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Riz Ahmed, a Brit of Pakistani descent, is a fast-rising actor, rapper and activist. In 2017, for his performance on the HBO limited series The Night Of, he became the first Muslim man and South Asian person to win an acting Emmy, and also appeared on the cover of Time magazine as one of its 100 most influential people in the world. His film credits include 2010’s Four Lions; 2014’s Nightcrawler; installments of the Star Wars, Bourne and Marvel franchises; and, most recently, Darius Marder‘s Sound of Metal, in which he plays a heavy-metal drummer in his prime who loses his hearing, and for which he is generating major awards buzz.
This season, Ahmed has already been nominated for a best actor Golden Globe Award; is nominated for best actor Critics Choice and SAG awards; and is almost certain to be nominated for best actor BAFTA and Academy awards, as well. On a recent episode of Awards Chatter, the 37-year-old delved into his journey to this moment.
* * * You can listen to the episode here. Excerpts of the conversation appear below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Evans, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien, Jodie Foster & Kevin Hart.
* * *
How did acting first enter the picture for you?
I was the youngest sibling and didn’t speak any English until I was 5, so when my brother and sister would come back from school speaking English I’d need to invent some way to get their attention and their love, and I would just do whatever it takes. My mom saw that and was like, “OK, he likes performing.” So I signed up to take drama classes at school as a kid. And when I was in high school, I was getting into a bit of trouble. I was told by the teacher, “If you mess around in my classroom, you’ll get kicked out. But if you want to go and mess around onstage, you’ll get a round of applause.”
How did music become a big part of your life?
Ultimately it comes down to a desire to express yourself and tell your own story — write your own lyrics and deliver them. I was a hyperactive kid who idolized his big brother, who was very big into hip-hop, so I became very into hip-hop, too. That African American experience, and just the African American diaspora’s blueprint for finding dignity and self-definition through art and creativity, has been a gift to minorities and marginalized communities around the world. It was a readymade template for us as South Asian, working-class kids to kind of borrow from and is something that I talk about in my music, this idea of being “Mowgli” — you know, here we were, little brown kids separated from their village of origin, plucked from there to roam the urban jungle.
How would you describe your experience at university?
I was encouraged by some teachers to apply for Oxford, and lucky to have been able to get in. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I remember arriving there and seeing people with bowler hats and bow ties on. I knocked on my neighbor’s door to borrow a phone charger. I was in my sweatpants and Nikes and beanie hat and hoodie, and she just started laughing and said, “Oh my God, you remind me so much of Ali G!” And I was like, “Wow, this is going to be interesting.” But it’s a lesson that I keep learning: The challenge can also be the gift. The challenge of not belonging or feeling invisible or misunderstood there forced me to articulate who I am and carve out a space for people like me. I studied PPE — politics, philosophy and economics — mainly because teachers had told me, “That will suit you, it’s a course about arguing.” But really, what Oxford became for me was a place to hone my skills as a hip-hop emcee. And then, soon after that, I started acting in plays.
After Oxford, you went to drama school for two years and then immediately started getting work. The first two projects, both from 2006, were Michael Winterbottom’s film The Road to Guantánamo and a couple of episodes of the miniseries The Path to 9/11. That year, you put out your first music track as Riz MC, “Post 9/11 Blues,” which caused some controversy. What was your worldview at that time?
When I’d just left drama school, I started doing two things simultaneously. One was I was doing rap battles in London and doing quite well with that. The other thing was I got offered these jobs. I got offered a role in The Road to Guantánamo, about three British men who were illegally detained and tortured in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. And I got this other job, The Path to 9/11. I remember leaving drama school thinking, “What am I doing going into being an actor when there’s so much in the world that’s wrong and there’s such crazy preconceptions about people like me and my family?” The Road to Guantánamo was, in a way, the answer to my prayers — it was this incredible acclaimed filmmaker [Michael Winterbottom was co-director], this improvised film, and a chance to see the world. On the other side, I was offered The Path to 9/11, playing Terrorist Number Whatever. Someone said, “They’re going to pay you some money.” And I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” I remember having such a miserable experience making that. I think in the end I may [have been] edited out of it. I was like, “OK. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff. I want to do this kind of stuff. If I have to tell stories about being a Muslim post-9/11″ — which, to be honest, was the only subset of work available to me — “then I want to do stuff that challenges dominant narratives.” Having had those two experiences, one that was quite revelatory and one that didn’t leave me with a good feeling, I went to the Berlin Film Festival with The Road to Guantánamo. We won an award, but on the way back, British intelligence officers kind of harassed us. And so, off the back of that experience and the absurdity of being asked by spies, “Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?,” I wrote this rap song, “Post 9/11 Blues.”
The first time you were hired and your race was irrelevant was in the 2008 film Shifty, playing a young crack dealer, for which you received a British Independent Film Award nomination. Was that the beginning of falling in love with indie filmmaking?
Yeah, absolutely. Shifty was shot in 18 days for 100,000 pounds. There’s something about the high-wire act of microbudget filmmaking that has just really massively informed my approach to the work. I really connected with that style of filmmaking, where you don’t have all the time and all the money in the world and you’ve just got to bring it.
You were almost cast in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, I assume in the Dev Patel part?
No, not that character — it was his brother. I remember when the audition came up I was like, “This is the only time there’s ever going to be a lead role in a Hollywood film for someone like me. This is it. This is all or nothing. It’s your one opportunity. It’s never going to happen again.” Danny Boyle, the nicest guy in the world, put me so at ease and really encouraged me, as this nervous young actor, to come out of my shell and be aggressive with him. He said, “You can grab me if you want.” I don’t quite remember what happened, but the next thing I knew I had him up against the wall, having ripped a couple of the buttons off his nice shirt, and I just remember him saying, “OK, yeah. Thanks very much.” I left going, “What did I just do?!” And of course, I didn’t get it. The film was brilliant and everyone who’s in it was cast perfectly and I loved watching it and I’m so pleased for what that film did on a global stage for British independent film and South Asian culture. But I just had this thought in my head like, “Well, that’s it. That’s the end of any opportunities that might present themselves. Like, how often does something like that come along?” And it’s interesting, as I look back, just how deeply instilled this mentality is in so many of us, of scarcity and of there only being room for one.
Having just broken out of terrorism-related stuff, you get contacted about 2010’s Four Lions, a satire about suicide bombers.
“Post-9/11 Blues” was this satirical rap song where I was kind of poking fun at the post-9/11 circus of fear that we were all in, and racial profiling. Then Chris Morris reached out and said, “I want to make a film about a similar kind of world to your song.” Eventually, when he gave me the script, I said, “No, thank you. I don’t want to play a terrorist.” And he said, “Look, this isn’t what you think it is.” And it was just trusting his intentions and him as a person. To be honest, I thought, “Well, no one’s going to see this anyway.” But in many ways it’s still, particularly in the U.K., the defining piece of work I’ve done.
You reunited with Winterbottom for Trishna in 2011. In 2012, you appeared in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Ill Manors, the latter of which brought another BIFA nom. Then came the 2014 film through which many Americans discovered you, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.
I met with Dan and he said, “Look, you’re definitely not right for this role. You’re Shakespeare-trained and you’re British. This guy is very L.A. and a down-and-out cat who doesn’t have it all together, and I don’t think that’s your energy. You seem a bit more on it and sharp.” I said, “Oh, that’s very kind of you, but yeah. I’m not trying to chase anything if you don’t feel it’s right.” And we just got to talking, and he went, “You know what? Why don’t you just send me a tape?” I mean, I’ve got nothing to lose. I know I’m not getting this. There was a tremendous freedom that came with that. And he was very into it. And after that he was like, “Do you want to fly to L.A.?” And I was like, “I can’t fly to L.A. I’m broke.” But I had to fly to L.A. and just bet on myself. I spent that whole nine-hour flight just running lines. And I remember landing and seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in the room and going, “Whoa.” And yeah, getting the role.
It came to me at a time when I thought I’d reached the end of the road. I still wasn’t really making any money. I wasn’t really being offered that next tier of roles financially or in terms of billing. They didn’t quite exist, particularly in the British film industry, where they rely so much on historical period dramas. I just felt like, “I don’t understand where else I’m going to go from here. Earning a couple of grand for a movie? I can’t live like this. I’m not going to be able to move forward or start a family.” And Nightcrawler just came to me. It was like a bit of a Hail Mary. And it ended up really opening some doors.
How did The Night Of get a second life?
The story of that is wild. We shot the pilot. We were certain HBO would want to make it. They didn’t pick it up. And then FX wanted it and some other networks were like, “We’ll make it,” so HBO started considering it again. Then James Gandolfini tragically passed away. That was a tremendous and tragic loss, and we were all quite shaken by it and just thought, “Well then, that’s that.” A year and a half later, we hear Robert De Niro wants to do it. So De Niro attaches to do it, and they get all the scripts ready, and just when they’re about to shoot, De Niro said, “Actually, I’m going to go and do this other movie.” And so again, it falls apart. At this point Steve Zaillian said, “You know who I always had in mind for this was John Turturro.” And of course, it’s one of those performances where, when you see it, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. And so, that’s how that came about.
Shortly after that came out in 2016, you won an Emmy, addressed British Parliament, and were on the cover of Time. You were in massive studio movies for the first time, like Rogue One and Jason Bourne. You recorded two solo albums. And then you had a physical crash, right?
It was life-changing what happened after The Night Of. And as you said, [I was] suddenly just getting a different level of attention, being introduced to the industry of creativity and not just the craft, having to understand what a publicist and a stylist does, how the American agencies work, having to go to L.A. to meet people. It was all kind of new to me. As far as Star Wars and Jason Bourne, we filmed them at the same time. And I had some music out. It was a lot going on. And sometimes your body stops you in your tracks. It was actually a moment of real reassessment for me. Suddenly being a part of this whirlwind and this big, shiny, noisy storm that part of me had always thought I’d wanted, I realized it wasn’t quite why I’d been doing it for 10 years. It forced me to really reassess what was important to me. In that moment, I decided to make choices where I can continue to try to grow and do stuff that I really connect to on a deep level.
Which brings us to Sound of Metal, which, for my two cents, is as good as anything you’ve ever done.
This is certainly the most that’s been asked of me as an actor. And I was excited about that. Over the years, I’d often been asked to bring a part of myself or a version of myself to a role. Part of Darius Marder’s gift as a director is to invite everyone to bring all of their selves to his film set and to play with all the colors of their rainbow. But that also requires commitment and stepping up. He told me very early on, “We’re not going to fake it. You’re going to play the drums. You’re going to play a gig. We’re going to do it in a club, in Boston. You’ve got seven months. Do your thing.” So, I spent that period playing the drums every day with my teacher, Guy Licata, and learning American Sign Language every day with my instructor, Jeremy Stone. And yeah, it was immersive. It was challenging. It was daunting. But it was a tremendous privilege, you know? I feel like it opened me up in new ways.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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