The actor’s zenith is rising, swiftly, as he dominates America’s small screen
The new HBO television series The Night Of is the story of a Pakistani-American young man’s hellish descent into New York City’s broken criminal justice system. It’s a tense crime procedural, a murder mystery, and a portrait of a racially and economically fractured city. Following its premiere earlier this month, The Night Of broke through the already crowded market of high-end television with critics and audiences alike. It’s been praised for its direction, its writing, and its central performance by the British-born actor Riz Ahmed.
Intense and brooding, Ahmed’s role as Naz Khan spans the emotional journey of a man from an immigrant family facing murder charges and imprisonment in post 9/11 New York City. It’s an agile performance by an actor whose career has been defined by nimbly traversing genres and identities. Raised in a Pakistani family in London, educated at Oxford, and directed by some of the world’s leading filmmakers, 33-year old Ahmed has already shattered Hollywood’s glass ceilings in a relatively young career.
He played the title role in Mira Nair’s 2011 adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and was Jake Gyllenhall’s co-star in the thriller Nightcrawler. His dark comedy Four Lions about a group of bumbling British Muslim terrorists has become a cult classic. And this year, he will be seen alongside Matt Damon in the new Jason Bourne film and will take to a galaxy far, far away as a rebel pilot in the highly-anticipated Star Wars spin-off Rogue One. As he jokes, “…as the first Pakistani in space!”
Reflecting on this breakthrough moment in his career, Riz Ahmed acknowledges that it’s “undeniably a big year.” But he politely adds, “…I’m not observing my life. I’m in it.
From the inside, I’m just thinking about how I can do better and what matters to me.” For Ahmed, that has meant crafting complex characters in collaboration with the very best filmmakers in both mainstream and independent cinema. “If there’s something I find attractive, it’s films or projects that are hard to pin down in terms of what kind of animal they are,” he says. “Nightcrawler or Four Lions, are they horror comedies or are they twisted buddy movies? Are the bad guys good guys or are the good guys bad guys? Even The Reluctant Fundamentalist is kind of a love story but is it a political love story or a thriller? I like those hybrid pieces.”
Ahmed credits his ability to glide along hybrid categories to his own London upbringing. He says he grew up in a very boisterous British-Pakistani home and had to compete with jokes and characters to be heard. “There was this kind of performative element to my domestic life and then the whole thing of code switching drastically from my domestic setting to a posh private school. Then there was my social life, which was more British-Asian street sub-culture. So there was a lot of code switching and I was always acting in a way. I had to be a chameleon growing up.” Ahmed says those shifting scenes taught him how to act and make the decision to pursue a professional career as a performer, both natural and intuitive.
Riz Ahmed’s most memorable roles on screen—in Four Lions and The Reluctant Fundamentalist—and now as Naz in The Night Of—have often challenged conventional portrayals of Muslim characters in international cinema. He brings an authenticity and an instinctive sensitivity to each of those performances. But Ahmed abruptly reminds me that half of his projects have had nothing to do with his cultural background and it’s never been something he has explicitly pursued. In projects where he has taken on those roles, he says he applies a rigid personal standard.
“I’m not interested in playing characters that are two dimensional in any way. If they end up reinforcing stereotypes, I’m not interested in doing them. There is no lack of bad roles for people of color and I’ve chosen not to work instead of doing them. I’ve been selective and within the pool I’m willing to consider, I’ve been lucky to get those kinds of auditions and to be lucky to work with directors who have been collaborative and open to some of my suggestions. You want to do work that stretches labels and stretches people’s empathy.”
Although he is avowedly committed to the conversation about stretching diversity on screen, Ahmed says there is an unfair burden placed on stories about minority characters to be comprehensive and relatable. “The only reason that expectation exists is because people who feel totally under-represented expect the world from any image that exists. Because you only saw one brown family on TV a year you want it to be quintessentially brown. I think the way forward is not to do a census survey of an under-represented community to be represented in a single story. It’s just to have more of them.”
Off-screen, Riz Ahmed has built a dedicated following on social media as a musician, an MC and an outspoken voice against Islamophobia, racism and inequality. He’s a wordsmith on Twitter and Facebook, frequently riffing on the politics of Brexit and identity with his followers. He’s a recording artist, with multiple music projects and collaborations going at all times. Recently he released an EP entitled Englistan which features him rapping about embracing his own Britishness with all its flaws. On the title track, he raps
“…God save the Queen
nah she ain’t mates with me
but she keeps my paper green
plus we are neighbors see
on this little island
where we’re all surviving
politeness mixed with violence
this is England.”
I asked Ahmed if he ever fears any kind of backlash or risk to his Hollywood acting career with being such a political artist. He doesn’t mince words. “I don’t have a choice. By function of where and when I’m born, you’re born into politics. The question is will you be on the receiving end of politics or will you be in the conversation? From my point of view, you don’t have a choice but to be political if you belong to certain demographics. The question is are you going to be on the sidelines and watch yourself get kicked around, or play ball?”
When I ask him about the politics of appearing on screen as one of the only international actors of Muslim heritage, he says he feels proud of representing a broader cultural shift more than a specific community or storyline. “The thing I’m proud to be repping is progress and change. As an artist, there’s nothing more that you can hope for.”