Riz Ahmed: You dont need to tell me we live in scary times. Im Muslim

Hes in both the new Star Wars and Bourne films, but its Brexit not blockbusters thats on the rapper-turned-actors mind

Riz Ahmed runs in from the rain. Im doing lots of running around at the moment, he says, at his home in south-east London. Today he has been filming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at Pinewood Studios, fighting the Empire as volatile Rebel pilot Bodhi Rook. You walk in and get kitted out, its like, youre there, he enthuses. They really build the world. Last night, he was at the Leicester Square do for Jason Bourne, in which he stars as a morally murky tech entrepreneur. Then hes off to Vegas for its US premiere. His new HBO crime drama series The Night Of is getting rave reviews. Hes just released a music video for Englistan, the title track of his recent mixtape, and is working on an album for Swet Shop Boys, the group hes in with New York rapper Heems. So yes, lots of running around.

In truth, Ahmed has never stopped moving straddling cultures, pushing buttons, challenging the status quo. Born in Wembley to Pakistani parents who moved to the UK in the 1970s, he won a scholarship to north London public school Merchant Taylors, where he was instrumental in getting an Asian head boy elected, and then Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. On his new song Different, he raps of arriving there and being gawked at by pupils who thought hed never survive; one girl said he reminded her of Ali G.

While at uni, he set up drumnbass night Hit & Run, and put on the only play at the university that featured, during his time there at least, two non-white leads. In 2006, aged 23, he launched film and music careers, headlining Michael Winterbottoms The Road To Guantanamo and releasing the funny, caustic single Post 9/11 Blues, which was immediately banned from the radio (sample line: Shave your beard if youre brown, and you best salute the crown/ Or theyll do you like Brazilians and shoot your arse down).

On screen, though, he gives off a different kind of charisma, exuding determination and desperation, always seeming on the edge. That dual sense of purpose and vulnerability is catnip to directors. Chris Morris cast him as the only terrorist with even half a clue in Four Lions, while he played the jittery cameraman sidekick of Jake Gyllenhaals monstrous citizen journalist in Dan Gilroys Nightcrawler.

Now, this year, hes in two of the biggest blockbuster franchises around. For Jason Bourne, the series is back in the hands of director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon. Ahmed plays Aaron Kalloor, head of a social media company that claims to protect its users privacy above all; in reality, Kalloor is in cahoots with the CIA, where dirty dealing has muddied those principles. The film, which boasts all the heart attack-inducing action youd expect, plays on our mistrust of corrupt corporations. I wonder how much that influenced Ahmed, clearly a politicised person, to take the role.

It was a no-brainer, he says, excitedly. The Bourne films totally reimagined and elevated the action genre. But as I learned more about the character I started rubbing my hands with glee, because its an area that really interests me. Anyone driving great social change, willingly or not, is going to be a fascinating contradictory mix of idealism and ego. Youve got people who are utopian idealists that are also very focused, ambitious capitalists. And as an actor thats a super-interesting character profile.

Riz Ahmed with Tommy Lee Jones in Jason Bourne. Photograph: Jasin Boland/Universal
The privacy versus safety debate lies at the heart of the films political conflict, which only seems more apt now we have a prime minister whose snoopers charter looks ever more inevitable. Whats Ahmeds take? I really sympathise with the argument that Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have made, he says. The idea that we are somehow crippling our security services and not enabling them to do their jobs if we say no to universal mass haulage of data, I think is nonsense. Allowing unlimited mass surveillance of all communications [made] by all people is destroying the freedom that were meant to be protecting. Its building a tool for totalitarian social control that is terrifying in its misapplication.

With Brexit engulfing the land, a people divided more than theyve been in living memory, and terrorist activity on the rise, privacy seems as if it might slip from our grasp. Yeah man, scary times, says Ahmed, sounding genuinely afraid. What happened in 1930s Europe, we had a rise in inequality, financial crisis and collapse, polarisation of the political parties, the rise of the far left and the far right, disillusionment [towards] the establishment, and the systemic scapegoating of ethnic minorities, he says, drawing contemporary parallels. So yeah, you dont need to tell me we live in scary times, man. Im Muslim.

Ahmed was an enthusiastic Remain supporter and that standpoint has infiltrated his music in particular. He recorded Englistan which features lyrics such as: Is Britain great? Well hey, dont ask me/But its where I live and why my heart beats long before the referendum result was known, but filmed the video a few weeks ago, in the wake of post-Brexit racial hate crimes. It begins with images of years of anti-immigrant scare-stories from tabloid front pages, and he gets riled up talking to me about the Suns minuscule apology for a 2013 headline about 600,000 EU benefit migrants, which turned out to be false. People need to be held to account for that, he says. This isnt some press barons personal fiefdom, this is [about] peoples lives, and playing with fire like this leads to the house burning down. Weve seen it happen before in Europe and its happening elsewhere around the world. We shouldnt think were insulated from the possibility of that happening here.

Riz Ahmed (centre) in Chris Morriss Four Lions. Photograph: c.Everett Collection/REX

Ahmed isnt afraid of being outspoken and doesnt care, he says, if he pisses people off. His Facebook page is full of galvanising, politicised posts not hashtagged token gestures, but researched, informed viewpoints and conclusions. He was at the Occupy protests in New York and London, and knows British history back to front. So many actors today, ultimately concerned with protecting their brand, have been numbed by media training, but Ahmed is not your typical thesp. He notes that many of the areas that voted out did so despite having received high levels of EU funding, or having relied on the union for export trade, and suggests their motivation was instead to take a stand against the establishment.

I understand that many people had reasons for voting that werent driven by xenophobia but its clear to say that riling up fears of being invaded by migrants and foreigners played a massive role in the success of the Leave vote. We need to be vigilant about the crossroads were at and be vigilant against those who are trying to divide us. Anyway, fuckin hell, Ive depressed the shit out of myself.

Hes loathe to call anyone a racist and says people arent essentially good or bad, just shaped by the experiences theyre going through. What he says is needed is a greater sense of empathy. The Englistan video was filmed in a synagogue that used to be a church, founded by French Protestant refugees (like Nigel Farages ancestors), and is a stones throw from a mosque. For me thats a beautiful thing, he says. Multiculturalism isnt just a buzzword, its not just something to debate I am multiculturalism. And so is Nigel Farage, because of his ancestors. We talk about it as if its something else, as if its a guest that may have overstayed their welcome sitting in the front room, but what were talking about is us.

Riz Ahmed in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Photograph: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd

Ahmeds work seems to reflect these sensibilities. Many of his films deal with socio-political concern: The Road To Guantanamo was a dramatisation of the detainment of the Tipton Three; Nightcrawler was an attack on an immoral, mercenary media; and in The Night Of (which airs here in September), Ahmeds character has to deal with incessant anti-Muslim sentiment, from pedestrians to the police.

I ask how intentional that is, but he challenges the mere notion of it. Its interesting that we assign the label political to art that doesnt just fit a mould of status quo, he says. Is Downton Abbey not political? Thats political! Every piece of art offers a perspective on the world. And what is politics if not a perspective on the world? Downton Abbey is about class. Its also about race. People are surprised when you tell them how long there have been black or brown people in this country. Hundreds of years, man! What you focus on is a decision. And that decision is based on a perspective, and perspective is based on your gut instinct.

Then, though, he concedes. If youre saying that the work Ive done is post-9/11 stuff, I think its natural that weve wanted to tell those stories as a society because its a fixation of ours, with some justification. Ive been proud to tell those stories that have added some nuance and complexity to those narratives. Hes done that from the start and shows no signs of stopping. Expect a lot more running around.

Jason Bourne is out in cinemas from Friday 29 July

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/23/riz-ahmed-talks-rogue-one-and-jason-bourne

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