playing, and being, an insider-outsider. If you’ve never felt like an outsider, don’t count yourself lucky; it’s a perspective that benefits us. Which is why we need this guy to keep acting, rapping, writing, and if necessary, throwing the occasional chair.