• Tuesday, November 29, 2022


EXCLUSIVE: “Still a lot of work to do,” says Riz Ahmed

(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

By: Radhakrishna N S

Individual successes do not tell complete story about industry’s “systemic imbalance”

by Barnie Choudhury

RIZ AHMED, the first Muslim actor to be nominated in a leading role in the 78-year history of the Oscars has told Eastern Eye there is “still a lot of work to do” to create equality in the industry.

In an interview to promote his new film, Sound of Metal, Ahmed, said that individual success stories are only part of the narrative.

In January, actress Meera Syal, told this newspaper that her industry suffers from “lazy racism” and a “diversity quota system”.

Pushed on this point, Ahmed agreed with her.

“Meera Syal is a trailblazer anything that she says, I take very, very seriously,” he said. “I look up to Sanjeev [Bhaskar], I look up to these people who have paved the way.

“So, if that’s if that’s her view, I don’t question it for a second, and it’s really important to highlight the fact that, even though there may be individual cases of people who might be breaking through certain glass ceilings, the overall big picture can tell a different story, which is about a lack of opportunities or systemic imbalance or opportunity.

“It’s really important that alongside celebrating the individual cases that show signs of progress that we also step back and look at the bigger picture and say, well, you know what, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Riz Ahmed (second left) seen here with (L-R) Naughty Boy, Neelam Gill, Sanjeev Bhaskar and British TV and Nihal Arthanayake. (ALASTAIR GRANT/AFP via Getty Images)

Learn from USA

Several British actors of colour have complained that they have to go to America to “make it” before Britain accepts them.

Ahmed told Eastern Eye that Britain can learn from the United States.

“A lot of the actors in the US industry right now making waves are the British. So, Britain must be doing something right, generating this talent, and often diverse talent is making an impact.

“At the same time, the British industry can learn from the American one in terms of the opportunities it creates.”

He is also urging others to be the best they can be and not rely on others.

“I’m not sitting around feeling concerned about whether other people are going to rest on the laurels. I’m just very much focused on the work I am gonna do, for myself and for others in creating space.

“So, I’m done with the days of sitting on the side lines, worrying about what decision makers will do. We are the real decision makers, we have to make a decision to make a difference.”

Sound of Metal

In Sound of Metal, Ahmed plays a drummer and former addict in a punk-metal band who becomes deaf. A huge success considering it did not have a distributor when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal

“To be honest, I felt very, very grateful,” Ahmed said when I asked him what it was like to get the nod. “I took it as encouragement for the journey that lies ahead, rather than a prize for a journey that’s finished or destination it’s been reached, and I still feel I have a lot more to give. I just kind of want to take the encouragement and move forward.”

Speaking over Zoom, no screen, just his voice, you can hear the surprise, humility, and just that tiny hint of pride.

And that modesty shines through. It is not about him; it is about the team.

“The thing that was really kind of moving for me in particular was to see the film with so many nominations,” he continued. “Six nominations for this small Indie film that we made with very little budget, very little time. That to me is just very, very moving knowing how much everyone put into it.”

Award winner

Like many-a-movie, it is the back story which is just as important. In Ahmed’s case, we must not forget he is an award-winning rap artist.

He has been nominated for a number of acting roles, including Shifty, Four Lions, Nightcrawler, City of Tiny Lights and his next film Mogul Mowgli.

Riz Ahmed with his Emmy for The Night Of (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

And lest we forget, he won the Emmy for “outstanding lead actor in a limited series” for HBO’s The Night Of.

And here is a perfect vignette for the Ahmed biopic – the time he met Sound of Metal director, Darius Marder.

“I got sent the script, and I loved it. I met the director, and we really, really connected,” he enthused. “We had a long lunch, and it was halfway through that, we were both saying we have to do this together. So, it was kind of love at first between myself and Darius.”

Marder also warned him about what the role entailed.

“He told me that it’d be pretty challenging, learning sign language and learning how to play the drums. And to be honest, that just really, really excited me. So, the combination of the script, director, and the challenge that this journey would present, it meant that I was just desperate to do it.”

Hard work

Every day, for weeks, Ahmed would spend two hours learning American sign language. On top of that he would spend another gruelling two hours mastering the drums to get that authenticity.

But surely his musical ability as a rapper helped?

Riz MC of Swet Shop Boys performs at the 2017 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)

“I thought that I was more rhythmically gifted than I was,” he conceded. “Keeping time with words is very different to keeping in time with all the different limbs, coordinating across different types of drums. So, there was a struggle for me, playing the drums, getting to the place where I needed to get to, it did not come easily. It was just took a lot of hard work.”

Early in his acting career, Ahmed may have appeared to have played the stereotypical roles often given to south Asian actors. The Islamic terrorist (The Road to Guantánamo and Four Lions) or a drug dealer (Shifty), for example.

But, just as in the Sound of Metal, the actor brings a hidden depth to his character which impress critics and judging panels alike.

“People interpret your words, and your actions how they want,” he said when asked whether he was a role model for other south Asians in Britain today. “What matters to me is that rather than being a role model is that I’m just real to myself, I can just be authentic to how I’m feeling at any given time. As long as I’m just keeping honest, I can feel good about my choices.”

His story is one of bright-British-Asian-boy-done-good. Ahmed, born 38 years ago in Wembley, north London, won a scholarship to a private school, before reading philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford.

“Don’t ask for permission, step up, and do it,” when I ask him what he would tell other British south Asians who want to act, produce or direct. “It’s a long road, and it requires a lot of dedication and hard work.

“There are no overnight successes. But it starts with a commitment to just do it. Don’t wait for anyone to tell you that you should do it or that you can do it. You need to tell that to yourself and take that first step.”

Eastern Eye

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