At the time of writing, confirmation comes that Donald Trump is to be the 45th President of the United States of America. In profiles of actors, current affairs rarely figure but Riz Ahmed is a big-screen star who isn't afraid to say what he thinks.
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Born in northwest London in 1982 to Muslim Pakistani parents, Ahmed grew up in a difficult, regularly hostile environment. Acting wasn't so much an ambition as a necessity. He was, he says, "kind of acting every day just to survive and get by socially". The prejudice shaped his future. A scholarship to Merchant Taylors' school in north London led to reading PPE at Christ Church, University of Oxford, and then on to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which he left early to appear in Michael Winterbottom's 2006 film The Road to Guantánamo.
"You never learn as much as you do on the first job," Ahmed says, "and working on an improvised docudrama was going in at the deep end." Ahmed's subsequent work has often subverted racial stereotypes, in films such as Four Lions (2010) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). There is also a music career: as outspoken rapper Riz MC he's played Glastonbury, had tracks banned from UK airplay, and is currently in politicised rap collective Swet Shop Boys.
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He's a writer, too, and to best understand his view on the industry, read his eloquent contribution to The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays about race and immigration published earlier this year. The actor evidently puts his journalistic mind to his work.
"I guess because I played a real person in my first film, I always take that approach. I write up notes and try to build up [the character's] life story through interviews. The research side of it, that journalistic element, I've always held on to it," he says.
This studious preparation proved useful for Ahmed's recent turn as Nasir Khan, the protagonist in HBO's mini-series The Night Of, a reimagining of the 2008 BBC series Criminal Justice. It's the story of a Pakistani-American student who, after an ill-judged night out, finds himself on trial for a grisly murder he thinks he didn't commit (but can't be certain). The story is gripping, but it has a tangible critique of racial profiling in the US justice system at its heart.
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"It was the most challenging job I've ever had," Ahmed says. "I felt a sense of weight and responsibility, which I relished, so I visited criminal defence attorneys, volunteered at youth centres in Queens and spent time at a Bronx high school."
Starring in an acclaimed "bingeworthy" HBO series might be enough for some, but 2016 was the year of Riz. He's been everywhere, working alongside Matt Damon in the latest episode of the Bourne franchise, and very soon we'll see him in a new sci-fi film which, chances are, will prove rather popular.
"The sets were gigantic," he says of Star Wars spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, "and most of it wasn't CGI. They created this world and you were really plunged into it." As he points out, you can't interview an ex-Imperial pilot before filming starts, but preparation (and love for the franchise) began many years ago when he saw the original movies as a child. "The Empire Strikes Back blew my mind," he remembers.
When Rogue One director Gareth Edwards suggested he put an audition on tape, Ahmed replied with 12 in three days. He was attracted by the potential independent feel that would come from the direction of Edwards', whose 2010 indie Monsters got him noticed. And, of course, if Ahmed was going to be in a blockbuster, it would be one that promised to be darker, meaner and more nuanced than its predecessors.
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Shortly after Trump's win had been certified, @rizmc tweeted to his followers: "Can't sleep? Nor can I. It's OK. Wake up. And wake up everyone around you. We can't afford to sleepwalk any further into disaster."
In light of his newly assumed seat at Hollywood's top table, one might think Ahmed's vocal activism will soften, but with America signed up for at least four years of Trump, it's hard to see that happening. All the better: outspoken entertainers tend to do quite well in America.
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From: Esquire UK