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.
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.
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.