Entertainment & Arts

Riz Ahmed Doesn’t Want to Be the Exception to the Rule

Riz Ahmed has become accustomed to being a pioneer. In 2017, he became the first Asian male to win an Emmy for lead actor as Nasir “Naz” Khan in HBO’s The Night Of. Four years later, he became the first Muslim actor to earn a nomination for best actor at the Academy Awards for his quietly devastating performance as Ruben in Sound of Metal.

Making history while being recognized by a jury of one’s peers may sound like a dream come true—but Ahmed has more complicated feelings about repeatedly being the one who must blaze a path forward. “That’s kind of like, a really awkward accolade to hold,” Ahmed recently told me about his historic Oscar nomination. “There’s over 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—it’s supposed to be a global film industry. What’s happening?”

Ahmed is trying to get to the bottom of this question both behind and in front of the camera. This summer, he worked with the Chicago-based advocacy group the Pillars Fund and the USC Annenberg School Inclusion Initiative to launch the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, an initiative that addresses Muslim misrepresentation in the entertainment industry. He also stars as Zed in the BAFTA-nominated film Mogul Mowgli, which follows a British Pakistani rapper suffering from a degenerative autoimmune disease who’s forced to move back in with his family in London.

On the surface, Mogul Mowgli shares a lot in common with Sound of Metal. But Mowgli, which Ahmed cowrote with filmmaker Bassam Tariq, is more personal for the performer, taking him directly back to his own roots and upbringing. Zooming in from his native London, Ahmed spoke with V.F. about the intersection between his own identity and the characters he plays, the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, and why he’s sometimes scared of his own name.

Vanity Fair: In Mogul Mowgli, you play Zed, a British Pakistani actor and rapper. Given your own background, how much did you draw from your personal life in writing the film and in your performance?

Riz Ahmed: Bassam and I drew a lot from our own experiences as working-class creatives of color. When you come from a certain world and it inspires you, you make art about that world; you make art inspired by that culture. But also, you’re kind of making art to escape that world. It’s about that love-hate relationship with the place we’re from. Sometimes it’s hard to pin down precisely where home is spiritually speaking. But that’s something that Bassam and I can really relate to.

We deliberately wanted to draw a lot from our own experience because, in particular, I felt that as an actor that traditionally didn’t fit the mold, I had to learn to play everyone apart from me. I never got a chance to play someone close to my own experience. And the more I thought about it, I realized that actually the characters that don’t exist onscreen right now are us. Sometimes we can get caught up in this idea of representation being about kind of reimagining what would have otherwise been, maybe [with actors of color playing] white roles. Actually, sometimes the most powerful way you can stretch culture is not by representing yourself in someone else’s space, but by presenting yourself in your own space.

Something that I found really powerful about the movie was its laser focus on the central British Pakistani family. There are very few white people in Mogul Mowgli. How intentional of a choice was that?

You know, it’s interesting because when you’re creating from an honest and authentic place, you don’t think in those terms, really. I can understand from the outside it may be surprising or unusual to see a British film that doesn’t look like Downton Abbey [laughs]. But we didn’t set out with that goal, really. We set out with the goal of telling our own story because we felt it hasn’t been told very much. We were just kind of trying to create from inside out, rather than think too much about what people were going to make of it, or will they get it. I mean, if we worried about whether people are going to get this movie, we wouldn’t have made it. So much of it is so specific, but, in a way, that’s what people relate to. People relate to the specificity of this stuff. If you don’t understand the language, you can understand the honesty. If you don’t understand the culture, you can understand the feeling of being an outsider. Honesty is what communicates, so we just tried to make something honest. And you know what? The honest reality of these places we’re from is that there aren’t a ton of white people in it. But that wasn’t an agenda.

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