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“The industry is still struggling to look past race when it comes to casting”: An audience with Riz Ahmed

On the weekend of his 36th birthday, revisit our 2016 interview with Star Wars leading man Riz Ahmed...

Edward Said, the late, great orientalist, once observed, ‘every empire tells itself that it is unlike all other empires, and that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.’ We can be fairly certain that Said mainly had British colonialism in mind, rather than an evil galactic empire led by a cowled Sith Lord who shoots lightning from his fingers.

But just as our own earthly imperial history has been scrutinised through political movements such as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall, now it’s the turn of Star Wars’ very own bad guys to face the wrath of the postcolonial critique. Considering they constructed a moon-sized, planet-destroying base that they also then audaciously named ‘the Death Star’, any claims that they only wanted to ‘educate and liberate’ seem unlikely.

Riz Ahmed’s career so far is full of films and TV that provocatively examine the past decade’s most important issues. From being typecast as a 9/11 terrorist to questioning the narrative of the East vs the West, he has made a name for himself as being the actor Hollywood turns to when they want a nuanced performance that makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the world. You can see why the producers of Star Wars turned to Riz for their most overtly political film to date.

When I first met with Riz I asked him what he thought about being a ‘political actor’? He agreed that it’s a role that he has created thanks to the fact he is, in his own words, “not exactly timid about expressing opinions. I think having a relationship with your audience is part of the business  these days. Coming off the back of the reality TV era into the live streaming, live tweeting era, you are expected to have a direct link with your audience in some way.

“But as a creative, I think what has pushed me more in that direction is that as an actor I’d like to try to keep an enigmatic, mysterious distance from the audience and for nobody to know anything about me. But, first I think that just isn’t possible today. And second, I wonder if people mind any more that actors have an opinion or that they are real people.”

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But, he stresses, “it absolutely has to be in the context of the work I do; if it isn’t set against the films and the industry then it just undermines the whole point of the conversation.” As he says, “we do need to re-examine our history, and it might be terrifying to some people, but at the end of the day its healthy. We worry about some people celebrating it and others wanting to sweep it all under the carpet in case it offends someone, and the result is just that we are deluded about who we are and where we came from – and it’s dangerous.”

Riz is acutely aware of where he comes from. His father was a chief engineer in the Pakistani Merchant Navy, who immigrated to the UK. “We had an awareness that our ancestry occupied a social class that was higher than ours, but that is something that migration does to you – you know you might have to take a cut in terms of pay, or just in the general standing of the society you move to.

“My parents were just eager that we all got the best education possible,” he explains. The value his parents placed on his education shows in the establishments he has attended, first attending Merchant Taylor’s independent school on a government-assisted scholarship, then getting a place at Oxford University, studying on the prestigious Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) course, usually favoured by future prime ministers (or for as Riz describes it in his best mock colonial accent as the way to become ‘a Governor of the Punjab’).

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Riz speaks about his time at Oxford with what verges on disdainful respect. “I had an awareness of the kind of academic prestige that came with being there, and how it would open different worlds to me, but I have been both pleasantly surprised and deeply disgusted that I’ve crossed paths with so many of my fellow classmates.”

It’s hard to blame him given some of his stories from his time there. The first student he ‘crossed paths’ with was a bit of a culture shock. “I had left my phone charger at home and so I put on my best Queen’s English and knocked on a neighbours door and said “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, could I borrow your phone charger?” and she sort of laughed and said: “Oh god, it’s unbelievable, you remind me so much of Ali G!” She was the first person I met so I thought, “OK, this is going to be interesting.”

“I actually thought about leaving. I had a couple of weeks back in London but it was just my pigheadedness that prevented me from quitting really,” he says proudly. “I just didn’t like the idea that I had walked away in defeat. But really it taught me that sometimes your job in life is just to stretch the spaces some people find oppressive, and make them your own.

“Now you’ve got trigger warnings, safe spaces, and questioning parts of our heritage that were once considered sacred and out of bounds. The Rhodes Must Fall stuff is fascinating. It’s the sort of argument that would never have been entertained or even made while I was there. We wouldn’t have thought to have had it – it just goes to show you how far we have come and how quickly all these discussions have accelerated through social media.

But the argument against it is quite a good one: if we let that slide, what will be left? A lot of buildings have to come down. It’s kind of a slight terror: if they entertain this conversation where might it lead? It really taught me that it might be a lonely ride, but some things you just have to stick with and make your mark on.”

His time at Oxford was good training for the film industry. “It taught me to navigate quite different worlds,” he says, and to get used to changing costumes and accents. Shortly after leaving university he was cast in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo because he resembled one of the ‘Tipton Three’, the British real-life figures that inspired the docudrama, all of whom were arrested and detained by the US as enemy combatants.

“The industry is still struggling to look past race when it comes to casting”: An audience with Riz Ahmed

In the period after 9/11, Riz’s roles became increasingly defined by the political circumstances of the time. His roles in films like the film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, made him into a household name. His appearance in the cult classic black comedy Four Lions, which follows four home-grown British have-a-go Jihadis in their incompetent attempt to attack the London marathon is as funny as it was controversial at the time.

However, both are examples of Riz’s roles playing with the issues of racial stereotyping and the issue of a lack of diversity on our screens. When I ask Riz if he thinks the industry has become more inclusive, he laughs. “I think you know the answer to that question. Black and ethnic minority representation on British film and television is at its lowest point since the early Eighties. That is a numerical fact.”

Even as recently as a few months ago he has been shut out of roles because of his ethnicity. “Oh yeah, I’ve been told that implicitly. Heads of studios say things about “marketability in foreign territories”, and that’s that.” In September 2016, an essay penned by Riz appeared in The Guardian, describing his experiences being typecast as a terrorist and comparing being probed and prodded in a Hollywood audition room with the numerous examinations he underwent in airport security holding pens. Not only was it met with widespread applause, it also put Riz into a company of actors who are both willing and able to effectively discuss real issues.

“It was really amazing for it to get such a great reaction in The Guardian,” he says, before modestly adding, “to be honest I was surprised anyone read it.” Nevertheless, many people did read it, and even more were surprised to learn that the industry is still struggling to look past race when it comes to casting.

“I think it only seems unbelievable to people that don’t experience it,” Riz says, trying to explain. “I don’t mean that as any kind of insult, I just think thats why its important for people to talk about it and to understand it because that’s what allows us to deconstruct any structural or unconscious biases that our prejudices create. The last thing we need in this day and age is to be silencing parts of our society by making them feel like they don’t have anything to contribute.”

In the past few years, however, Riz has been anything but silenced. He has risen to the very top of British acting. A lead role in HBO’s The Night Of made him an overnight hit in America, as did leading roles in blockbusters like the latest Bourne and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in the voyeuristic crime-thriller Nightcrawler.

“To be honest, thats why Lucasfilm and Kathleen Kennedy are incredible. They understand that Star Wars is a franchise that has the ability to shape culture and rarely, they are also brave enough to actually try to lead the way.” Riz was one of the many actors to welcome the decision to cast John Boyega as the lead in the franchise’s reboot ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.

“It just makes business sense now,” he says, clearly referencing the $2.068 billion the last Star Wars film made at the box office. “In a global film culture, we have to cast globally because films like Star Wars are consumed all over the planet. It’s so important to tap into different markets and to allow kids to see themselves in the film.”

“The industry is still struggling to look past race when it comes to casting”: An audience with Riz Ahmed

It might be every child’s fantasy to imagine themselves in Star Wars, but along with his fellow cast members including Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, and Forest Whitaker, Riz has become one of the elite actors to actually experience the full force of entering the Star Wars universe. And the real fun is yet to begin.

When I ask if the prospect of fanboys knocking on his door at 2am scares him, he says he is unfazed. It’s either bravery or he hasn’t seen a grown man dressed as a wookie rip a man’s arm out of its socket at Comic Con. “Actually, you know what? So far I haven’t felt at all intimidated,” Riz tells me. “In terms of people turning up at my door, I wonder if that will change. It doesn’t happen at the moment, but I hope that the next Star Wars will come out soon enough after Rogue One to mean that fans will forget about me.”

This seems unlikely given the symbolic significance Riz’s character will have on the film’s plot. Bodhi Rook, Riz’s character in Rogue One, is an everyman, working as a cargo pilot for the Empire. “His home planet, Jedha, is actually occupied,” he explains. “He is just trying to earn a living – just trying to get by.

“Bodhi is actually sanskrit for ‘awakening’,” Riz says quietly, as his American publicist asks if the name is a reference to Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break. “I think that’s what makes him so interesting,” Riz continues. “In the Star Wars world we have so many characters who are someone’s kid or grandkid and they are born into a legacy of greatness. Bodhi is just a guy. Circumstances come to a head and he has to step up to the plate. He realises that he has to make choices and take risks that are way above his pay grade. It’s kind of interesting to have a character amid this band of assassins, spies, and soldiers that really doesn’t belong on a battlefield. It will make him quite a relatable character, I hope, someone who you can feel the PTSD coming from.”

Director Gareth Edwards described Bodhi as “the guy in a war movie who isn’t supposed to be there. Everyone on the team is a soldier or warrior in some way and there’s this guy who is there by accident but realises he has to step up and make himself valuable.”

“He is someone who is bringing a lot of guilt to the table,” adds Riz, “and I think he is someone who feels he has a lot of debts to settle. But actually that’s true for many of the characters in this film. I think we are all coming to the table with murky pasts and a lot of baggage.

“It’s about the real politics of the situation. One of the interesting documentaries I watched in the lead up to making the film was The Interpreters, which is by a young, New York filmmaker called Sofian Khan. It’s about the interpreters who worked in Iraq for the US army translating, who were promised visas after the war finished.

“They were obviously marked men – they couldn’t still live there because they had collaborated with the Americans as far as everyone is concerned. Most of them didn’t get visas, and some of them had to smuggle themselves through Lesbos into Europe, others are still living in hiding. Through stories like that I had a nice insight into what happens when you have to swallow your principles just to get through the day – when you have to kiss the boot on your neck just to get through the day.”

“The industry is still struggling to look past race when it comes to casting”: An audience with Riz Ahmed

It is through the gritty details like these that Rogue One is shaping up to be a very different type of Star Wars experience. As Riz says, “it’s quite resonant with the world we live in today.” With the director often personally operating the camera, even the way it is shot has a real-life feel. “We were really invited and encouraged to tap into the reality of these situations, we weren’t being asked to present a glossy heightened version of the story. It’s a warts and all, dirt under the fingernails, portrayal that gets into the messiness of the story.

Rogue One is really about everyone waking up and realising that they are in a desperate situation. It’s about waking up to the real political situation of your time and accepting that you can’t sleep walk into the future because there won’t be one.” Still, the threat of a looming Death Star is nothing next to the look of terror Riz gave me when I dared to cross into Disney non-disclosure territory asking him if there will be a sequel? After a few moments of smiling and rethinking his legal commitments, he looks me dead in the eyes and answers: “What I can say is that Rogue One…is a film. It’s a film.”

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