Since the premiere of the HBO crime drama The Night Of came out, Riz Ahmed has been embraced as one of the internet’s new boyfriends, joining the ranks of actors like Oscar Isaac and Donald Glover. But Ahmed is not just a chameleon-like actor, who can go from dark thrillers, like Nightcrawler, to playing a surf instructor opposite Lena Dunham in Girls, but a musician who performs as part of the Swet Shop Boys, a group whose two albums have been critically acclaimed, and a socially-conscious actor who is not afraid to speak up about causes he believes in, like when he wrote an essay for The Guardian about the difficulties of being a British Pakistani actor. In a new interview for W‘s August issue, he reveals that’s what he aims to do in his career. “That is what we are here to do as artists, to engage with the world and respond to what’s going on,” he said.
When was the first time you left London?
The first time I left London was at the age of 2 to go to Pakistan, um, to be circumcised. We make a whole song and dance about it. That’s my first memory, still traumatized. There’s a bit gap where I probably tried to block out all the memories until I get to 5.
And then you’re happy again. Well did you always have an interest in performing?
I was always kind of like the class clown. I was always messing around in class, getting sent out for making jokes and stuff. That’s how I got into the school plays because I used to get into so much trouble in class that one of the teachers said, ‘If you want to kind of muck about then do it on stage and you’ll get a round of applause for it. Do it in my classroom and you’ll get a detention’ So I’m very grateful to some of those teachers who kind of took me under their wing. So, that’s how it kind of started.
How old were you when you started auditioning for professional jobs?
Professionally, I mean I didn’t start working as a professional actor until after I left drama school so I was about 22 or 23, but I remember my first paid acting job was a reading performance at the Hamster Theater. I don’t know if someone saw me in some student thing and they said, ‘Hey we have these script readings. Come and do it.” And I remember when I phoned them up to follow up on it I was really excited and they said, ‘Listen, um, it’s this Sunday and the fee is 100 pounds'” And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can afford 100 pounds,’ So yeah, I was buzzing when they gave me a check for 100 pounds.
Do you have trouble getting cast right away?
The thing that has been a bit of a gift and a curse for me both in life and as an actor is that maybe I’m used to code-switching a lot, I guess, from one context to another, talking to one group of people to another. It’s just how I grew up, bouncing around between very different worlds means that you sometimes are a bit of a chameleon. And so it might not be immediately clear to people what box you fit into. But I would rather be that way, to be honest, even if it kind of has its pitfalls. I just think you’re gonna get to see life from more, different perspectives if you’ve grown up in that kind of way.
And did you find this out when you started out doing a lot of television in in Britain, correct?
Actually no, I mean all my kind of early work was kind of British independent movies. My first acting job was The Road to Guantanamo. It was a bit of a baptism by fire because I had just done a year of Shakespeare training and that’s the only acting training I had, just a year of Shakespeare and then to go and do a completely improvised documentary drama without any script where we basically just went on a road trip from Pakistan through the Afghan border into Afghanistan and filmed it. So when you see us throwing up in buckets and stuff that’s all real and Michael Winterbottom in his classic style is just like, ‘Okay, lift your head a little bit while you’re being sick,’ and you’re just like, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot.’ It was funny because as I was leaving drama school I thought the world is a scary place right now and I’ve always kind of been interested in social issues and politics to some extent and I thought, ‘How am I going to engage with that as an actor?’ And this job just fell out of the sky into my lap. I still had two months of drama school left and I just left drama school to take it and I thought, ‘There is a path.’ There is a way in which I can be a creative person and still engage with the world around me. That is what we are here to do as artists, to engage with the world and respond to what’s going on. So, it meant the world to me. It was more than just my first acting job or a great, big break with an amazing director. It was a way forward that I could see for myself. It’s interesting because I do think sometimes it works in stages where sometimes you start off with stereotypical portrayals of minorities, so we’re always a terrorist or a shopkeeper, if you’re a gay person you’re a flaming queen or if you’re a black person you would be [cast as] a drug dealer, and then you move on from that to subject matter that is about some of those issues but flips them on their head. So you’ve got The Wire, where these guys are drug dealers but they’re human beings or you’ve got The Road to Guantanamo, which is like all right, this is about terrorism but we’re going to humanize it and show a different perspective. And I think the The Road to Guantanamo is one of the first films in that vein, in that kind of stage two of representing these issues. But my hope is now we’ve moved onto kind of almost like a stage three, where I can play a character where it’s not directly tied to race or any of those kind of ethnicity issues at all.
Nicole Kidman, Milo Ventimiglia and 11 More Actors Who Prove that Television Has Never Been Hotter
“In the show I play an abused woman, and I felt very exposed and deeply humiliated. I remember lying on the floor in the bathroom at the end of a difficult scene, and I wouldn’t get up between takes. I was just lying there, basically naked in half-torn underwear, and Jean-Marc Vallée [the director] would come over and place a towel over me. It was very hard.”
Kidman wears a Miu Miu dress and coat.
“As a girl, I was obsessed with the program 20/20—especially with the coanchor Hugh Downs. I thought I was going to marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. Everything was going to be all right because Hugh Downs was going to tell you the important story you needed to know that Friday night. They just don’t do newsmen like him anymore.”
Marling wears a Prada dress.
“My first crush was Jessica Lange in Tootsie. I was maybe 8 or 9 when I first saw the movie, and I had never felt anything for a girl before that. I was just mesmerized by her. I watched the film over and over again because of Jessica Lange. I’m still not over her. Every time I meet someone, I compare her to Jessica Lange in Tootsie. That’s probably why I’m not married.”
Skarsgård wears a Cleverly Laundry robe; Schiesser Revival shirt.
“The Americans mostly takes place in the ’80s, during the Cold War. Anytime you’re wearing clothes that are unlike yours, it just heightens the moment. When I wear heels and silk shirts, slacks and blouses, it makes me feel like an adult. On the show, I wear a cat eye with black eyeliner, and it makes me feel like a panther. It’s so unlike me as Keri—this tired mom in flip-flops and jeans. And I love that transformation.”
Russell wears a Michael Kors Collection top; Philosophy briefs; Manolo Blahnik shoes; Louis Vuitton bracelet.
“For Homeland, I made an audition tape with a point-and-click camera and sent it in. The ratio was off. It was out of focus. I was also wearing the wrong thing, and I filmed it against a door that they later told me made it look like I was in a mental asylum. The producers were like, ‘Where the hell is this kid?!’ In the end, I did seven separate audition tapes of the same scene. They finally said yes.”
Friend wears an Hermès sweater; Sunspel boxers; his own ring and socks.
“I went to work on The Crown four months after giving birth. The queen didn’t wear a corset, but I did in the beginning. Now, in the second season, I have to wear a significantly padded brassiere. In the first season, it was all my own breast work, but now it’s ‘Ha! Where have they gone?’ The queen would be so ashamed of me.”
Foy wears a Louis Vuitton dress; Messika Paris bracelet.
“I usually get stopped in the U.K. before I board a plane. What’s funny is that Heathrow is in a heavily South Asian neighborhood, and the kids working at the airport are fans of mine. So while they’re swabbing me for explosives, they’re asking me for selfies. While they’re going through my underwear, they’re quoting my raps back at me. It’s quite a surreal experience that speaks to the insider/outsider status I’ve felt all my life.”
Ahmed wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Jeffrey Rüdes pants.
“Even with the show, I still live at home in Liverpool. I can’t bring myself to leave just yet. My brother is 21 and he’s still at home, too. I said to my mom, ‘We’re going to be 30-, 40-odd years old and we’re still going to be living in the kids’ rooms.’ I’m hoping I will be able to leave the nest at some point.”
Comer wears a Marc Jacobs dress; Jennifer Meyer necklace; Larkspur & Hawk ring.
“During the screen test for Stranger Things, one of the directors came up to me and said, ‘Bzzz,’ over my head. He then asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I was like, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘To cut all your hair off!’ The next day I got the job and I cut it. My hair was down to here, but it’s only hair. After that, I was called ‘boy’ a lot.”
Brown wears a Balenciaga dress and tights; Chanel shoes; Jennifer Meyer ring.
“I worked at McDonald’s for a few months, and I got a couple of dates from taking orders at the drive-through window. I was enrolled in an acting class, and I would practice different accents. I was really bad, but people believed me. A young lady would say, ‘Oh, I forgot to order the strawberry milkshake’ and ask me about my Italian or Irish or Brooklyn accent. We would go out on a date, go back to the McDonald’s parking lot, and make out. Eventually, I had to break it to them that I wasn’t Italian or Irish or from New York. The girls would usually end it right then and there.”
Franco wears a Prada shirt.
“In playing Albert Einstein, I found out that he was not the archetypal absentminded professor. He was an energetic, slightly rebellious, rakish, sort-of-bohemian poet. And he was quite amorous—he had many lovers. Einstein wasn’t exactly a ‘player,’ but he enjoyed women, and when his first marriage fell apart, he became what you would call a ladies’ man. He gave up on monogamy.”
Flynn wears a Calvin Klein Jeans Established 1978 jacket and pants.
“My dad, Stan Lathan, was one of the first black TV directors. He used to direct Sesame Street, and he blindfolded me once, and when he took the blindfold off, I was on the set. I got to meet Big Bird. It was my birthday, and the whole cast sang to me. That was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Lathan wears a Lanvin coat.
“I’m not a big crier. But family stuff gets to me. Fathers and brothers and children. If I wasn’t on This Is Us, I’d be a wet noodle watching the show. I’d be crying along with everyone else.”
Ventimiglia wears a Current/Elliott shirt; his own chain.
The Night Of, which is why you’re here, is to some degree about this. How did that come to you? I thought it made it, to your point, a much bigger point than just about race.
The character I played in The Night Of, Nasir Khan, goes on a big kind of transformative journey over the course of the series and to me it just kind of underlines something that I believe to be true as an actor, which is that we’re just molded by our circumstances and our experiences. No one is inherently good, inherently bad, inherently evil or saintly. People are just molded by their circumstances. We adapt to survive and I think you have to believe that if you’re an actor because what you’re doing as an actor is saying, ‘You know what, I could be this person if this, this, this, and this in my life had gone differently. This person is me.’ We felt a great sense of responsibility when we were telling that story because mass incarceration is such a massive issue, in this country and in the U.K. But when we were shooting a lot of stories came out like, like the story of Kalief Browder who was jailed for three years just awaiting trial in Rikers Island just for picking up a backpack and someone said he’d stolen it and he never had and that ruined his life. When he left prison, he took his own life because he was so traumatized by the experience and I think we felt a massive sense of responsibility, which is why we went to visit Rikers and I kind of took it upon myself to interview a lot of people that had been through the prison system.
And you also built the performance in a beautifully layered way because he does start out as such so innocent of life, so to speak.And as the show goes on, and I love the pace of it,things get darker and darker and darker in your character and I was like screaming at the TV like, ‘Don’t get the tattoo!’ He was a really bright guy and he learned to cope and the way he learned to cope was dark.
It certainly does happen. People always transform by their experiences in prison, for better and worse. So, it felt very true to life although obviously actions condense from years over to however many eight episodes, it definitely chimed with the research that I was doing when I was interviewing people about how were they different before and afterwards and they just say when you go into prison it’s like you’re a newborn baby and when you come out you just look at the world differently. Obviously it depends how long you’re in there for, what prison you went to, but a lot of the people I spoke to said it kind of made them who they were, for better and for worse.
So you’ve written a lot about your experiences with things like the immigration ban. Has it had any effect? Have people read what you’ve written or do they know that you have commented on things that have happened or do you still get detained?
It was kind of funny when I first started traveling to America it was not long after I had done the Road to Guantanamo and we filmed that in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. We’d been to those countries within six months of each other. So when I turned up at American immigration for the first time it was like, ‘Okay, you’ve been on like an Axis of Evil world tour kind of thing and they’d pull me aside for three and a half hours every time. I wrote an essay about this in The Guardian and it’s kind of like a surreal and pointless experience. But now it’s kind of slightly different experience. I don’t get stopped in the U.S. because I’ve got a visa but I get stopped in the U.K. before I board the plane. But what’s funny is that the neighborhood where Heathrow Airport is in is a heavily South-Asian neighborhood, and the kids working there are often fans of mine. So the kids that pull me aside to search me are also like asking me for selfies while they’re swabbing me for explosives and stuff or you know going through my underpants and like quoting my raps back at me. So it’s quite a surreal experience but I guess that speaks to kind of the dichotomy and the insider/outsider status that I know I’ve felt all my life.
From Tiny Furniture to Girls, Lena Dunham Has Always Been Game to Experiment on the Red Carpet
Dunham wore a black feathered capelet for her first Gotham Awards, where Tiny Furniture was nominated, in New York, November 2010.
She wore a mustard slip with black accents for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in Century City, California, January 2011.
In one of her most classically formal looks to date, Dunham wore a strapless black gown with silver detailing and a sweetheart neckline for the premiere of Girls with the Cinema Society in New York, New York, April 2012.
She selected a forest-green Wes Gordon look for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala for Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations in New York, New York, May 2012.
For that year’s Emmy Awards, it was a midnight lace Prada gown with short sleeves, a more staid and elegant look than others, in Los Angeles, California, September 2012.
Dunham continued to take on the fashion world in a Valentino jumpsuit, getting ahead of the formal jumpsuit trend, at the premiere of Girls season two in New York, New York, January 2013.
In eggplant silk Zac Posen, Dunham’s smoky eye was the centerpiece of the look at the Golden Globe awards in Beverly Hills, California, January 2013.
Dunham embraced her inner punk in Erdem for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala for Punk: Chaos to Couture in New York, New York, May 2013.
Once again in Prada, Dunham’s strikingly exaggerated silhouette only competes with the boldness of the print adorning the dress. Here, she appears at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, September 2013.
Dunham returns to Zac Posen in a lemon-yellow mermaid gown for the Golden Globe awards in Beverly Hills, California, January 2014.
Dunham accompanied designer Giambattista Valli to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala for Charles James: Beyond Fashion — and naturally, she wore a Valli design, in New York, New York, May 2014.
In one of her more outlandish looks to date, another Giambattista Valli look complete with a platinum-blonde bob, Dunham reminded us she’s not taking herself too seriously at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, September 2014.
Then, costar Andrew Rannells on her arm, Dunham arrived wearing Zac Posen at the Golden Globe awards in Beverly Hills, California, January 2015.
Dunham selected a look from cult-favorite designer Simone Rocha — a bouclé green coat with a floral silk dress, paired with black boots — for the Hollywood Reporter’s 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media event in New York, New York, April 2016.
Dunham twinned (or tripleted?) with friends Jenna Lyons, the designer formerly behind J. Crew, and Jenni Konner, all wearing Lyons’s trademark heavy black frames, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala for Manus x Machina in New York, New York, May 2016.
Dunham wore a crisp white Gabriela Hearst dress to speak alongside America Ferrera at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 2016.
Dunham paired an already statement-y vintage Todd Oldham look with dark magenta-rimmed eyes for the premiere of the final season of Girls in New York, New York, February 2017.
But it must be nice now to not get parts that are always a terrorist or something that’s more what one would consider to be typecasting. For instance, how did Girls, where you play a surf instructor, come about?
I really have to credit Lena Dunham for that. I can’t speak highly enough of Lena. She’s truly inspirational. When you work with her, you see she’s on set, she’s running the set, she’s lovely and kind and sweet to everyone while directing the shoot, improvising and completing the new set of lines for herself from one take to the next, coming and really sensitively directing you and then doing rewrites and she’s a whirlwind.
And you got to have sex.
Well, yeah and that was a bonus. She was kind enough to let me sleep with her as well so thanks. Thank you Lena. I appreciate that.
So who did you have a crush on, a cinematic crush on when you were growing up or even now?
Oh, growing up my cinematic crush were Bollywood actresses predominantly because those were the films I would see a lot growing up so it was Manisha Koirala, Aishwarya Rai, Raveena Tandon, Madhuri Dixit—these iconic divas of Bollywood cinema.
What was your favorite Bollywood movie?
Sholay is a classic. That’s like our The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but then some of it is kind of amazing romantic comedy like Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, which really made Salman Khan’s career. They’re amazing and there’s a technical skill involved, that song and dance romantic comedy that’s breathtaking.
Did you ever think of doing a Bollywood movie?
I never really thought it aligned with like me in terms of just my own personal taste. It’s certainly an influence and a part of my culture but I’m a Londoner really, I’m born and raised in London and that’s my sensibility and those are my tastes, for better or worse. I guess the good thing about London is it’s global enough that it takes in a bit of all those influences but I don’t know. Never say never. Who knows?
Because you can dance, and you can be a surf instructor.
Well, if there’s a surf instructor in a Bollywood film then I’m the go-to. I’d be offended if they cast anyone else.
A Visual History of It-Brits at Glastonbury, From Kate Moss to Cara Delevingne
Kate Moss and Jamie Hince are seen backstage at Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2010 in Glastonbury, England.
Emma Watson and George Craig of band One Night Only are seen backstage at Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2010
Keira Knightley is seen on the second day of the Glastonbury Music Festival 2005.
Emma Watson and George Craigs attend Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 26, 2010 in Glastonbury, England.
Florence Welch poses at the Glastonbury Festival on June 25, 2010 in Glastonbury, England.
Sienna Miller attends Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 26, 2010 in Glastonbury, England.
Florence Welch attends day 2 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 28, 2013 in Glastonbury, England.
Sienna Miller attends the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 28, 2013.
Kate Moss during day 3 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2013 in Glastonbury, England.
Kate Moss and Jamie Hince attend day 3 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2013 in Glastonbury, England.
Sienna Miller attends day 4 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 30, 2013 in Glastonbury, England.
Rita Ora attends Day 1 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 27, 2014 in Glastonbury, England.
Florence Welch and Sam Smith attend the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 28, 2014 in Glastonbury, England.
Suki Waterhouse is pictured during day 4 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 30, 2013 in Glastonbury, England.
Lily Allen and friends attends the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England.
Lily James attends the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 26, 2015 in Glastonbury, England.
Suki Waterhouse attends the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 27, 2015 in Glastonbury, England.
Hunter Boots’ Alasdhair Willis and Stella McCartney are seen backstage at the Glastonbury Festival 2015.
Florence Welch and Daisy Lowe attend the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 28, 2015 in Glastonbury, England.
Lily James on Day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2014 in Glastonbury, England.
Poppy Delevigne attends the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 24, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Rita Ora attends Day 1 of the Glastonbury Festival 2016 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 24, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Lily Donaldson attends day 1 of Glastonbury Festival on June 24, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Natalie Dormer attends Glastonbury Festival 2016 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 24, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Poppy Delevingne attends the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Poppy Delevigne attends the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Natalie Dormer attends the Glastonbury Festival 2016 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Suki Waterhouse and Lily Donaldson attend Glastonbury Festival 2016 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2016 in Glastonbury, England.
Alexa Chung is seen backstage at Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 25, 2010 in Glastonbury, England.
Cara Delevingne attends day 2 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 28, 2013 in Glastonbury, England.