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‘It’s a refreshing reminder that love is possible,’ says Nabhaan Rizwan of The Last Letter from Your Lover, his first major leading role. Adapted from Jojo Moyes’ novel, it follows two stories in different eras: a heady 1960s French Riviera romance, and an innocent affair in contemporary London. Rizwan plays Rory, a newspaper archivist who, along with journalist Ellie – played by Felicity Jones – finds a cache of heartaching letters sent between two lovers in the 1960s (Big Little Lies’ Shailene Woodley and Fantastic Beasts’ Callum Turner). Though decades apart, their stories slowly become entwined.
‘Previously, when I’ve watched this genre, it’s perpetuated archaic gender roles and [that] takes me out of the film. It’s a distraction,’ says 24-year-old Rizwan. ‘But this script was different.’ Yes, there’s the obligatory (and appreciated) kissing-in-the-rain scene, but there’s also a woman calling the shots, and love is the last thing on her mind. ‘We rarely see this on screen, but that’s how things are in real-life relationships.’
Director Augustine Frizzell, of Euphoria fame, was a huge pull for Rizwan. ‘Sometimes figuring out scenes can be like trying to solve a riddle,’ says Rizwan. ‘But Augustine made everything easy.’ The chance to flex his comedic prowess was another. You’ll fall in love with awkward, bumbling Rory as much as you will self-assured heartthrob Anthony (Turner).
The Last Letter from Your Lover is less political than his previous projects; Rizwan’s openness to experimenting can be attributed to his mother. ‘She knew the importance of varying what we were into,’ says Rizwan of his childhood in east London. ‘Despite a lack of resources, she encouraged us to try everything.’
His mother is an actor, his father was a playwright, and brother Mawaan is a comedian and YouTube star. It was in Mawaan’s videos that Rizwan got the taste for acting. ‘It was a naturally creative environment to build our brotherhood, but I did get picked on at cricket club,’ he says. ‘It was uncool, but I enjoyed it.’
A self-confessed ‘handful’ at school, if Rizwan wasn’t having fun, he’d ‘freak out’: ‘I was smart, but I took the p*ss. Teachers hated that.’ Drama lessons were a way to mess around in a constructive way. After A-levels, Rizwan did youth work while acting in theatre groups. His big break came when he bagged an agent at a drama showcase he put on with friends. ‘I didn’t know they’d been invited,’ he says. After one of his first auditions, he landed the lead in BBC thriller Informer, about a British-Pakistani man recruited as a counter-terrorism spy. ‘It was a badass script and a badass character,’ he says.
Next came war drama 1917, then Riz Ahmed’s culture-clash film, Mogul Mowgli. ‘[Ahmed] reached out before Informer came out. He’s got this crazy radar,’ says Rizwan. In Mogul Mowgli, Rizwan plays a tattooed rising-star rapper whose outrageously crude music will make you wince. As a talented rapper – last summer he released his first EP under the alias El Huxley – he’s ashamed to say he wrote every lyric in the film. ‘It was a dream and nightmare writing the most misogynistic lyrics with four guys from Warner Records.’
Rizwan also starred in the BBC series Industry and fondly describes producer Lena Dunham as having ‘comedy chops’. ‘We’d shout silly things to each other on the trading floor,’ he says. ‘That bled into the work; she allowed me to add quirks.’
This year, Rizwan makes his West End debut in Anna X, alongside The Crown’s Emma Corrin, as well as starring in post-apocalyptic HBO series Station Eleven, directed by Hiro Murai, creator of Childish Gambino’s This Is America video. ‘I watched his video for Flying Lotus’ 'Never Catch Me' every day while filming Informer,’ says Rizwan. 'He’s my hero.'
There are hundreds of directors Rizwan is dying to work with, but his ethos of diversifying his craft rings strong. ‘My main goal in 2020 was to put out music, which I did. I want to study fashion next. I want to push people’s expectations.’ If it means we see more of Rizwan, we’re 100% behind him.
The Last Letter from Your Lover is out now. This article originally appeared in the May 2021 edition of ELLE UK.
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