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No one knows about the dearth of film and television opportunities for South Asian actors better than the actors themselves. “A lot of my early work deals with the issues around the war on terror or Islamophobia, but I’m proud to say it deals with and engages those issues in creative ways and I hope in ways that move us forward rather than doubling down on lazy stereotypes,” said Riz Ahmed, the Emmy-nominated lead of HBO’s The Night Of (and a star of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), during THR’s TV Drama Actor Roundtable this spring. “There was a lot of, like, Terrorist No. 3 stuff — I just made a decision I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, ‘I’d rather be broke.'” That decision helped Ahmed build a TV and film career that made Silicon Valley and The Big Sick star Kumail Nanjiani, who was born and raised in Pakistan (Ahmed is a Pakistani Brit), a little irked … that is, until the two finally met over dinner. Here, Nanjiani shares their meeting of the minds in his own words.
The first time I saw Riz was in Four Lions. He was hilarious, vulnerable and angry. Then I saw him in Nightcrawler and he was playing a completely different, twitchy, excitable guy. I was just starting to act after years of being a comedian and I thought, “I hate this guy.”
And then I was watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and something very strange happened. I was seeing a guy who looked like me (in my dreams), a guy of Pakistani descent playing an action hero in a major Hollywood blockbuster — and not just any major Hollywood blockbuster. I saw a guy who looked like me playing an action hero in a Star Wars movie. And I started getting tears in my eyes. I thought of kids who looked like me seeing Riz kick ass onscreen. I smiled and fought back tears. I couldn’t hate him anymore.
And then there was The Night Of. He went from a timid man-child to a hardened criminal. And we saw every step in between. It’s a remarkable performance. We see a man growing and calcifying in front of our eyes.
After seeing him play all of these roles, I finally had the chance to meet Riz over a dinner. I went from not hating him anymore to loving him. He’s kind, he likes good food, and he is passionate about making South Asians feel like they are a valuable part of pop culture and the world at large. He’s also passionate about acting, of course. When we both recently were guests on The Late Late Show With James Corden, we joked around about being two South Asian men on a talk show at the same time. We had a blast, and I said a swift and hearty “no” when they asked us to battle rap each other. I didn’t want to set up a competition between us — we’re stronger working together.
Plus, I can’t rap.
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