riz ahmed: ‘I don't want to escape my ethnicity, it's not about that'
Ahead of the release of 'Venom,' a Marvel comic adaption in which he plays a billionaire industrialist, we spoke to Riz Ahmed about typecasting, diversity, and the dangers of call-out culture.
Images via Instagram
Riz Ahmed is, dare I say it, a bit of a multi-hyphenate. An actor, rapper and activist, Ahmed first made a name for himself appearing in a slew of politically charged indie films, such as Road to Guantanamo, Britz and Four Lions. Meanwhile his sideline rap career as Riz MC has seen him speak out about immigration, Islamophobia and the Syrian refugee crisis.
In 2017 he became the first South Asian male to win an acting Emmy for his role as Nasir Khan in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries The Night Of. He was Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and now he’s starring alongside Tom Hardy in his first Marvel blockbuster Venom. It’s an impressive rolodex of achievements, especially for someone who still suffers the indignation of racial profiling whenever he’s at the airport.
We’re meeting at Corinthia Hotel in London where he’s spent most of the day holed up in a room, answering endless questions from the world’s media. “How’s it going brother?” he asks, adding enthusiastically, “I have that same T-shirt!”. It’s a standard white tee with a Nike tick across it that, instead of ‘Nike’, reads ‘Roti’ that I bought after seeing him wearing it on Instagram.
For anyone who’s followed Riz’s career closely, his latest role as Carlton Drake in Venom -- where he plays a billionaire industrialist who wants to ensure a future for humanity through any means necessary -- is a far cry from the tortured and subdued characters he’s played in the past, where his race and religion are put front and centre. That said, it must feel refreshing to be at a stage in your acting career where you can play whoever you want. “Type casting isn’t so much about what race or identity you’re playing, it’s more about whether the character is allowed to be fully human and contradictory," he says. "I can do that playing someone named Nasir Khan or Carlton Drake… I don’t want to escape my ethnicity, it’s not about that.”
Still, the tide does seem to be turning, albeit slowly, for South Asian actors when the likes of Dev Patel, Archie Panjabi and Kumail Nanjiani are landing roles that do more than reinforce dated stereotypes. When I ask him if he thinks the same is true for British Muslim actors in particular he picks his words carefully. He agrees that things are definitely moving in the right direction, especially if the box office success of Blank Panther and Crazy Rich Asians is anything to go by. “I like to think we’re headed in the right direction. I always try and be optimistic… a cautious optimist.”
He’s right to be cautious, especially when it feels like Riz is currently existing in uncharted territory; a place where instead of clamouring the pile for a seat at the table, he’s now in a position to critique the seating arrangements. In 2017 he spoke at the House of Commons and called for more to be done to support diversity in film and TV. It led to the creation of The Riz Test -- a five point Bechdel style test that measures the representation of Muslim characters on screen. I do wonder if he feels any pressure to make sure the voices of an entire demographic of people are heard. I tell him about how growing up my sisters and I would watch his films, quietly in awe that someone who looked and sounded like us was reflected back. The real clincher, however, is when I tell him that my mum and dad know who he is and routinely sing his praises. He laughs. “Oh wow, thanks! Give them my salaam will you?”
But is there pressure? “I just feel privileged to have people who my work makes all the difference in their lives and how they see themselves, you know?” He tells me he receives messages from all kinds of people -- he uses the example of a disabled Jewish girl from New Jersey -- who thank him for speaking up on issues that not many other people do. “I guess there is a level of responsibility on me, but it’s more a privilege if anything.
"Creativity isn’t this individualistic process where we climb the mountain on our own and look down those below us. It’s not that. It’s a conversation. I pass the baton on to you and then you take us a bit further and then we pass the baton on to someone else.”
“I’m just so down to link up with people and work with them. Creativity isn’t this individualistic process where we climb the mountain on our own and look down those below us. It’s not that. It’s a conversation. I pass the baton on to you and then you take us a bit further and then we pass the baton on to someone else.” He’s critical of call-out culture and warns it’s doing more harm than good, especially if the end goal is to move things forward. “We reserve more anger for people we agree with 90% of the time than the people who are really trying to tread on our necks. I just think it’s lame when I see people trying to tear down their own.”
So why should people go see Venom? I ask. He laughs, aware we have gone off on a bit of a tangent. “People should go see it if they want to see a big scale, funny, scary action movie that’s a bit different to the other superhero stuff out there.”
Aside from Venom, Riz is putting the finishing touches on his new BBC drama Englistan, and plans to make his long-awaited return to music -- a career he would have gone into full-time had he not focused his energies into acting. “Music is still an important part of me and a way I can still say what I feel needs to be said.” His upcoming single Mogambo -- a nod to the 80s cult classic Bollywood villain in the film Mr India, about finding the secret to being invisible -- will be released around the same time as Venom. “The song is just about this idea of being invisible and visibility in general that’s been on my mind a lot lately”.
I’m intrigued how someone like him could ever feel like he’s not being seen or heard, but our time’s up and within seconds he’s getting briefed for his next interview. But before I go he has one last message for me: “Please remember to give my salaam to your family.”
'Venom' is in UK cinemas 3rd October.