Riz Ahmed: We have to be vocal. Were living in scary times

Hes the outspoken British Star Wars actor who still gets interrogated at airports. Carole Cadwalladr steps inside the confusing world of Riz Ahmed

One thing about Riz Ahmed: he is not boring. Were in a central London hotel room as part of the massive media blitz for Rogue One, the latest multimillion dollar incarnation of the Star Wars franchise. And maybe one day hell become boring, or learn how to be boring, but even though were at the very heart of the Hollywood publicity machine, surrounded by soft furnishings in all shades of beige, Ahmed is not boring. In the decade since Michael Winterbottom cast him in his first film, The Road to Guantanamo, hes built up a critically acclaimed body of work, including his breakout performance in Chris Morriss jihadist satire Four Lions. In addition, he has a sideline as a musician, and has just brought out a hip-hop album as one of the Swet Shop Boys called Cashmere. Sample lyric, from a track called T5: Trump want my exit, but if he press a red button/ To watch Netflix, bruv, Im on Oh no, were in trouble/TSA always wanna burst my bubble/Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.

He has always been someone with something to say. Earlier this year he appeared in Jason Bourne, but in many ways Rogue One marks the apotheosis from plucky indie actor to mainstream Hollywood player. But it hasnt shut him up. If anything, its done the opposite, and now hes getting the chance to say it on the back of a Disney blockbuster playing an imperial cargo pilot in the Star Wars prequel. In an essay for The Good Immigrant, a book of essays about race and immigration in the UK, he wrote about his experience of being racially profiled in airports. And how he came to realise that his experience of being interrogated was not unlike his experience of being auditioned where the length of your facial hair can be a deal breaker.

He defined the career stages of any minority actor: Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. Stage two challenges the stereotype. And stage three is the promised land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to their race. There I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.

His name in Rogue One isnt Dave, its Bodhi Rook. But still. Is this the promised land?

I dont know. Ive got an action figure. I didnt realise that theres a holy grail

Beyond the promised land?

The action figure is like an extra level you didnt know was there. Its like the power-up in Mario. Its just weird, isnt it? Its a miniature figurine of you. I mean its not you. Its about the character and the film. But it is you.

Gareth Edwards, the director, another Brit, asked him to audition for the film. And he made Monsters, which I loved, so I just put myself on tape. And I can be quite obsessive. I just kept sending him tapes of the scene that he sent me. I think I sent him like 11 or 12 different tapes.

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Ive done classic films and people ask: Whats it like being a Muslim? Thats offensive: Ahmed in Four Lions. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

Did you really want the job?

Who wouldnt want to be in Star Wars? I kept on obsessively sending him more tapes. And eventually he emailed back and said: Hey Riz, thanks for the tapes. I think thats enough now. And, I was like: Oh, Ive definitely screwed it up.

In The Good Immigrant essay, he wrote how, You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck. Becoming an actor was a way to stretch these necklaces to breathe a little easier.

So are you breathing more easily now?

I mean my day-to-day reality is as contradictory as ever. Every time I get on the plane, I get searched. The last time I came back from LA, I got fully searched and all of that. Thats as usual. Then the second search. But this time, I got on the plane and I picked up the inflight magazine. And I was on the cover. I was already on the plane.

Its not a coincidence that so many tracks from his album, Cashmere, are to do with airports and travel as well as T5, theres also No Fly List and Shoes Off because as a British-born Pakistani, its at airports that the necklace of identities pinches most. The first time it happened, in 2006, he was on the way back from the Berlin film festival where hed been to promote The Road to Guantanamo, the filming of which had involved an Axis of Evil world tour shooting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran with the passport stamps to match. He was pulled aside at Luton airport and says he was illegally detained, questioned and threatened.

It was an experience that shook him. And though I meet him before the American election, its hard not to think that his experiences are a precursor to even more terrible things to come. That he is the canary in the coal mine. That the racial profiling hes experienced will spread in ever more insidious ways. For Ahmed, at least, it had a creative upshot. He went on to write a song inspired by it called Post 9/11 Blues (Were all suspects so literally, be watching your back/ I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.) And it was this that caught the eye of Chris Morris. They met and talked and continued talking while Morris wrote Four Lions. He wanted Ahmed to play Omar, the family man turned wannabe suicide bomber, but Ahmed turned it down. He didnt want to be trapped by the label.

I was doing other parts by that time. Id just done a film called Shifty that had nothing to do with this kind of stuff. I wanted to build on that. But then Chris, said: Look if youre asking me if this is a step away from or towards a brown James Bond, I think its towards.

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Wrapped up: Riz Ahmed wearing wool coat by Lanvin. Photograph: Kevin Mackintosh for the Observer

He did the film. It was his breakthrough role. His stage two role that led from there to where he is today. But theres always a tension in discussing these issues. I ask him about the last time he gave an interview to the Observer, back in 2007, when he said his religion was a private matter and that he didnt want to be seen as a Muslim actor.

I guess I started basically giving less of a fuck and saying what I think more. Probably that comes with just being a bit older. If youre, like, a young, white actor, who comes out and does a good role, then its like, Youre a great actor! And the interview is like, Oh, wow you can act. Wow, tell me about that? When did you want to start acting?

Ive done three or four solid films now that became cult classics. And everyones like, Whats it like being a Muslim? Thats offensive. Really, thats what it is, offensive. What youre saying is that you cannot see me as creative or an artist or a human being first.

Im so happy to talk about all these things. I think its really important that we do. I dont think its enough to be visible anymore. I think we have to be vocal about what we believe in. Were living in scary times. But I think if those conversations really start detracting from, Oh by the way, someone is skilled at their craft, I think thats a step backwards. You know what I mean?

He looks at me. And then says: Thats like a massive cue for you to balance out what you write up and where your focus lies in this interview.

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This is what British looks like: Ahmed in The Night Of. Photograph: HBO

This is my pre-warning, is it? My briefing note?

Yeah. My next freestyle is a rant against you. Exactly.

None of this is said entirely antagonistically. But there is an edge to it. There is an edge to Ahmed. His parents were Pakistani immigrants living in the very ordinary London suburb of Wembley, from where he won a scholarship to a private school, Merchant Taylors in Hertfordshire, from where he went to Oxford to read PPE. Hes always moved between worlds, between languages and registers and accents.

Earlier this year, he appeared in a gripping HBO drama, The Night Of, in the lead role of Nasir Khan, a college student wrongly accused of murder a crime that unleashes a simmering undercurrent of racism and Islamophobia. It was the hit of the summer and led to an appearance on The Late Show. This is what British looks like, he told Stephen Colbert. It looks like me. It looks like Idris Elba. And hopefully through Nasir Khan, America can see its what Americans look like, too.

I watch it on YouTube and see the surprise register on his face as the audience bursts into applause. Its entirely understandable that Ahmed doesnt want the label of Muslim actor. And part of the reason The Night Of was such a hit was because of his bound-to-be-award-winning performance, but hes right. It is scary times. And having someone like him, speaking and standing up, feels well, like a relief more than anything.

And, America, for all these issues, has been his land of opportunity. Its where pretty much all his work since Four Lions has come from. A result, he says, partly, of the stories we choose to tell in Britain. Our obsession with period drama, for a start.

What are we saying about whose experience is valued? Whose voice should be heard? Theres an erasure that takes place. So when people say, You do political films, or, You do political rap, Im like, All art is political because what you decide to focus on is a choice.

He got into drama school, he tells me, by the greatest fluke. Though he acted at Oxford, it hadnt occurred to him to apply. I had a friend, the only black British girl that I knew in my year throughout the whole of Oxford. She just emailed me and said, I saw you in a play recently and I hope youre going to be pursuing acting as a career. Nobody else said that to me. And when you look at the screen, its like, Dude, theres nothing there for you. Thats a message youre internalising every time you look at the TV screen, every time you open up a magazine. That youre not reflected in this culture. That you dont belong. I thought drama school was a stupid idea. But then I thought, Screw it. Let me apply to just one.

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Rocket man: Riz Ahmed wears roll neck by Pringle of Scotland; trousers by Dior Homme; and fedora by Lock & Co Hatters (Mr Porter). Photograph: Kevin Mackintosh for the Observer

One? Nobody gets into drama school like that, I say. He shrugs. Just think about all the other amazing talent were missing out on. All the other people who dont apply. To drama school. Or the Guardian. Or the Labour Party. Or whatever.

He still couldnt afford it and then, by another massive fluke, a theatre producer <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/aug/22/thelma-holt-theatre-producer-interview” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Thelma Holt saw him in a play and found him the money. She literally just said, Im going to get you the money. And I got a cheque in the post. I was two grand short and I got a check for two grand. Who the fuck does that happen for? No one. That is such luck. And Im only open to that level of help because Im at Oxford. Im only there because I went to Merchant Taylors. I only applied because of one girl. I really shouldnt be here. Its crazy. And this its not a tragedy for working-class actors or Asian actors or black actors. Its a tragedy about what we are communicating as a society.

He pauses for a moment. The publicist in the corner looks up, expectantly.

Dont you want to ask more about the film? she says. No need. Im sure hell be a great Bodhi Rook, but theres so much more to Riz Ahmed than Star Wars. May the force be with him.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released on 15 December

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/dec/04/riz-ahmed-actor-interview-star-wars-rogue-one-outspoken-scary-times

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