As Jennifer Aniston knows, a good haircut can make your career in Hollywood. But in Riz Ahmed’s case, so can a bad one.
At age 22, the actor-producer-rapper fell victim to a “horrific bowl cut,” he recalls to Variety. In his arts program at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, the students deconstructed Shakespeare by day and hustled for acting jobs at night.
“We were still doing headshots at drama school, so everyone was making sure they looked good,” he says. “I turn up with this hair and ended up looking like one of the Tipton Three. When Michael Winterbottom’s casting director saw my photo, I got a role.”
Ahmed is referring to his big break, Winterbottom’s 2006 film “The Road to Guantánamo,” in which he played Shafiq Rasul — one of three Muslim men from Tipton, England, who were detained at Guantánamo Bay in 2001. They endured two years of torture and interrogation at the American base in Cuba before being released with no charges, an example of the moral murk that accompanied the post-9/11 “war on terror.”
From that fateful coif grew an impressive screen career, one that has positioned Ahmed as one of the industry’s most compelling, blazingly modern performers. An Oscar nominee for 2019’s “Sound of Metal,” the 38-year-old represents a new class of leading man — one who showcases vulnerability, subverts traditional masculinity and ushers in a different type of Hollywood hero. Ahmed’s talent continues to unfold in fresh and exciting ways in two fall films: He plays an up-and-coming British Pakistani rapper in “Mogul Mowgli” and an ex-military officer grappling with a microorganism invasion in “Encounter.”
The two projects are perfect vehicles for Ahmed’s twitchy intensity and emotional daring, spanning genres in ways that highlight his versatility. At a time when one generation of actors seems to be falling over themselves to get into spandex and anchor a superhero movie, Ahmed is forging his own path, one that cuts through the world of streaming and indies while allowing him to create the kind of morally compromised, rough-edged characters that populated the greatest movies of the ’60s and ’70s.
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Ahmed grew up in North West London, the child of Pakistani immigrants. His older siblings learned English at primary school. Five years old and only able to speak Urdu, Ahmed says he searched for ways to be counted in a household caught between two cultures.
“At home with my mom, I would watch these Pakistani sketch shows. What I loved about it was the same actors playing these wildly different roles from sketch to sketch. As much as I enjoyed the skits, I realized that these actors could be all of these different people. So playful and silly,” Ahmed says.
It dawned on him that “playacting” was the best way to get noticed. After he busted out his own characters around the dinner table, filmed content — especially the lush movies of Bollywood and the action of martial arts — took on a new meaning as he came of age.
“The stuff I would really binge was Jackie Chan,” says Ahmed. “I loved this idea of blending genres of action and comedy. Bruce Lee, as well. These were leading men who were from a different part of the world. There was something very powerful about seeing Asian men that were slight and skinny, powerful and formidable. They were so embedded within their own culture, and what they were doing translated and spoke in such a universal way.”
In his teenage years, Ahmed became infatuated with other types of slight and formidable performers, like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
“Pacino was someone who didn’t look that physically different from me, being able to play such a wide range of roles. As a young, testosterone’d-out teenager in love with ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Heat’ and ‘Scarface,’ he was the common denominator. I admired him, but I didn’t feel there was a clear blueprint or template to follow,” Ahmed says of the artistic inspiration he took from those performances.
With Hollywood seeming far out of reach, he threw himself into an academic career in philosophy, politics and economics, one that came with an unusual detour — hip-hop stardom. While attending Oxford University, a place Ahmed called “isolating” due to its overwhelming lack of diversity, he began convening groups of students from underrepresented communities so they could form bonds and find the support they needed on campus. This led to the formation of an underground band and, post-graduation, a career under the moniker Riz MC. Rapping became an outlet for his artistry, but also a vehicle for venting the frustration of being a young Muslim attempting to assimilate.
“Check your beard if you’re brown, and you best salute the crown / Or they’ll do you like Brazilians and shoot your ass down,” Ahmed rapped on his 2006 single, the name-making “Post 9/11 Blues.” The anxieties espoused in his music — over historical religious and racial discrimination exacerbated by the war on terror — would lay a foundation for his ongoing work advancing Muslim portrayals on-screen.
Ahmed’s rise to the top of his craft has meant more than magazine covers and awards — it has helped generate a long overdue conversation about Muslim representation in entertainment. Outspoken in his music and film work about damaging perceptions of Islamic and Black and brown people, Ahmed was the impetus for the Riz Test. Formulated in 2018 by British researchers Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry, the test comprises a series of questions that examine the intentions and authenticity behind the depiction of Muslim characters. It has drawn comparisons to the Bechdel test, which applies similar metrics to Hollywood’s portrayals of female characters, asking for instance, “Does a film have at least two women in primary roles?” and “Do they talk about something other than a man?” The Riz Test asks, among other things, “Is the character talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?” and “Is the character presented as a threat to a Western way of life?”
Statistics around Muslim representation in film are, to put it bluntly, abysmal. In June, research from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Ahmed’s production company, Left Handed Films, found that only 1.9% of characters in the top 200 films released from 2017-19 were Muslim. While Muslims are considered the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the world, the study further found that films with primary and secondary Muslim characters portrayed them as immigrants or refugees who spoke no English or spoke with an accent, and wore religious garb. On the big screen, viewers didn’t see Muslims fall in love, raise families or come of age. And they certainly weren’t saving the world from giant asteroids or rampaging dinosaurs.
“This isn’t something that I’m going to solve on my own,” Ahmed says. “It’s going to take all of us to come together. It can sometimes be draining. I would much rather be discussing my creative craft and my artistic inspirations, but I feel a responsibility to speak out and to open the door for others, empower people to tell their own stories.”
To that end, Ahmed has established an artist’s fellowship with Pillars Fund, an organization that amplifies Muslim achievement and causes in the United States. The fellowship seeks emerging Muslim creatives and offers mentorship, development and a $25,000 award.
“He’s just mining for the truth at every turn. He’s interrogating everything, to see how it can resonate and feel true,”…