In his latest film, Sound of Metal – in which Julie Andrews teaches some Austrian children to sing Iron Maiden (Ed: fact check?) – Riz Ahmed plays a workaholic musician, a drummer, who suddenly goes deaf on tour and joins a deaf community to learn how to adjust to his new life. The first step in this process is just sitting alone in a room and writing down his thoughts. And it’s hardest step of all.
“It’s a kind of purgatory,” says Ahmed, a workaholic artist himself. “A bit like lockdown really, so I think people will relate. These last months, a lot of us were forced to turn inward, and it’s hard when you’re used to spinning a lot of different plates.”
We’re at the James Hotel in Hollywood. He’s in town to shoot a sci fi movie, Invasion, starring Rory Cochrane and Octavia Spencer, about a father on the run with his two sons, to escape an alien threat. So, at least his lockdown his over, and movies are back in production – a semblance of normality. But earlier in the pandemic, he was stuck at home like so many of us, reflecting on What It All Means – the cracks Covid has exposed in terms of the climate, racial justice and so on, as well as the persistent need he felt to remain productive, “just to have a sense of self-worth, because that’s what we’ve been taught by this broken capitalist system.” These are things Riz can speak at length about, and in full paragraphs, citing statistics. There’s an intensity about him. He’s engaged.
But he’s also upbeat. The world may be falling apart, but for Riz, the artist, things are coming together quite nicely. “There’ something quite spurring about shit falling apart, in terms of clarifying your priorities,” he says. “And I feel really positive about where I’m at creatively. I’m working from a much more personal place, and I feel like I’m finding my voice, my language. I’m doing what I want to do now, rather than what someone else wants.”
At 38, his resume is as full and varied as any actor of his generation. A string of acclaimed independent movies (Four Lions, Road to Guantanamo, Nightcrawlers), a few big studio films (Bourne, Venom, Star Wars), an Emmy winning television performance (The Night Of), and a rap career for which he’s less known, but which has been as rewarding as anything else. “My music’s not commercial,” he says, “but I know the ways it’s touched people, the depth of connection people have had. It depends on how you define success.”
In this particular period of flourishing, there are three pieces of work – two movies and an album. Sound of Metal, a small and necessarily quiet feature, which required seven months of learning the drums and learning sign language – “I never prepared so intensely for a film before.” The work was worth it though, earning him a Golden Globe nomination and Oscar chatter. It follows 2020's Mogul Mowgli, a much louder and more personal film, electric in its energy and confrontation, that Riz co-wrote with first time director Bassam Tariq, in which he played another stricken musician, a rapper named Zed who suffers an autoimmune disorder.
It’s not easy to tell Zed and Riz apart. Like Riz, Zed is a British-Pakistani rapper – his music is taken from Riz’s latest album The Long Goodbye – who’s preoccupied with themes such as identity, ancestry, and art, an immigrant’s yearning to discover who he really is. And like Zed, Riz also suffered a health issue in recent years, which he won’t specify, but it was grave enough to serve as a wake-up call. “I had my personal little corona,” he says. “It forced me to sit with myself, think of what really matters and… just face my mortality, basically.”
The result: a profound change in his work. “I shifted to a more personal place. Rather than wearing masks – that’s what I do, I’m a chameleon – how about actually asking who am I under this mask? Might that be a way to stretch culture rather than just squashing and stretching yourself to fit into these other masks?’
He gave Zed an autoimmune disorder was because “it’s an identity crisis played out on a molecular level – it’s about your body not recognising itself and turning on itself.” Identity has long been an interest of Riz’s, but especially now the microbiology of identity, epigenetics in particular – the idea that trauma can be passed down through generations. He himself may carry the residue of the Partition in India of 1947, in which “millions of people were killed in the biggest forced migration in human history. How does that shape people psychologically?” In his track "Once Kings" he says, “My DNA knows that they hunted me, I’m a thread in a rug pulled from under me”. But in truth he’s not sure, he’s yet to explore his own DNA through ancestry.com or 23andme.
“I should, it’s time,” he says. “Migration truncates the timeline of your story, and I think as a nation and as individuals we’d do well to stretch that timeline out a little bit.”
Riz’s life hasn’t been nearly as traumatic as Partition. Rather, it’s a story of talent, opportunity and good fortune. A self-described “rudeboy from Wembley”, he won a scholarship to public school, to Merchant Taylors in Northwood, and then onto Oxford University to do PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). It took a lot of ‘code switching’ to adapt to these posher, moneyed circles, where he seldom felt at home, but it was also a preparation of sorts: “it was like acting from an early age.” Years later, he felt similarly out of place when he visited the Queen at Windsor castle, or when he gave a speech about Diversity to a House of Lords committee. “But you know what, if we want to break through to new planes in our lives, we’re going to find ourselves in places where we feel uncomfortable,” he says. “And a big part of life is making friends with that discomfort. If I’m out of my comfort zone, then I’m in the right place.”
Acting happened by chance – he had no interest until a friend at college encouraged him. And after Oxford, he found that drama school was too expensive, even on a scholarship, so he was poised to apply to law school instead, to his parents’ delight – until a generous West End producer intervened and gifted him the balance of the fees. Then upon graduation, he immediately landed the lead in a Michael Winterbottom movie, The Road To Guantanamo. A wonderful run of luck, all told, that Riz has often graciously acknowledged and tries to pass on by supporting and elevating other up-and-coming artists.
One remarkable aspect of his career is the way it traces some quite momentous cultural shifts. Attitudes towards Muslims, for instance. Post-911, when suspicion of Muslims was on the rise, so was Riz’s profile – an irony that he’s often commented upon, notably in an essay for the Guardian, "Typecast as a Terrorist". There aren’t many actors who’ve taken selfies with airport security while getting swabbed for explosives.
He’s also acutely aware of his pivotal role in the shifting profile of Asian actors in general. He once gave a talk to CAA, the huge Hollywood agency, in which he characterised the arc of an immigrant in this industry in three stages – from playing stereotypes to playing with the stereotypes, until finally you’re free of the stereotype altogether. Riz largely skipped stage one, coming to prominence with wiser, more knowing work, like the satire Four Lions, by Chris Morris. He hadn’t heard of Chris Morris at first, and he took some convincing to take the part, unsure whether this film was trying to make fun of Muslims. Morris convinced him by saying, that Four Lions was the opposite, a step towards a “brown James Bond.”
Certainly, today, he’s firmly in stage three – able to inhabit roles that are either not Asian at all, like Nightcrawlers or Sound of Music, or which transcend any reductive labels, like Asian, or Muslim, since they’re so distinctively personal and particular. It’s a paradox and a truism that the more individualised the art, the more universal the connection, and that’s where Riz lives: “the stuff that connects with people in a vulnerable place, is the stuff that connects with you in a vulnerable place.”
A case in point: The Long Goodbye, his ‘break-up album’ with Britain, whom he characterises as “Britney”. “You know that feeling when you come home one day, and the locks have been changed and you’re told to pack your bags and get out,” he says. “Which is literally what the Windrush generation are experiencing.”
It’s angry at times, vulnerable at others, and sometimes shocking. A short film he made for one of the tracks is hard to watch, a rendering of a personal nightmare he’s had about Muslims getting rounded up in England. To Riz, his relationship with Britain has been an abusive one. “There’s this kind of yo-yoing, I love you, I leave you, that goes on between Britain and its post colonial population. You don’t want us in the colonies, but come and help us rebuild after World War II. We see it during Covid and Brexit – the same politicians who are saying 'make Britain more British' are singing the praises of multiracial key workers.”
There’s heartbreak too, of course, at witnessing the rise of a national story, under Brexit, that wants to exclude him, after all these years. “Britain’s my home,” he says. “So to see the level of bile online and coming out of our government at times, you do feel that hurt and those different stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining.”
But heartbreak is rooted in love. What is it he loves about Britain?
“Well I love my home and my home is Britain,” he says. “I think our idea of Britain can be as expansive or narrow as we want. It can be a kind of nostalgia that didn’t contain people like us or it can reflect the reality that built Britain, which spans across the globe – it’s more of a globalist position than a nationalist position, because the sun never set on the British empire. I’m not a die-hard, flag-waving patriot. I actually feel that this idea of nation states is outdated when it comes to the challenges we face like climate or big tech or tax evasion even. So when I say I love Britain, I mean love everything that makes Britain Britain."
It takes two to break up, though, so what responsibility do British Asians like Riz have, in this split?
He thinks about it. “It’s a good question you know. Because in an abusive relationship, you have to take some responsibility in co-creating that dynamic. Perhaps in previous generations there had been a sense of misplaced gratitude for crumbs and scraps, when actually we were entitled to more – like we all baked this cake, let’s share it. But hindsight is a beautiful thing. It’s understandable those earlier generations just keep their heads down because if you said, ‘hey that’s my cake’, you could get killed. So perhaps looking back, this realisation that ‘hang on a minute, this isn’t OK,’ has been an incremental one.”
But in the end, Riz is an optimist. There is a fondness for Britain, a nostalgia for the calmer, more generous country he remembers. “I think that what has been lost – and can be regained – is common sense. When people get scared they get their backs up against the wall and get very tribal. But we can move beyond it, it’s just a matter of what time horizon we’re looking at. Things might get more grim before they get better, but we have to believe they’ll get better!”
At the end of The Long Goodbye, Riz emerges with a sense of self-love and independence. “It’s like, you can have a conversation about how British I am, and what the future of Britain should look like, but that’s your issue – I’m doing my thing. I don’t need you to validate me.”
The question is what does “doing my thing” mean for Riz? He’s done so much already, and certainly the possibilities abound, particularly at a time when Asian actors have more freedom and opportunity than ever before. Even Chris Morris’ idea, of a brown James Bond, doesn’t sound so absurd anymore. “Who knows?” Riz says. “We are definitely heading to a world where more things are possible.”
But Riz is clear-headed about what he wants to do. He’s already doing it. At the end of Mogul Mowgli, when Riz’s character Zed loses the ability to walk, he comes to a realisation that chimes with something we’ve all experienced under Covid – that, as Riz puts it, “we’re all just a link in the chain.” And this is how he thinks about his career now, his work and his life as a whole, at this time.
“It’s something that’s dawned on me really – I’m approaching my 40s now. What does making my mark mean? Is it about being sharp-elbowed and ambitious even if it means leaving people behind? Or is it more about accepting the gifts and the curses you’ve inherited and trying to pass them along in slightly better shape? When you start out you have this view of like, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.’ But now, I think more about where can we get to collectively. How can I knock the ball further forwards, so that other people can knock the ball further forwards and I’ll meet you further up the pitch?”
He thinks a lot about this, his purpose and mission. He’s experienced various kinds of success, the commercial, the critical, the quiet but profound response from fans. And now he knows, without equivocation, what it is he craves most of all.
“Creativity is a collective conversation. It’s about collaboration and sharing. There’s this myth isn’t there, this capitalist myth, this Ayn Rand image of the man who comes down – it’s Steve Jobs, or it’s Moses, they come down with the gospel. But for me, it’s a conversation – we’re all standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us."
Sound of Metal is due to be released in UK cinemas on 26 March.
Mogul Mowgli is available to stream now.
Riz Ahmed's special live performance of The Long Goodbye, for the Manchester International Festival, is available to stream until 1 March.
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