This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 1, Spring 2013.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s tale of a Princeton-educated, Pakistani student alienated by the America he loves after the events of 9/11, won plaudits in 2007 for its measured, delicately narrated story of a decade splintered by miscommunication and distrust. A film adaptation required a lead actor who could understand what it means to shift identities; when to blend in and when to stand out. It is, fortunately, a way of life with which Riz Ahmed, born of humble beginnings in North London and educated at Christ Church, Oxford, is intimately acquainted...
“I’m quite a restless person,” the 30-year-old hip hop artist, stage and film actor explains. “I think as you get older you can either try to shed your complexity, or you can embrace it as a kind of creative confusion.” With a successful record, MICroscope, to his name and another on the way, a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and the satirical hit ‘Post 9/11 Blues’ , these are words Riz lives by. There’s nothing confused, however, about the way the actor has gone about his career. His first film role was playing one of three wrongly detained British Muslims in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo. Ever since he has tried to choose the “most interesting stories possible” and work with the “best writers and directors” in the business.
Upcoming projects involve Rebecca Hall, James Gandolfini and Schindler’s List writer Steven Zaillian, so it’s fair to say that in the seven years since his debut, Riz has turned that dream into a reality. His early work with Winterbottom roused the interest of Chris Morris, one of Britain’s most revered comedians and led to the starring role in suicide bomber caper Four Lions. “Something I’ve been really proud of, and privileged to be part of, is engaging with the post- 9/11 narrative,” he says, “to be able to be a part of humanising that narrative, adding nuance to it, questioning it, challenging it.”
And yet the actor isn’t comfortable labelling some of his works ‘political’. Roles like Shifty, 24 hours in the life of a crack dealer shot on a £100,000 budget in 18 days “all reflect a worldview,” he says. “I suppose I’m drawn to the ones that turn up the volume on voices that are normally quiet.” It’s led to some dark roles, but for Riz “portraying darkness and humanising antiheroes is about embracing a common humanity.” Small wonder then that he was drawn to Mohsin Hamid’s protagonist, Changez, pulled this way and that by his Pakistani heritage and his love of America.
“As soon as I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I tried to call up the publishers to buy the film rights with the £10 I had in my bank account,” he says. Director Mira Nair had beaten him to the punch and, as Riz suggests, wasn’t overly keen on choosing an actor known for his “edgy and alternative” Brit-indie projects as the film’s romantic lead. Persistence paid off; after “about 15” rejections, he got into a room with Nair and won his first major Hollywood part.
A love of research led to late nights in Delhi with Hamid, Nair and co-star Liev Schreiber, poring over every scene before shooting the next day. “Tonally you could say that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is very different to a lot of the work I’ve done,” he suggests, “but in terms of it being a close-knit team of people working against the odds and it being a passion project, it’s exactly the same. And that’s what I love.”
Photographer: Yuval Hen
Words: Tom Leece
Stylist: Kay Korsh
Grooming: Mark Daniel Bailey
Digital Technician: Andrew Swannel
Photographic Assistant: Matt Rainger
Studio Private: Ashley Joiner
Styling Assistant: Giuliana Lenzen
Production Assistant: Frances Davison
Location: Studio Spaces